Symptoms, Disease and Climate Literacy

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I've written a couple of posts recently on climate literacy.   I'm writing again just to record an unease.

Climate Literacy crops up a lot these days, in part at least because of the need to think about climate education; indeed, some say that the former ought to be the outcome of the latter.  But both are loose sets of ideas.

The broad set of interrelated issues encapsulated by the term climate education is summarised in Greta Thunberg's 2022 publication, The Climate Book which states that climate education “covers the climate, ecological and sustainability crisis holistically”  This has to be the focus, the book continues, as “the climate crisis is … only a symptom of a much larger sustainability crisis”.

Indeed it is.  It surely follows that any understanding of climate literacy has to reflect this larger sustainability crisis.

That being so, there is a need in any understanding to draw a distinction between specific manifestations of the crisis in the here and now, and the causes of the crisis in the first place: between symptoms and disease, if you like.  It would be a mistake, for example, to treat the following medical symptoms as free standing and unrelated to a deeper-seated issue:

  • high temperature or shivering
  • a new, continuous cough
  • a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling tired or exhausted
  • an aching body
  • a headache
  • a sore throat
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling sick or being sick

... without, that is, an understanding that all these are symptoms of Covid 19.

So it is with global warming / heating.

I was struck, therefore, by the research carried out for and released by the Royal Meteorological Society last year which purported to measure school students' climate literacy.

One question was: How much, if at all, do you think the following have contributed to global warming?   The choices provided were:

Transport (cars, lorries, planes, trains, ships etc)

Industry, electricity and heat production

Deforestation, agriculture and other land use changes

Production of plastic and management of plastic waste

Natural changes such as volcanoes and variations in the Sun and Earth’s orbit

The report noted: "Almost a quarter incorrectly attribute transport as the biggest contributor to global warming vs 18% who correctly identify industry, electricity and heat production." [*]

There was no opportunity here for the students to think about the root cause of global warming / heating; rather, they were directed towards only thinking about its symptoms; that is, its manifestations in the everyday economy.

Of course, the question that was asked was a nice safe one; no boats being rocked here.  The alternative root-cause question, however, would have been far from safe in curriculum terms as it would necessarily have explored the socio-economic underpinnings of how we live.  The DfE would surely not have been best pleased had this been in the survey.  Just imagine ...


* It turns out that secondary school students know less than the Royal Meteorological Society about the symptoms of global warming.  Who'd have thought it?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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