It’s Time for Solutions Literacy

Let’s recognize that we are falling short of our goal.

The time has come to fix a problem with the hard line drawn by the science and science education communities’ between climate science education and policy advocacy.

The trouble lies not in preserving the integrity of the scientific enterprise from political manipulation. Rather, it lies in our collective acceptance that advocacy picks up where science leaves off. This false choice blinds us to a crucial missing step in public education that should be addressed with the same rigor shown for climate science.

That step involves “solutions literacy.”

According to the federal government’s Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science, to which I contributed in a small way, climate science education is necessary to support informed decision-making.

To protect fragile ecosystems and to build sustainable communities that are resilient to climate change—including extreme weather and climate events—a climate-literate citizenry is essential. This climate science literacy guide identifies the essential principles and fundamental concepts that individuals and communities should understand about Earth’s climate system. Such understanding improves our ability to make decisions about activities that increase vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and to take precautionary steps in our lives and livelihoods that would reduce those vulnerabilities.

We would be hard pressed to find a more eloquent mission statement for climate science education.

Unfortunately, this formulation stops short of the goal. Understanding Earth’s climate system is necessary, but not sufficient to support civic discussion and decision-making.

In practice, a climate-literate citizenry needs to understand much more than fundamental concepts in climate science. People also need to grasp basic principles in economic forecasting and risk management, how policy mechanisms are designed to work, and how costs and benefits—including co-benefits—are assessed.

They need to learn something about ethical principles that inform international negotiations and environmental law. They should learn something about energy demand and how new technologies disrupt and transform markets. They would be wise to learn a thing or two about how various cultures and cultural groups interpret the climate issue and other priorities.

In other words, before informed citizens can engage in constructive policy debate or respond self-assuredly to policy advocates, they need to feel confident that society can manage our changing climate effectively.

What is possible and what isn’t? How much would various options cost and how would we be paid back? What would the co-benefits and trade-offs be? Who would benefit and who would suffer? What obligations do we have toward others and how do they limit our opportunities? How do we assess risks, including the potential for what the IPCC calls “large-scale discontinuities?”

If we fail to inform ourselves about these questions we should not expect climate change to become a national priority.

The evidence for this statement is quite clear. For example, in their 2006 paper, “The Origins and Consequences of Democratic Citizens’ Policy Agendas: A Study of Popular Concern About Global Warming,” Krosnick, et al., demonstrated the importance of citizens beliefs about the efficacy of action in setting the national issue agenda.

Their study does not conclude that when science educators have done their work they should make way for policy advocates. In effect, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for decades, and climate change remains a non-issue in the U.S. Congress.

Advocates cannot fill the gap between science literacy and issue priority. Unfortunately, the things an informed public needs to know about climate solutions are not questions that scientists can answer either; they involve expertise in a host of other climate-relevant disciplines.

This raises a crucial question: who possesses sufficient convening capacity and public trust to meet this need?

Consider what the federal climate science literacy guide brings to the table. It was launched in a workshop sponsored by NOAA and AAAS, crafted by experts in climate science and education, refined through discussions with relevant NGOs and NSF, and now carries the imprimatur of the White House and thirteen federal agencies. As a result, this trusted guide informs science curriculum, informal exhibitions, the news media and a wide range of public outreach programs.

In other words, the process and the players moved the needle on climate science literacy. Going forward, an equally trusted, robust and coherent story needs to be told about solutions and resiliency, and this enterprise is quite distinct from policy advocacy.

Such a guide—the expert community’s distillation of essential principles and fundamental concepts—would change the communications and outreach landscape by establishing a foundation for civic engagement. Such a guide would inform K-16 curriculum and public programs at free-choice learning institutions, and inspire entirely new outreach campaigns.

It is not clear whether federal agencies are equipped to champion such a multi-faceted effort, especially in today’s political climate, but they might. The science societies have been reluctant to reach beyond their scientific expertise. So, too, have the museums, aquariums and zoos that engage the science-interested public most directly.

So we must look elsewhere, perhaps to one of the major universities with established centers of effort around climate change and society. Alternatively, a respected private foundation might provide the convening resources and bolster the imprimatur through collaboration with fellow institutions.

The urgent civic need to explain the climate solutions landscape in plain language has gone unaddressed for too long and society is suffering the consequences of this omission.

Social science has documented the need. Experts have demonstrated their willingness to contribute.

It is time to develop a companion to the climate literacy guide. It is time to convene the right set of experts and lay the foundations for public confidence that we can meet the climate challenge—not with persuasion, but with the confidence that comes from learning.

In 2014, promoting solutions literacy should be an essential principle of climate science education.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.