Geography Climate Literacy and Education
Lesley-Ann L. Dupigny-Giroux, Amanda Cole
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0191


Climate literacy is a subset of the broader science literacy, where the latter refers to the skills, knowledge, and attitudes of the inquiry- or problem-based approaches that individuals apply to decision-making and new situations. In particular, climate literacy draws on climate science (i.e., the dynamics of the earth–atmosphere–ocean–biosphere across spatio-temporal scales), the quantitative and geospatial technologies by which it is understood, and the interconnectedness of human beings with their environment. The appreciation of the complexity of climate literacy is firmly grounded in the systems approach that is central to the earth sciences and geosciences. As such, some of the interrelated and overlapping facets of climate literacy include the populations served (e.g., formal education, lifelong learners), methods of engagement and dissemination (e.g., citizen science, communication mechanisms), related spheres of influence (e.g., climate change, human health, sustainability, energy, the food–energy–water nexus), and the implications of achieving a climate-literate citizenry (i.e., decision-making from the individual to federal levels, policy, advocacy). For the last three decades, most of the peer-reviewed literature around climate education (quantifying the efficacy and best practices of the populations served) was largely focused in the formal avenues, particularly at the middle and high school levels. Recently, a more whole-school approach (kindergarten to at least the baccalaureate) has emerged, as has the focus on lifelong learners (e.g., informal settings such as museums and outdoor recreation venues) and their participation in such activities as citizen science. This article opens with the definition of climate literacy and the frameworks on which it is based. It then surveys the efforts made in both the formal and informal realms, followed by the challenges and barriers that mitigate against achieving full literacy. The communication of climate literacy concepts and understandings are then presented, with a special emphasis on climate change communication. Finally, the implications of achieving full climate literacy are presented.

Climate Literacy: Definitions and Frameworks

To place in perspective the rationale and conceptual understandings that underpin climate literacy, it is helpful to examine the broader context of science literacy in general (American Association for the Advancement of Science 1989; American Association for the Advancement of Science 1993), as well as the disciplinary frameworks (UCAR Center for Science Education 2007; Earth Science Literacy Principles 2009; Wysession, et al. 2012. The interconnectedness among all of these land–ocean–atmosphere frameworks is well captured in Hoffman and Barstow 2007. The fundamentals of climate literacy are outlined in US Global Change Research Program 2009. Dupigny-Giroux 2010 and Dupigny-Giroux 2008 review the multifaceted challenges to achieving climate literacy among a variety of populations, with LaDue, et al. 2012 focusing on educator challenges and Unger 2000 exploring those faced by the public. The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) serves as a both a portal to and a compilation of resources for those seeking to become climate literate (Ledley, et al. 2014).

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science for All Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    One of the earliest, ground-breaking vision documents that defines science literacy in formal education, along with some best practices on how to achieve it.

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science. Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    An outline of the content knowledge and skill set that should have been acquired by students in science, mathematics, and technology by the completion of their schooling at grades 2, 5, 8, and 12.

  • Dupigny-Giroux, L.-A. L. “Introduction: Climate Science Literacy: A State of the Knowledge Overview.” Physical Geography 29 (2008): 483–486.

    DOI: 10.2747/0272-3646.29.6.483

    Introduction to a special issue on climate literacy.

  • Dupigny-Giroux, L.-A. “Addressing the Challenges of Climate Science Literacy: Lessons from Students, Teachers and Lifelong Learners.” Geography Compass 4.9 (2010): 1203–1217.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2010.00368.x

    Explores science literacy frameworks related to climate literacy, presents six challenges to achieving it, and summarizes various climate education programs.

  • Earth Science Literacy Principles: The Big Ideas and Supporting Concepts of Earth Science, 22 May 2009.

    An outline of the nine big ideas and their corresponding subprinciples that comprise the knowledge and skills of earth science.

  • Hoffman, M., and D. Barstow. Revolutionizing Earth System Science Education for the 21st Century, Report and Recommendations from a 50-State Analysis of Earth Science Education Standards. Cambridge, MA: TERC, 2007.

    Review of the implementation of the frameworks for ocean, earth science, atmospheric science, and climate literacy in the United States.

  • LaDue, Nicole D., and Scott K. Clark. “Educator Perspectives on Earth System Science Literacy: Challenges and Priorities.” Journal of Geoscience Education 60.4 (2012): 372–383.

    DOI: 10.5408/11-253.1

    Use of surveys of geoscience educators to explore the challenges of defining earth system science literacy.

  • Ledley, T. S., A. Gold, F. Niepold, and M. McCaffrey. “Moving toward Collective Impact in Climate Change Literacy: The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN).” Journal of Geoscience Education 62.3 (2014): 307–318.

    DOI: 10.5408/13-057.1

    Summarizes the network of resources and activities supported by the CLEAN program.

  • US Global Change Research Program. Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science, A Guide for Individuals and Communities, 2009.

    An outline of the seven essential principles and their corresponding subprinciples that comprise the knowledge and skills of the climate sciences.

  • UCAR Center for Science Education. Atmospheric Science Literacy, 2007.

    An outline of the seven essential principles and their corresponding subprinciples that comprise the knowledge and skills of the atmospheric sciences.

  • Ungar, S. “Knowledge, Ignorance and the Popular Culture: Climate Change versus the Ozone Hole.” Public Understanding of Science 9.3 (2000): 297–312.

    DOI: 10.1088/0963-6625/9/3/306

    Explores the disconnect between scientific understanding and research versus public knowledge and literacy, as a function of the specialization of language and levels of public scientific illiteracy.

  • Wysession, Michael E., Nicole LaDue, David A. Budd, et al. “Developing and Applying a Set of Earth Science Literacy Principles.” Journal of Geoscience Education 60.2 (May 2012): 95–99.

    DOI: 10.5408/11-248.1

    Introduction to the Earth Science Literacy Initiative in 2008 and the Earth Science Literacy Principles, which can be applied to informal and formal learning.

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