Climate change - What does science say?

Research into the causes of the increase in the average global temperature began in the 20th century. Since then, the number of publications on climate change has grown exponentially. What scientists were unsure of in the 1960s and 1970s is now confirmed by precise studies. Climate change is anthropogenic in origin. Climate skeptics often claim that humans have little impact on the climate and that any change, if it ever occurs, will be a natural process. They also argue that the amounts of CO2 emitted by humans are practically negligible compared to natural emissions, such as those from oceans or plants. And it is true—humans emit only 5% of this gas into the atmosphere. However, a crucial detail overlooked by skeptics is that the CO2 emitted by humans is not balanced by processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as is the case with natural emissions. Therefore, it accumulates in the atmosphere, and research shows that such high levels have not been seen for several million years.

Moreover, carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases, which absorb some of the heat radiated from the earth, acting exactly like a greenhouse or a warm wool sweater enveloping the entire planet.

These claims are confirmed by 97% of all scientific papers on climate change. The scientific consensus is further supported by additional studies, where researchers analyze thousands of scientific articles, using keywords to check what percentage of them define observed climate change as anthropogenic.

A crucial question must be asked: if science confirms the causes of global warming and clearly states that emissions must be reduced, why are we still not doing it?

Skepticism towards science

Systematic and unjustified rejection of science—scientific skepticism—has become a serious social problem that can have severely harmful consequences. These manifest in actions such as anti-vaccine movements or open opposition to genetically modified food.

Skepticism has accompanied science since its origins as an inherent element. Science itself is by nature skeptical because it requires conclusions to be documented using clearly defined methods that are repeatable and scalable. It also requires the involvement of peer-to-peer review as an assessment process - asking questions and disputing before scientific papers are published. When examining claims that cast doubt on climate change, it becomes evident that selective arguments are often chosen and data that do not fit the predetermined thesis are rejected. This is no longer a form of skepticism; it is manipulation, and ignoring facts and science.

Disinformation, in addition to fabricating information, using false analogies, ambiguous words, and oversimplifying messages, also employs a tactic called ad hominem, attacking individuals/groups instead of addressing their arguments. A film titled “Zimna Prawda” (“Cold Truth”), released in mid-May 2024 in Polish conservative mass media, denies anthropogenic climate change, attacks scientists in its opening minutes, claiming that climate change is a topic on which they base their careers and part of an ideology that is hard to oppose. Thus, it suggests a conspiracy involving not only the authors of the studies but also the reviewers, editors of scientific journals, and even university authorities. However, the material does not explain how such a wide group would benefit from the collusion beyond the vague notion of “careers” (what practical benefits could outweigh the financial opportunities offered by the fossil fuel companies denying climate change?). This very dangerous manipulation discredits science as a whole and undermines the entire academic system.

What do quantitative studies say? What percentage of people question science?

For six years, the company 3M has been conducting public opinion research annually as part of the State of Science Index project, examining global attitudes towards science, "checking how people think and perceive this field and its impact on the world around us."

In 2023, 33% of respondents answered positively to the question, "Are you skeptical about science?". Additionally, 68% of survey participants declared that science is currently politicized.

An analysis of trends over the years shows that during the crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, a higher percentage of people trusted science (90%) and believed it had an impact on their daily lives (57%). In 2023, the results were more similar to the period before the pandemic, suggesting that we had already forgotten about the danger.

Can we conclude that if there is a warming of 2 degrees or more, and serious, likely irreversible effects on all of Earth's ecosystems, including humans inhabiting these ecosystems, we will believe in climate change and turn to scientists?
Unfortunately, by then, it may be too late.

Is there a way to make this happen sooner?

Climate and Media Literacy as a remedy

What is climate literacy? It is basic knowledge about how we as humans affect the climate and how the climate affects us. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "a climate-literate person understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system, knows how to assess scientifically credible climate information, communicates about climate change in a meaningful way, and can make informed and responsible decisions regarding actions that may affect climate."

It is, therefore, a set of skills used to acquire and apply knowledge about the climate in practice. A very similar definition applies to media literacy, which involves both the ability to obtain and analyze media news, and skillfully use information for reflection and action.

Media literacy is one form of literacy. Therefore, in an ideal world, it should be reflected in all school subjects from the earliest years of education. It should not be added as an additional subject to the curriculum. Instead, it should be an approach that teachers use to acquire, analyze, and edit information, which is passed on to students and shaped as a habit, so it is used in everyday life without having to think about it. The organization Media Literacy Now has been promoting this approach for 11 years and supporting all those who want to increase media literacy in society (and according to research conducted in collaboration with the Reboot Foundation, this is 84% of us).

A very similar number of people believe that climate protection issues should be included as an element of school education—78%, of which 84% were parents of children up to 18 years old.

UN Global Compact Network Poland prepared and published a two-part report on climate education in Poland. It is a valuable source of knowledge also for other countries because it contains both examples of good practices from around the world and general, scalable recommendations developed by experts within the framework of the so-called Round Table.

The conclusions are again very similar to what was said about media competencies. Climate as literacy should be implemented not in a special but in every school subject, including homeroom sessions and other activities carried out in schools. The first step to achieving this should be expanding the scope of the existing subject curricula, as the issue of climate change and its protection is interdisciplinary. Climate education should be approached holistically—constantly seeking spaces to include topics related to human impact on the environment in the teaching content. Additionally, the report states that "the issue of climate change can be an excellent space in the school system to raise students' critical thinking skills."

Other activities where climate literacy can be built include showcasing good practices, such as promoting and making public transportation accessible as a means for children to get to school, promoting and widely providing healthy food in school canteens and shops, conducting some lessons outdoors, using renewable energy sources by school facilities, and talking about these benefits to children and their parents.

A holistic approach to acquiring competencies necessary in today's complex world can help us further develop our human potential. Without it, we will drown in an excess of information and begin to question everything and everyone – and humans, as social beings cannot exist in a state of total distrust of others.

The role of Civil Society Organizations in building competencies

Nowadays, disinformation is a real global challenge, taking various forms and affecting diverse thematic areas.

To counter it, we need a set of skills as a society that allows us to distinguish true information from fabricated or false information - and thus - become immune to harmful manipulation. Building the competencies mentioned above must involve systemic changes in the approach to education; this is a fact. But it is not the only, nor the comprehensive solution.

Civil society organizations are a very important element in the process of building competencies. Due to their knowledge of difficult topics and daily work with vulnerable groups, they know how to reach people at the local, grassroots level, where we may fear that the education system will not reach for many years.

Non-governmental organizations, regardless of the topics they deal with daily, mostly use new media to communicate with their target groups. This means that media education could become part of their daily activities, so that, as mentioned in the case of schools, they shape the habit of critical thinking and verifying information. This would benefit them and society as a whole, so it can be seen as a step towards a better tomorrow.

Education can also be carried out by incorporating media or climate literacy topics into events/happenings/trainings that they prepare for and with their target groups. It can be conducted through online campaigns, podcasts, blogs, and films published on YouTube. It can also be learning by good example: linking sources to their articles, prebunking or debunking harmful content that appears in the media, or building positive narratives.

Such an approach is planting a seed whose harvest will feed us and our future critical generations.

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Justyna Ignaszak is a graduate of the Interuniversity Climate Academy, Project Manager of the Digital Activism Accelerator project countering disinformation in 12 Central and Eastern European countries. She conducts research on climate disinformation.

Background illustration: Gabriel Trujillo