Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Free and open education on climate change

One of my colleagues and mentors, Don Brown of Penn State and primary author of the blog Climate Ethics, has written, "climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical issue" It is the greatest technical and ethical problem human beings have ever faced.

Global? Check. Complicated? Check. Hinged on human activity? Check. Hinged on natural processes humans don't control? Check. It's possible that human-induced climate change could in the next century create an atmosphere more CO2-intense and warmer than any since the Jurassic period 150 million years ago. Sadly, there will be no dinosaurs*.

Challenges issues of justice, rights, and responsibilities? Check. Faces us with our own limits? Check. If this is the case, and climate change is a civilization challenging ethical (and technical issue) then education must respond. At colleges and universities across the world faculty have set up all kinds of courses to introduce students to the science, ethics, politics, and policies that deal with climate change. There are even signatory agreements between colleges and universities like the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, Second Nature, the Copernicus Charter and others mandate that signatory institutions create greenhouse gas reduction and mitigation programs with curriculum for environmental literacy. Climate change education occupies a central part of that curriculum these days.

But all universities and colleges have limited enrollment. They have maximum student capacity made possible by people's ability to gain admission and their ability and willingness to pay. How can someone something like course in climate change without going to college?

The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions now offers online courses that take the lay person through the science of climate change. They have an Introduction, a lesson on CO2 and the greenhouse effect, Mother Nature's influence on climate, observable changes in climate, and finally climate modeling. What's great to see as teachers is that there are learning outcomes for each of them that build upon the previous lesson and enabling further understanding, connected to other resources through the home website, and also linked to education for sustainability in British Columbia and abroad (pdf here).

It might be the case that understanding the what and the how of climate change are very important. But at some level answering the question "Why have humans used technologies that caused climate change to begin with?" might be more important. If we can answer that question, we might be able to figure out how we can change society to mitigate our impacts on the climate and thus ourselves. But that might be a really radical form of education and possibly the kind of education that ethically grounds a better civilization.

* There has been woolly mammoth DNA found and some people would like to engineer and birth a mammoth. Jurassic Park may be less fictional than we thought.

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