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Issue 1769 (PDF)
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

Keep the Cat Free

Revitalising Climate Education in a Post-COVID World

Covid-19, Perseverance, and Climate Change - what we can learn from a global pandemic about public science communication.

How Pharma Can Adapt To Climate Change 605x340


in Issue 1769

despite the clear scientific consensus, climate change is still viewed by many as a problem for the future.

In the backdrop of a global pandemic entering its second year, a freezing winter swept through the globe. Considering the difficult year we just came through, it is not a stretch to say that Hell itself froze over, a fitting end seeing as it was just a year ago that Australia and California battled devastating wildfires. In this bleak midwinter, the US re-entered the Paris agreement, momentarily shifting the spotlight back towards climate change and prompting climate activists to raise a serious question - why was our public response to Covid-19 so strong, whereas so many people still undermine the looming threat of climate change?

The answer is clear. Information about climate change has been present for decades, but it has been politicised and abused by climate deniers, oil companies desperate to keep their wallets nice and fat, and big lobbying groups. Climate change has gone from being a mythos, to a minor issue, to a global disaster waiting to happen. And yet, nothing impactful is being done about it. Despite the clear scientific consensus, climate change is still viewed by many as a problem for the future.

COVID-19 has shattered global ideals. Markets collapsed, people took to the streets, and countries found the true limits of their abilities. This sort of crisis is what we must prepare for when dealing with climate change - a global disaster that will affect everyone. This time, we cannot stay home and pretend everything is fine. For many, their homes may be underwater. But COVID also taught us about science. Particularly, how to educate the general population quickly and efficiently about a serious disease, and how to prevent its spread.

According to a 2020 study by 3M, the public's confidence in science has never been higher, a trend that has been steadily growing. As the pandemic struck, people wanted to know about mutations, the latest developments in vaccine research, and how testing works. This can be partially attributed to the response to covid around the world. New Zealand's advertising campaign is an excellent example of this. Using clear slogans, easily identifiable logos and themes, the oceanic country became one of the fastest places to return to normalcy. Of course, New Zealand's natural inclination towards disaster protection helped - we saw similar success with Israel's vaccination program, another country prepared for large operations (although it is important to note that up until recently Israel’s vaccination programme excluded Palestinians without Israeli citizenship) - but this clearly identifies a continuous outlook that we need to adopt when dealing with climate change. 

this new norm of actively combatting scientific misinformation could stop the spread of climate denial and anti-intellectual radicalisation

Declaring a climate emergency is the bare minimum. We need to start behaving like we are in the midst of a disaster, even if it has not yet hit our part of the world. The threat of climate change has been known for decades, and yet we still perceive it as a long-term issue. This privileged outlook (many people in Asia, South America, and Africa are already seeing the impacts of climate change on their daily lives), combined with credulous and naïve policies such as the UK's promise to go green by 2050 have undermined the public perception of the dangers we are all facing. We need to actively educate ourselves about the issue, and make sure that we all know just how dangerous it is. The pandemic taught us that when the threat is internalised it is impossible to do nothing.

Much like climate change, covid denial and anti-restrictions movements have been present since the very beginning of the pandemic. However, all these movements have seen staunch opposition by government guidelines and advice, and even when doubt was cast upon scientific consensus by public figures, such as Trump and other US politicians, the media took swift measures to put out the correct information: Twitter added a fact checking feature under conspiratorial tweets, and YouTube added a disclaimer under COVID-19 videos, taking down those deemed to spread misinformation. Arguments can certainly be made about free speech and the manner in which these features were implemented, but the lessons have been learned. Compared to the early days of the pandemic, and even much before that, when flat earthers and race realists were able to roam online spaces with no resistance from the platforms they used, this new norm of actively combatting scientific misinformation could stop the spread of climate denial and anti-intellectual radicalisation.

Having the media actively engage in highlighting the denial of science is important when the issues concern the safety and wellbeing of the general population. This should be taken a step further. The US elections, combined with a global pandemic, became a hotbed for conspiracy groups. The rise of QAnon, amongst other groups, is an increasing cause of concern in a growing movement of anti-intellectualism gaining mainstream traction. As students in one the of the most well-renowned science institutions in the world, it will fall to us to fight it.

During last month’s Perseverance landing, I saw something that I am sure many of us have seen before: hundreds of comments denying the landing, calling the images fake, and labelling NASA as a propaganda machine. To my surprise, the people engaging these comments were not brutal or condescending. Instead, I saw a community of people calmly explaining the facts and the technology.

This force of people fighting on the front lines of misinformation has never been seen before at this level, and learning how to engage with it and promote access to easily digestible resources and information is something that the scientific community needs to actively strive for. For the longest time, academia has been a hostile space for the layman, and it has only been recently when we began been shifting towards a more user-friendly format. Even then, research itself is difficult to access, as a vast majority of articles are hidden behind paywalls and subscriptions. This is a systemic problem which needs to be addressed if we want to arm the next generation with the information they need to combat anti-intellectualism.

Fighting climate change should not be as difficult as it is. The science is clear. We have the knowledge. This is not an issue that will go away with metal straws, but it might with cardboard signs. 

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