Online course begins quenching climate literacy thirst

Cornell professors and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) specialists have created an introductory online course about climate change to address the public appetite for climate science literacy.

The three-week course, Climate Change Science, Communication and Action, was offered to CCE specialists, master gardeners and others – up to 2,000 people for a completion certificate. When Cornell’s Sustainability Office tweeted about the class, more than 700,000 people from around the world expressed interest.

The course finishes Oct. 1 but will be offered again in early 2018. (For dates follow @SustainCornell on Twitter.)

The course was developed by Marianne Krasny, professor of natural resources; Mike Hoffmann, executive director for the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions; Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication; and graduate student Anne Armstrong. The group is considering additional webinars for broad audiences.

About 1,300 students visit the class’s Facebook page daily to conduct international discussions. Students from the Philippines, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and throughout the United States discuss topics that include how to speak effectively about climate change, solutions, the latest scientific research and concerns for the future.

Early in the class, as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria roared through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the storms generated ample discussion fodder. Some students were directly affected by the hurricanes.

“My sense is that people taking this course are learning something new,” said Armstrong. “Students who knew a lot about climate science didn’t have a background in communication. Some who knew more about communication didn’t know as much about climate science and found themselves thinking about it for the first time and asking questions about the basic mechanics of the greenhouse effect.”

Beyond scientific fundamentals, the course teaches about perceptions of climate change. Schuldt examines climate change communication and evaluates America’s public opinion, noting that opinion oscillates over time.

Generally, Americans fall into a handful of climate change stances: dismissive, doubtful, disengaged, cautious, concerned and alarmed. About 28 percent of Americans have difficulty believing in climate change, while 72 percent say there is no doubt Earth’s atmosphere is warming. 

“Public opinion about climate change is not stable. It is dynamic,” Schuldt explains in a course lecture. “It shifts over time in response to current politics, as well as to national and global events.”

Master gardener Annie Christian-Reuter, Cornell’s Garden-Based Learning; John Bowe, 4-H and Family Living team coordinator; Laura McDermott, small fruit and vegetable specialist, CCE Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program; and Marilyn Wyman, issue leader, natural resources and the environment, CCE Columbia and Greene counties lead online audience discussions.

Krasny, who has organized several online courses related to sustainability, said, “People are so excited to comprehend climate change, to have an opportunity to meet people interested in this topic through Facebook and to be part of a solution in the global community.”

Media Contact

Lindsey Knewstub