CSTA Classroom Science

Global Environmental Literacy

By Dr. Art Sussman

Why Do We Need Global Environmental Literacy?
For the vast majority of human history, people could not affect the condition of our planet or the strength of its web of life. People could disrupt their local ecosystem to the point where it could no longer support them. Their community either died or moved to a new location. Humans could cause a limited number of species to become extinct locally or across a continent. 

About 40 times as many people live today compared with 2,000 years ago. Human population increased from about 0.2 billion people to about 8 billion people. Most of that population explosion has occurred in the last 100 years. At the same time as our numbers have soared, humans have also developed powerful technologies that we use to satisfy our needs and consumer desires. 

The Global Footprint Network [1] calculates how long it takes for Earth to produce the resources that we use and to absorb the wastes we produce. About 50 years ago, humanity just barely lived within Earth’s capacity each year. Now it would take 1.6 planet Earths to sustainably provide the demands we are making on our planet. In other words, it now takes the Earth one year and seven months to recover from what we all do in one year. For example, we harvest fish and trees faster than they can come back, and we emit way more carbon dioxide into the air than natural processes can safely remove.

Humanity is now the dominant ecological force on our planet. The combination of our huge population and our powerful consumption technologies have changed the ways that our planet and our societies used to work. We see the results in a global climate crisis, disrupted ecosystems, alarming species extinction rates, increasing frequency of dangerous pandemics, rising sea levels, and an acidifying ocean.

The world’s citizens, governments, and businesses need to truly understand the global scope of the crises confronting us in order  to effectively reduce and help solve these urgent problems. Education in general, and science education in particular, must play essential roles especially since today’s young people have the most to lose if we continue on our current path. A recent UNICEF report [2] introduces “The Children’s Climate Risk Index,” documenting that currently 1.7 billion children are exposed to at least three major overlapping climate and environmental hazards, shocks, and stresses. On a global scale, children in America are rated as being at extremely high risk of climate and environmental shocks and stresses.

Three Global Environmental Crises
About 40 years ago when I began researching and teaching about environmental issues, environmental education focused almost exclusively on local environmental issues. Three global issues lurked in the background and received occasional mention: ozone hole, species extinctions, and global warming. Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer is recovering and may no longer be considered a crisis [3]. Unfortunately, global biodiversity extinctions and Earth’s global climate have become even bigger crises. I would add global pandemics as a third current planet-scale crisis.

Are the current three global crises related to each other or is it a coincidence that they are occurring at the same time? The NGSS Crosscutting Concept of Cause, Effect and Mechanism helps us answer this question.

Human activities that burn fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) are the main cause of climate change. The mechanism is that fuel combustion and other human activities cause climate change by emitting gases into the atmosphere that block heat energy from leaving the planet. Neither pandemics nor global loss of biodiversity change Earth’s energy flows. They do not cause global climate change.

The question whether global climate change increases the frequency of global pandemics cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. In brief, the more complex answer is that neither climate change nor species extinctions directly cause a specific pandemic, but they can indirectly increase the frequency of pandemics. 

Pandemics become more likely when wild animals need to change where they live, how they live, and which organisms they directly and indirectly contact. These changes can provide viruses and other pandemic organisms many new opportunities to move from a natural reservoir into new animals, including humans. Global climate change and biodiversity losses cause many organisms, including humans, to change where they live, how they live, and which organisms they directly and indirectly contact. This is the mechanism whereby both the global climate crisis and biodiversity extinctions indirectly increase the frequency of global pandemics.

To give specific examples, an ecosystem may become too hot, too dry, too wet, or too burned for monkeys or bats that host dangerous corona viruses. These stressed animals must move to new locations with new neighbors, possibly including humans. New interactions give the coronaviruses new opportunities to change who they infect and how they can move from wild and domestic animals to humans. It is not a coincidence that global pandemics are increasing at the same time that ecosystems and human behaviors are being impacted by climate change and global losses of biodiversity.

Do These Global Crises Cause Each Other To Happen?

Incorrect Correct
Climate change and global extinctions directly and indirectly cause pandemics to happen. Climate change and global extinctions do not directly cause pandemics to happen.
Climate change and global extinctions can indirectly increase the frequency of global pandemics.
Pandemics directly and indirectly cause climate change and global extinctions to happen. Pandemics do not directly or indirectly cause climate change or global extinctions to happen.
Climate change does not increase the rate of global extinctions Climate change directly increases the rate of global extinctions.
Global extinctions cause climate change to increase. Global extinctions do not directly affect climate change. 

What Do These Global Environmental Crises Teach Us?
It is not a coincidence that we are simultaneously experiencing multiple environmental crises. We have been abusing our one and only home planet. Fortunately, we can still make changes that will significantly reduce the dangers of global climate change, the increasing frequency of pandemics, and the extinction of many species globally. We already have the technologies and strategies that can solve these current global problems. In addition, practically every strategy we implement to reduce the amount of global climate change also helps to reduce biodiversity extinctions and the threat of pandemics.

Our great challenge as individuals, communities, and governments is to make the changes that are necessary for humanity to live sustainably on planet Earth. If we fail, those who are currently disadvantaged will suffer the most. That is environmental injustice. Children will lose the most while having the least responsibility for causing global disasters. That is generational injustice. Most species could become extinct. That is plant and animal injustice. These global issues can be solved only via equitable global collaborations on a scale that matches the enormity of the problems.

Do We Need To Change How We Live On Planet Earth?

Incorrect Correct
The combination of these three global environmental crises does not tell us anything important about our relationship with planet Earth. The combination of these three global environmental crises tells us that we need to radically change our relationship with planet Earth.
These three global crises are occurring naturally and are not significantly caused by humans. Human activities are causing the global climate crisis, alarming decreases in Earth’s biodiversity, and an increasing frequency of global pandemics.
It is too late to significantly fix the climate crisis, reduce the frequency of pandemics, and prevent the extinction of many species globally. We can still make changes that will significantly reduce the harm caused by these three crises. 
We need new technologies to solve the problems of global climate change, global extinctions, and global pandemics. We already have the technologies and strategies that can solve our current global problems. New technologies will also help. 

Author Bio: 
Dr. Art Sussman is a scientist who has devoted his career to improving K-12 science education and public understanding of science. Spanning four decades, his work has focused on the educational power of the biggest ideas in science, and how we can address and solve global environmental issues. Visit Dr. Art Sussman's website and check out his blog.

Dr. Art will be contributing an Environmental Literacy column in each issue of California Classroom Science. Future columns will show how specific Crosscutting Concepts can significantly assist teaching and learning about global environmental issues.  
© Art Sussman 2021

[1] https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/

[2] https://www.unicef.org/media/105376/file/UNICEF-climate-crisis-child-rights-crisis.pdf. These hazards are heatwaves, hurricanes, flooding, water scarcity, vector-borne diseases, air pollution, and lead pollution.

[3]  https://csl.noaa.gov/assessments/ozone/2018/downloads/executivesummary.pdf



Save | Print | Email Article

Print Friendly and PDF

Related Articles

From time to time CASE receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CASE. By publishing these articles CASE does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CASE’s Disclaimer Policy.