Information Literacy and Climate Change – Are we ready for the debates?

A recent discussion on climate change and the possibility of using the depleted Cook Inlet oil and gas reservoirs near Anchorage for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) led to the possibility of a debate on the science of gas storage and the long term reliability of geologic structures in an area of Alaska prone to significant seismic activity.

The recent two+ years of debate on the pandemic; whether it was really happening, who or what caused it, what to do about it, and how was our public knowledge keeping up with new information, recommendations and mutations; should be a red-flag wakeup call for everyone on any side of the issues concerned about public engagement in the challenging issues of our time.

This led me to wonder if this would just lead to more painfully chaotic and political public debates on science like those we’ve just been through with the Coronavirus SARS 2 pandemic.

Frankly, I do not believe we are prepared for the discussions and decisions that need to happen to fully and constructively engage in climate change issues. And I know I have my own blind spots, biases and agenda and do not claim to be above any of the criticism I level at all of us.

My view is that our lack of public capability and capacity to engage in the topic of climate change is a bigger threat than climate change itself at the moment. The path to further division and civil unrest is a shorter path to a dystopian future than I fear comes from of climate change.

Before we try to repeat the last two years of public debate of complex science, I want to suggest that the topic of “information literacy” needs some fresh attention. https://literacy.ala.org/information-literacy/

Information Literacy is defined by the American Library Association as: “… a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information… To be information literate, then, one needs skills not only in research but in critical thinking.” (ibid)

While the banter of politics is an area we’ve long expected to be built on dubious claims and paradoxical rhetoric; the politicalization of issues in the commons such as healthcare, equity, immigration, education, and now the science of climate change has weaponized issues for the benefit of the political industry. The industry’s objectives are to aggregate votes, raise money, and leave citizens who have likely never had much awareness or training in information literacy as the voting pawns of those with the resources to optimize engagement algorithms and the rewards of short term dopamine hits of satisfaction from a Like. I’m not looking for the political organizations to change or to be an unbiased source of information, and suggest we all should be highly suspect of the information that comes from political or politically influenced sources.

Information Literacy is a component of critical thinking, and both deserve our attention as we begin to frame, engage in, and design opportunities for climate change discussions. I’m not convinced that feeding our brains from the hose of social media, political rhetoric, and our individual favorite trusted news source is going to keep up with the challenges of our times much less the changes in HOW we must use our experience, knowledge and individual values to engage in those challenges.

So, this is all to say that when I was recently invited to jump in to discussions and debates about climate change and what was really a “clean” source of energy; I found I had a jaded bias about doing so without having first explored how we will create a space, a “container”, where this work can be done in a way that elevates the participation, critical thinking and incorporation of information literacy skills. The general public that grew up without any information literacy instruction or those who were last exposed to it in their 2nd grade library science lessons are unprepared for the critical work ahead and the manipulations awaiting us. And, not even those who might design and moderate the discussion may have a sufficient grounding in information literacy or critical thinking to be aware of the intellectual short cuts they may be inadvertently perpetuating.

Organizations that are intent on advancing a perspective on the change they want to see; have two paths to choose from: One is to embrace the limited skills and knowledge of the general audience and engage in the battle for Likes perpetuating what is working today to organize large blocks of our population around polarizing issues that encourages individualistic and anarchist positions based on citizen opinion over science in order to build policy and political strength. That is, organizations can as one option, choose to play the game the way it’s being played by others; or as I sometimes refer to it; engage in the Algorithmic Wars.

The other option is to recognize the limited skills, access to knowledge and biases that make it challenging for the general public to engage in the wicked problems of our age and develop programs that focus on bringing people back to the basics of information literacy skills, explore their biases, and reset themselves from the pandemic debates for the discussions to come. This option is fundamentally about elevating the role of the public in exploring the issues that will affect them and that our political representatives should be responding to, rather than trying to influence us to support. This work can then guide people to understanding the difficult problems and many perspectives and dimensions we have to navigate; and, provide access to resources and tools that will help everyone have access to a common set of facts and uncertainties with which they can engage and be contributing participants in the decisions ahead of us and the work to be done – Even if that means some reach a conclusion that is different than the one that group might prefer.

James Surowiecki framed this all neatly for us in the book Wisdom of Crowds. My synthesis of his work suggested three guiding requirements for making good decisions and engaging the public. These included: diverse perspectives, equal access to all of the information; and, the freedom of each person to use their own experience and perspectives to reach their own independent assessment of the issue (free from influence, or coercion) and a recommendation (vote) in the group decision making process.

This is long, slow patient work, and I’m not convinced I’m up to the challenge of being engaging enough to compete with the algorithms of engagement and short term attention rewards. The pandemic’s lessons remain to be incorporated in to our capability and capacity to handle the bigger challenges ahead. I’m also concerned that we have weakened the democratic foundations of decision making based on the rule of law that would support our collective support for decisions the group makes, even if it was not the ideal option we personally promoted.

It’s this second path that is closer to my view of the direction for Alaska Version 3 and the role it plays in accelerating the development of Alaska’s Next economy, including exploring the role of energy and the decisions we are faced with that reduce the costs of energy in Alaska and global greenhouse gas emissions from our economy and exports.

However, I’m not rushing in to the debate on climate change and just toss off a couple of my favorite pro CCS studies in what might be an engaging and educational banter of sources and dueling experts; but perhaps not advance the real issue of how Carbon Capture and Sequestration might be a part of a overall system of greenhouse gas management strategies; or more importantly how we bring a larger audience in to the discussion and make wiser decisions than we’ve been capable of when faced with the pandemic. It will take all of us to make a difference in the climate change trajectory and we can not afford to wait until the damage is done to decide if ‘worm-treatments’ are the best path forward.

My next steps are to consider more carefully HOW we design the discussions ahead of us, rather than WHAT we discuss ; and, avoid just jumping in blindly and asserting I have a position that others should embrace. I’d encourage anyone interested in this topic to reach out to me and share your thoughts – since I’ve certainly committed some of the same violations on this topic that I warn us to be wary of committing when engaging in future topics. And for all, consider the path connecting information literacy, critical thinking, individual positions, engagement in public space, and a willingness to participate and (peacefully) supporting the wisdom of the decisions that can be made in the time we have to make those decisions.

Time is of the essence in climate change, but to go farther, faster; we may have to go together and start a bit slower with the basics.