Climate Protests in CambridgeLOUIS ASHWORTH FOR VARSITY

The climate crisis is undoubtedly one of the most urgent and topical challenges of today, and although it is a difficult challenge, climate change has been recognised by global organisations, governments, institutions such as the University of Cambridge, as well as by individuals. There are plans, goals and targets, as well as investments into mitigating further effects and reducing those already present. Ultimately the strength and success of these efforts all relies on scientific education and communication – understanding the problem is necessary to solve it.

Cambridge Carbon Literacy is one society whose aim is to increase education about the climate crisis. Since Michaelmas 2020, they have been running a course consisting of two seminars split over Weeks 5 and 6 of term, a handful of self-study modules, and two pledges from their participants. Modules and seminars cover key climate science and policy, environmental issues, as well as Cambridge’s impact on climate and the environment. The course is accredited and was developed by the Environment Team at Manchester Metropolitan University, adopted in Cambridge by the Carbon Literacy Team and adapted by the Cambridge Environmental Educational Society. It is largely led by student volunteers who have been trained by Cambridge Zero to deliver the course to other students and members of the University, distinguishing it from other sources of climate education. Varsity spoke to May Zhou, one of the programme officers on the Carbon Literacy team, about the project.

Science communication in the context of climate change is incredibly important; climate disinformation is a key contributor to polarising public attitudes about the crisis, which has consequences for environmental policy as it lowers support for mitigation efforts. May thinks it is the “inherent resistance” to learning about climate change, rather than the difficulty of scientific concepts themselves, which prevents people from understanding the issues beyond a surface level: “At the end of the day, they are very disheartening and very depressing topics sometimes.” While she has been studying environmental studies for years now, she remembers taking the first step to learn about the issues can be a difficult thing to do and commends the programme participants for volunteering to dedicate time to the programme.

“I feel like it’s a process of self-reflection”

The participants of the programme are generally passionate and eager to learn about climate science and efforts to mitigate or reduce the effects of climate change. They are open to new information, despite potentially having different perspectives surrounding issues. Due to this varying degree of understanding, some of the more controversial topics such as nuclear energy and GMOs might invite a wider range of perspectives without necessarily having a “right answer”, but as May points out, opinions might change as people learn more about the topics. Carbon Literacy aims to provide an unbiased education on these issues but also offers a chance for people to speak and debate them from their perspective during the discussion sessions. May says: “it is part of our job to make people aware of the different perspectives and they can make their personal judgement and choose their own stance after being informed.”

Trainers are given material by the Carbon Literacy team to familiarise themselves with before delivering the course. However, when they run the sessions, they engage in conversations and discussions with participants, giving them the opportunity to bring up their personal experience or offer their opinion on a topic. May, for example, attended COP27 and was able to share her experiences: “In that regard, we’re kind of contributing to the course by bringing our own professional or personal understanding of things.” The Carbon Literacy coordinators also receive feedback from their participants and are able to adapt the course to dedicate more time to discussing issues their students are keen on learning about, allowing the programme to be tailored to the needs of participants.


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At the end of the programme, participants are asked to make pledges to reduce their carbon footprint. “I feel like it’s a process of self-reflection”, May says, and acknowledges that they cannot necessarily monitor whether participants turn these reflections into concrete actions. She clarifies that nobody is perfect and “it’s not practical or fair in certain ways” to expect people to be. “What really matters to me is encouraging people to take the step to reflect… When environmental impact is factored into decisions that you make, it inherently helps, regardless of whether you actually make that decision or not.” The programme encourages people to do exactly this – to think about the environmental impact of their choices in an informed way. “Understanding the issue is the starting point of becoming part of the change.”

The Carbon Literacy team offers training sessions for free, and you can register to participate in the programme during term. No matter how active you already are in fighting climate change, as an activist or simply through individual action, it’s a great opportunity to extensively understand the issues we face today, both in terms of global and local challenges. Ultimately, education is the key to solving problems at this scale, and initiatives like this can form the first steps.