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Thoughts From Poland: The Warsaw University Climate Initiative


Poland, a Central–Eastern European country, with a population of 38.5 million, is the fifth largest country in the European Union. It is currently facing several problems, including the COVID-19 pandemic and public health crisis, as well as an escalating political divide. One might think that under these circumstances, awareness about climate change would not be an urgent issue, but some think otherwise.

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels.

In a recent representative pool done in 2019 by Kantar-Polska, a large market-and-opinion research company, a national quiz on climate knowledge revealed some thought-provoking results. One-third of the participants proved unsure as to whether global warming is caused by humans. Sixty percent falsely believed that it might be a part of some natural cycle. Nearly half of the respondents agreed with the false statement that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is too negligible to seriously impact the climate. Nearly sixty percent (falsely) believed that global warming and air pollution, referred to as smog, were actually the same phenomenon. As a side note, the dominance of air pollution in the public awareness is understandable, since Poland is one of the most polluted countries in Europe (holding second place, just after Bulgaria). In the 2016 WHO report, 33 out of the 50 most polluted cities in the EU were in Poland. No wonder people confound all environmental problems with air pollution.

Researchers graded this nationwide quiz outcome with a D+, this result being representative for Polish adults. Although people generally overrate their own knowledge about climate change, in this study (the quiz being part of the study) actual (not declared) climate knowledge was a better predictor of pro-environmental action than anxiety about global warming. Most of the respondents were actually deeply concerned. Also, half of them said they simply didn’t know what to do and would like to know more. More insights from this study can be found in this great cartoon video (in English):

Established in 2019, the Warsaw University Climate Initiative (UW for Climate) connects faculty members, students, and PhD students - as well as university administration employees - to stand for the social responsibility of the university as it confronts climate crisis. The challenges are many. One of the climate team’s projects involves, not surprisingly, an attempt to address the general lack of knowledge and gap in education on climate change. This oversight might be due to an insufficient focus on climate issues in early education. The study of climate issues is nearly absent altogether from the curriculum in Polish schools.

Also, misinformation happens. As anecdotal evidence, some of our students bring in stories of their high school teachers claiming that global warming is “a hoax” and “not human caused.” Recently a scandal arose, which was revealed by the popular media and youth climate activists: government-funded online educational resources for teachers contained an outrageous level of misinformation. This ranged from straightforward mistakes in describing physical facts to optimistic claims that the consequences of global warming for Poland would be mainly positive, including improved conditions for farming such as yielding crops twice a year. Stories of wonderful school teachers also abound, teachers who are deeply engaged and who support kids and teens in their pursuit of climate knowledge as recounted by students starting their first university year. But no amount of personal engagement can counterbalance the systemic problem.

At the Warsaw University Climate Initiative, we believe that universities have the responsibility to address the need for evidence-based education on climate change. Attempts to improve the lack of access to climate knowledge at schools have been made. Seeing the results will probably take time. In contrast universities can respond more quickly. Moreover, modern climate science is a fast-evolving discipline, with impressive new data continuously being added. Knowledge transfer thus becomes an obligation for academia. Most educational material needs to be updated yearly, due to the unprecedented speed of the changes. This is particularly true with regard to the actual progress of global warming.

An example of successful climate science communication efforts in Poland are the activities of “Nauka o klimacie” (“Climate science”) team. The website was founded in 2013 by the University of Warsaw Faculty of Physics alumni (primarily prof. Szymon Malinowski) but has a wide circle of contributors from other institutions (Polish and otherwise). It is dedicated to science communication, climate education and the fight against disinformation. “Nauka o klimacie” editors engage in numerous outreach activities, such as lectures, meetings, consultations and contacts with the media, among other activities. Thus, the website has become a go-to source for more advanced – though still accessible to the layman - information on climate change. The intended audience is the general public, in particular journalists, activists, students and government officials.

However, working within the frame of a large educational institution provides a different scope of possibilities. One can directly reach future specialists and especially educators. Warsaw University is the largest research university in Poland. It offers education to more than 45,000 students in more than 100 different fields, has more than 3,000 PhD students, and with more than 7,000 employees, is one of the major employers in the Warsaw area. On our Climate Team, we decided to prepare an online course, using the university platform based on Moodle. Via online courses, we have been able to bridge the gap between the number of teachers who are able to each climate change at an academic level and the number of people who need this education, making it possible to provide courses to quite a large number of persons simultaneously. This plan had been implemented before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, after which all departments switched to teaching online anyway. So we were ahead of the times.

Warsaw University has offered some relevant climate-change courses before but they were often highly specialized and mostly available to students in specific departments Thus, students of geoscience attended their own classes; students of biology learned about the consequences to biodiversity and ecosystems, while psychology majors studied the social mechanisms of resistance and change. Most of these courses were too narrowly focused to be readily accessible to the general public. In addition, the university campus is spread across a few different campuses, which are scattered across the city. So courses offered in one department may not be easily accessible to students from other departments.

We took a different approach for the new course we were developing, titled “Climate Change ABC”. We wanted it to be both introductory and interdisciplinary, so that students specializing in art and humanities would be able to understand the physical bases of climate change; while students of math, in turn, could understand social processes. Climate change, possibly the largest challenge of our time, involves not only the sciences, such as physics or the bio-sciences, but also social sciences, economics, psychology and more. Therefore, it was important to focus on an interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge.

To make a long story short, 19 authors from various domains contributed to creating this online course. All study materials have been written for this specific purpose and -reviewed, first within our team and then peer-reviewed by external reviewers. The purpose was to achieve the highest scientific standard, while being also easily accessible to all students.

Currently, students of Warsaw University can take this course online as an elective general course. Many embrace this opportunity. The most interest is being shown by first-year students, who tend to consider climate change issues as essential to their future. These students often claim to have grave worries about climate change and seek to use their education to make a positive impact.

At the Warsaw University Climate Initiative, we engage in continuous outreach efforts to connect with other groups that are focusing on climate education. We have just started a specialized course for doctoral students and plan to expand this approach to enable easily-accessible online education on climate change to university employees, both scientists and administrators. Our ideal target group is researchers specializing in art, literature, journalism and other fields, who wish to expand their knowledge on climate change.

Our team is currently preparing to open up access to the educational resources we have already created in the hopes that our project could become a model for other Polish universities. This could allow them to develop their own pathways to universally available climate change education. Education is not enough when addressing climate issues. But it is a necessary first step. If bold actions are to be undertaken, including large scale system transformations and policy changes, we need the citizens to understand the science and back up these policies.

Please wish us luck in this endeavor.

Written in Warsaw, on a cold morning, November 27, 2020

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