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Empowering the Public to Tackle Climate Change, Charting a Path for the U.S.

By Megan Avakian

Group of school children with teacher and windmill model on field trip in nature.

As countries around the world work to curb climate change, there is a growing recognition that an informed and involved society is essential to solving the climate challenge. A new U.S. initiative brings together researchers and civil society organizations to craft a strategic approach to educate, engage, and empower the nation's public.

"When we talk about climate solutions, we're talking about changing so much of society - transportation, health, infrastructure, jobs - it is a massive transformation across so many key sectors. People must be educated and involved in proposed climate solutions, or they won't succeed," said Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator and senior climate education program manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Slowing climate change hinges on countries around the world limiting greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . Primarily produced by the burning of fossil fuels, these heat-trapping gases warm and alter the global climate in ways that can harm human health and ecosystems.

A Brief History of Global Climate Commitments

ACE Elements Explained

As defined by the UNFCCC, the six ACE elements are presented below:

  • Education enables people to understand the causes and consequences of climate change, to make informed decisions and to take appropriate actions to address it.
  • Training provides the core technical and soft skills as well as advanced knowledge needed to support the transition to green economies and sustainable, inclusive climate-neutral and resilient societies.
  • Public awareness campaigns engage communities and individuals in the common effort needed to foster climate-friendly behavior, sustainable lifestyles and implement national, regional, sectoral and international climate change policies.
  • Public access to information strengthens connections between knowledge production, knowledge sharing and decision-making, and provides people with the tools they need to play an active role in addressing climate change.
  • Public participation ensures ownership by encouraging people to be more attentive to policy-making and participate in the implementation of climate policies.
  • These five elements can all be strengthened through international cooperation. Governments and organizations can support each other with resources, technical expertise, ideas and inspiration for developing climate action programs.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that entered into force in 1994. With 197 member countries - also called Parties - it is the main global forum for climate change negotiations. Countries meet every year at the Conference of Parties to assess progress and set new goals for combating climate change. These meetings have led to subsequent climate pacts, notably the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and 2015 Paris Agreement , in which countries set specific targets for cutting emissions.

A common feature among these agreements is recognition that countries must engage and empower all members of their societies to address climate change. Countries can accomplish this through what the UNFCCC now calls Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) . ACE focuses on six elements: education, training, public awareness, public access to information, public participation, and international cooperation (see sidebar).

Taken together, ACE prepares individuals, decision makers, government, economic sectors, and society as a whole for the challenges climate change brings and empowers them to be part of the solution. Each country is expected to appoint a National Focal Point who is responsible for developing and implementing ACE activities.

In 2021, the U.S. designated Niepold and Olivia Urbanski as co-National Focal Points. Niepold is leading ACE activities domestically while Urbanski, of the U.S. Department of State, is heading up ACE cooperation at the international level.

Integrating ACE

At NOAA, Niepold has led efforts to make the nation climate literate for more than 15 years. That task naturally encompasses many of the ACE elements, he says. Now, as ACE National Focal Point for the U.S., he is exploring ways to bring these elements together.

"Historically these activities have been isolated from each other, but the relationship between them is actually very rich. This moment calls for an integrated approach so we can identify efficiencies and opportunities across ACE elements to make the biggest impact," he explained.

Niepold has recommended that the U.S. develop an ACE National Strategy. To date, no major emitting country has presented an ACE National Strategy on a global stage.

Grassroots Input Drives ACE

To develop the National Strategy, Niepold and team are looking to the ACE National Strategic Planning Framework for the United States (Framework) for guidance. The ACE community in the U.S. - educators, communicators, researchers, social and environmental justice groups, and others - created the Framework in the summer of 2020 through a series of listening sessions, online dialogue events, and community reviews. More than 150 individuals from 120 organizations contributed to development of the Framework.

Cover image for ACE Framework - circle with various images on blue background and white wave going through image

The Framework provides a critical starting point for the U.S. on climate action and ACE.
(Photo courtesy of ACE Framework)

"This represents a much broader, more collective, and diverse effort than we've seen before - an intersectional effort where people are seeing the connections between climate, health, the economy, and racial justice," he said.

The Framework's recommendations are specific to each ACE element. For example, under the education element, recommendations include prioritizing equitable access to climate education opportunities; elevating Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as leaders in formal and informal education settings; and implementing curricula that approach climate change and solutions from a climate justice perspective.

The call for climate justice is a unifying element throughout the Framework. "Equity and justice are inseparable from climate action," the authors wrote. This central tenet aligns with President Biden's Executive Order 14008 that addresses the connection between environmental justice and climate action.

"Because climate and social issues are interconnected, we have an opportunity to address multiple problems at once. Through ACE, we aim to identify solutions that will produce climate benefits while also benefiting the economy, public health, justice, and equity," said Niepold.

A Role for NIEHS

Public health is one area where there will be spillover benefits from climate action, Niepold says. Increasing awareness and knowledge of the link between climate change and health will be a key part of ACE in the U.S., and he believes NIEHS can play a leading role in this work.

"I've always appreciated the NIEHS' continued exploration of the intersection of climate and health, as well as the social and environmental justice dimensions of that work," he said. "Collaborating with NIEHS will be crucial to how we move ACE forward."

On the education front, NIEHS developed lesson plans to help students learn about the complex interactions between climate change and human health. Niepold was part of the advisory committee that oversaw development of the lesson plans, which are geared towards a range of audiences, from high schoolers (grades 9-12) to students in medical school and public health undergraduate or graduate programs.

For academics and public health stakeholders interested in the health impacts of climate change, the NIEHS Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal provides access to the most relevant and up to date peer-reviewed research on the topic.

Through the Environmental Career Worker Training Program (ECWTP), NIEHS funds non-profit organizations to train people from underserved communities to protect their own health and safety in environmental careers such as hazardous waste removal, construction, and emergency response. More recently, some ECWTP awardees have started incorporating green jobs components into their training to better prepare low-income and minority residents for the green jobs market.

NIEHS also has a decades-long commitment to community engagement, outreach, and education. According to Niepold, when it comes to climate action, a lot of the heavy lifting will happen at the community level. This means partnerships with community leaders and organizations are critical for success.

Through the NIEHS Research to Action (R2A) program, scientists team up with community-based organizations and work with community members to address their environmental health concerns. In one R2A project, researchers are working with a Brooklyn-based grassroots organization to address the health risks from chemicals that may spread throughout the community during extreme weather events. The project will help small businesses that use hazardous chemicals, like auto shops, implement practices to contain chemicals during flooding and other disasters. Additionally, many of the institute's programs include Community Engagement Cores, which provide researchers the infrastructure and funding to build relationships and engage in sustained work with communities.

"Agencies across the U.S. government are doing important ACE work, but what really matters is how we work together. Partnerships with agencies like NIEHS are going to allow us to take on a more ambitious ACE agenda and together make a difference for people and the world," said Niepold.