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Carbon Literacy Hitches a Lift to Antarctica

June 2023 by Lucia Simmons

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS), a world-leading centre for polar science and polar operations, has delivered Carbon Literacy® training on the RRS Sir David Attenborough in Antarctica, becoming the southernmost training venue and seventh, and final, continent Carbon Literacy has been delivered in.

Carbon Literacy is already globally unique, having been recognised as such at COP21. Now, this exciting news represents an even greater achievement and a historic milestone in the fight against climate change. As it becomes the only climate education-and-action programme to be delivered in Antarctica, Carbon Literacy has now been adopted and adapted by, and for, unique audiences in every continent across the globe, all of whom are driving tangible action against climate change as a result.

Even climate scientists need Carbon Literacy

You might remember it as the ship that was very nearly named Boaty McBoatface after a popular online poll, but the RRS Sir David Attenborough is a much more appropriate name for this floating marine science research laboratory, undertaking important research in Antarctica’s open oceans. British Antarctica Survey is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and part of UK Research and Innovation. BAS operate five research stations in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions and manage the NERC Arctic Station at Ny Alesund.

Now you’re probably thinking, why would one of the world’s leading polar science research institutes need climate change training? Didn’t they write the book on climate change? Indeed, a number of BAS scientists do inform the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which provide vital and authoritative evidence on human-induced climate change to policymakers and governments; the latest of which, released in March 2023, heeded a stark warning about the need for “deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”.

Natalia Ford is the Sustainability Manager for the Antarctica Infrastructure Modernisation Programme (AIMP) within BAS. As part of this programme, Natalia led the delivery of the pilot Carbon Literacy training aboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Natalia sees Carbon Literacy as “valuable across the board”, recognising that there is a difference between knowledge and impact:

“While we have a lot of people who are very informed on carbon, and even go as far as to inform the IPCC, it’s different when it comes to translating what needs to happen to our lifestyles and the way we operate, and being able to communicate about carbon on a level that everyone can understand.”

What’s more, Natalia acknowledges that all organisations have different levels of knowledge within them. BAS has a huge team of scientists, but they also have a large team of operational staff, including engineers, station ops, medics, chefs, cleaners, and vehicle maintenance people. And while BAS deliver regular talks on climate change, how that translates into the impact you can have had been relatively underexplored in their organisation.

Carbon Literacy onboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough

In line with ambitions to achieve net-zero by 2040, BAS created a bespoke Carbon Literacy course, adapting materials from the Carbon Literacy for Universities Toolkit, created by Manchester Metropolitan University, to make it highly relevant to their work and their people.

Due to busy crew schedules on the RRS Sir David Attenborough, the day’s worth of climate change learning-and-doing was broken up into evening sessions. This, they found, allowed people to better internalise the knowledge, reflect on it, and come back ready to discuss it with their peers. Indeed, despite the unusually well-informed cohort, there were still ‘sink in’ moments where people thought “this is worse than I thought”. And yet, Natalia said, “the course gave enough information and enough hope that could bring people out of that emotional trough”.

At The Carbon Literacy Project, we tend to avoid talk of melting polar icecaps as an overused archetype of ‘climate talk’ that fails to hit home for the everyday folk climate change is impacting. But, for the BAS team, seeing these scenes in person did give the learning extra resonance. BAS is seeing its own operations impacted by climate change, and colleagues who have been at BAS for over 25 years can attest to how different the research stations look now. For example, the ice ramp, an area used to launch planes, at Rothera Station is receding.

Driving climate action at the British Antarctic Survey

While the learning hit home for the crew, the real winning element of the Carbon Literacy training was its focus on action. As a research vessel in one of the most isolated places on Earth, the RRS Sir David Attenborough is a microcosm, where habits become entrenched. Indeed, it is common to eat meat across the ship crew. BAS is working to drive culture change to reduce carbon emissions, but the training helped to really land why change is needed and how this change can be implemented.

“Everyone knows beef is the baddy, but people had no idea lamb was the next one down. The message of “don’t get focused on the actual number, just shift yourself down that sliding scale”, I think people really appreciated that. The course didn’t ask people to give up meat entirely… People really appreciated that lack of judgement and that wider array of options that were presented.”

The cohort fully embraced Carbon Literacy. The BAS team “appreciated how clear, interesting, and easily spelt out the content was in terms of what they could do”. People had the option to leave the training, but didn’t. Out of 20 initial participants – and with some fall-off as the ship dropped people at research stations – 13 people wrote action plans at the end of the training, “with every intention on carrying through”. One representative from a partner company has even gone back to their organisation and suggested that they do their own Carbon Literacy roll-out.

Lessons in Carbon Literacy for other organisations

Beyond being a landmark achievement for us at The Carbon Literacy Project as our southernmost training venue, and seventh and final continent, that Carbon Literacy has been delivered in Antarctica demonstrates the boundless possibilities, and indeed requirement, for this globally recognised climate change training programme.

“Carbon Literacy is delivered at a level that it is possible for every person in an organisation to understand the key issues and what they can do about it. It’s available to every organisation out there and I haven’t come across another course that can do that.” – Natalia Ford, AIMP Sustainability Manager, British Antarctic Survey.

Thinking about bringing Carbon Literacy into your organisation? Here are some of Natalia’s top tips:

    • Do some housekeeping first. Understand where your organisation is at.
    • Have passionate people within your organisation lead delivery. It doesn’t have to be your sustainability manager, but colleagues are more trusted sources than an external person who your people don’t know, and so might not have an open conversation with.
    • Bring your own knowledge and experience to conversations. Welcome expertise from the cohort into the discussion. Keep the non-judgmental tone of the course alive.
    • Spend time practising slides and flow. The guidance notes which come with the MMU Carbon Literacy for Universities Toolkit Course are really helpful!
    • Utilise games to bring the learning to life. They give people necessary variety and spark conversation.

Want to hear more from Natalia about the British Antarctic Survey’s Carbon Literacy journey? Watch the video on our YouTube channel.

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