I've been to global-warming school. That's right, I'm a proud graduate of  “the first course in Britain that guides you through all you need to know about climate change in just three hours.” On a typically wet and bleak autumn day in London, twelve of us (including the seminar leader, a cheerful guy named Christian) met in a small room on London's South Bank to discuss discussing climate change: how to communicate it to others, how to deal with the overwhelming problem of denial, how to overcome the lack of willingness to adapt. The regularly-held seminar is organised by the Oxford-based Climate Outreach & Information Network [COIN], a charitable trust formed in 2004.

My group was comprised of an assortment of NGO-workers and interested citizens. There was a guy who works for UK relief and development charity Tearfund and had just spent some time in Burkina Faso; two students doing engineering degrees focused on sustainability; a woman working in the Low Carbon Innovation Centre at the University of East Anglia; a project coordinator of an inter-denominational church-based ecological organization; and a remarkably motivated 17-year-old student from Manchester who was keenly interested in all things environmental and sustainability-related. 

Each participant was given a workbook and asked what had brought us to the course. The student from Manchester said he wanted to be able to convince some of his skeptical or apathetic friends and peers that something needed to be done about climate change. “They don’t really seem interested,” he said, shaking his head. Then Christian showed us short video presentations by leading UK climate experts and climate change journalists George Monbiot and Mark Lynas. After each video he asked us to convene in pairs or small groups and discuss what we thought. We then reported the outcome of our discussions to the rest of the group.

During the three hours my neighbours and I discussed the following: what changes we had noticed personally in the climate and its impact, why climate change was hard to accept, how ready we were for it, how long we thought we had to reduce emissions, why we should take action, what measures could be introduced to reduce emissions in aviation and other important sectors, and whether a low-carbon world could be a better world. In short, we became a bit more fluent in a topic that was already near the top of our agendas.  

Highlights of the session included learning about the science behind the greenhouse effect and carbon cycle, looking at the 10 billion metric ton carbon budget the world must abide by to prevent dramatic climate change, exploring how reductions in carbon emissions could be brought about fairly, and an amusing experiment called "Walking the Walk" that made us understand exactly how much carbon our daily actions actually produce.(If I hadn’t already had reservations about my consumption of jet fuel, I certainly do now: seeing a seminar participant have to retrace all the steps she had taken to reduce her emissions simply because she had taken one long-haul flight was a stunner.)

COIN was founded in 2004 by George Marshall, who has held senior positions in Greenpeace US and the Rainforest Foundation, and Richard Sexton, whose background was in designing development assistance programmes in the Middle East for agencies including the UN and World Bank (Sexton died in 2006). Aside from the three-hour condensed course, COIN offers a one-day speaker training course on how to speak publicly on climate change, entertainingly titled "How to win the Climate Change argument in a 15-minute tea break," and workshops aimed at helping active trade unionists mobilize people on climate change.

According to COIN Project Manager Richard Conibere, the purpose of the seminars is “giving non-experts the skills and confidence to engage with the issue and communicate it”. The informal and interactive teaching style of the seminars COIN holds is a very effective way of generating social change, he says. Marshall agrees. “There are lots of ways to reach people and I have tried many of them - talks, shows, books, articles, interviews…they are all useful. But there is something about a training that works really well because people are meeting other people like themselves and are actively discussing and thinking as they do so.” And as Conibere says, after the courses their alumni “go out and pass on their passion to many more people.”

COIN actively seeks course participants who are not involved in climate change professionally or even personally. In the past couple of years they have worked with unions, refugee groups, the Scouts, the Rotary Club, the NHS. Participants have included a nun, a senior engineer from petroleum giant BP, former coal-miners, chefs, fishermen and fire-fighters. COIN believes that climate change should not be portrayed as a purely environmental problem but should also be seen as an issue of social justice, human rights, jobs, and welfare. “Rather than being coralled as an issue by and for greens,” says Conibere, “it is something in which we all have a stake and which anyone can have a role in tackling.”

At the end of the seminar I asked my discussion partner and fellow ‘graduate’ what she got out of the course. It had made her more confident about how much she already knew she answered. “You feel very vulnerable when you are speaking about this in public,” she said. “You are putting yourself on the line.” Having more information had motivated her that she was on the right track. As for me, it will take a while to forget the words spoken by Chris West, of the UK Climate Impacts Programme, during one of the video presentations. “There is no law that says we have to inherit the earth,” West says. “Maybe we’ll go the way of the dinosaurs.” Then he adds, “This is our chance to show that we are smarter than the dinosaurs.”

Story by Giovanna Dunmall. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in January 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2009

A crash course in climate change
A new seminar gives Londoners all they ever wanted to know about global warming and were afraid to ask.