Maybe you've heard. We are facing a climate crisis that threatens life on our planet. Climate scientists are unequivocal: We are changing the world in deep, measurable, dangerous ways—and the pace of this change will accelerate dramatically in the decades to come.
Then again, if you've been a middle school or high school student recently, you may not know this.
That's because the gap between our climate emergency and the attention paid to climate change in the school curriculum is immense. Individual teachers around the country are doing outstanding work, but the educational establishment is not. Look at our textbooks. The widely used Pearson/Prentice Hall text, Physical Science: Concepts in Action, waits until page 782 to tell high school students about climate change, but then only in four oh-by-the-way paragraphs. A photo of a bustling city includes the caption: "Carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources may contribute to global warming." Or they may not, the book seems to suggest.
IAT's Coordinated Science: Physical, Earth and Space Science devotes several pages late in the book to climate change, and concludes with this doubt-soaked passage:
Some people take the position that the increase in carbon dioxide should be reversed. They believe this is necessary even though the size of the contribution to global warming is not certain. It is their belief that the consequences would be very difficult to handle. Other people take a different position. They consider that it would be unwise to disrupt the world's present economy. They consider the future danger to be questionable. The big problem is that no one is certain that rapid global warming will take place. If it does, it may be too late to do anything about it!
The danger of climate change as "questionable"? ExxonMobil itself could not have produced a more skeptical approach.
These textbooks are not mere egregious outliers; they are typical of commercially produced science and social studies teaching materials. In fact, a partnership between the American Coal Foundation and Scholastic to create a propagandistic 4th grade curriculum was ended only last year, when educators and environmentalists exposed the lessons' absurd pro-industry biases. Scholastic's curriculum, The United States of Energy, was distributed free to tens of thousands of elementary teachers. It showed gleaming piles of coal, along with many of its alleged benefits. Students didn't learn of a single problem, including coal's huge contribution to climate change.
"...the enormity of the climate crisis demands that educators, scientists, environmental activists, parents, and students join together to pull down the barriers between disciplines, and to rethink the curriculum. The cost of continuing with business as usual is too steep."
But as state legislatures get into the business of writing school curricula, things may go from awful to worse. Take Tennessee. It just became the fourth state—following Louisiana, Texas and South Dakota—to pass a law that requires global warming to be taught as one of a number of "scientific controversies."
The fact that Tennessee is home of the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial makes the new law ironic, but not funny. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science explains, "Asserting that there are significant scientific controversies about the overall nature of these concepts when there are none will only confuse students, not enlighten them."
If you happen to be a member of the one percent that owns a coal company, oil wells or a pipeline, young people's confusion is a good thing. For the rest of humanity, the passivity generated by this confusion is tragic.
Of course, educators cannot simply blame the lack of climate education on greedy corporations and the legislators they buy. In high schools, too often teachers regard the walls between disciplines as fixed and legitimate. Most social studies teachers thus far seem willing to leave discussion of carbon dioxide, the mechanics of the greenhouse effect, and "feedback loops" to the science department. And science teachers, overwhelmed by the requirements of their own discipline, are reluctant to trespass into the social causes and consequences of climate change. Teachers of other disciplines—drama, language arts, math—may wonder about the relevance of the climate for their subjects. And elementary teachers may think that climate change is too depressing or too complicated for their children.
But the enormity of the climate crisis demands that educators, scientists, environmental activists, parents and students join together to pull down the barriers between disciplines, and to rethink the curriculum. The cost of continuing with business as usual is too steep.
The good news is that addressing this crisis with the urgency that it deserves offers the possibility of revitalizing schools as young people develop the consciousness and commitment that the earth desperately needs.
And this work needn't be grim, as some educators have already discovered. For instance, a workgroup of teachers in Portland, Ore.,wrote a role-play on the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples throughout the world—from island nations like Kiribati to the Yup'ik of Alaska—in which students assume the personas of indigenous activists and propose global solutions.
And of course there's always straight-up physics and chemistry—understanding the mechanics of climate change is classic science education.
A curricular full-court press on the climate offers a compelling renunciation of the numbing test-preparation that passes for education in so many schools these days. As Rethinking Schools editors wrote recently, "This endeavor demands that young people exercise their utopian imaginations to consider alternatives of all kinds. And it invites them to 'talk back' to those interests that promote and benefit from endless consumption—including the publishers of their own textbooks."
This is our chance to develop a generation for whom climate awareness is as natural as logging onto Facebook.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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