The excellent Julia Steinberger essay posted at this site in May provides a disturbing window into the psychology of teaching climate change to young people.
It’s critically important to talk with youth about hard topics: love and sex, deadly contagion, school shootings, vicious unprovoked war in Europe, climate change. Everybody wrestles with these subjects. It’s worse than useless to pretend there are easy answers, and it helps to be open about ambiguity.
I had a GREAT visit to Chatfield High School in Littleton, Colorado, the day Steinberger’s essay was posted. Several of these students were among about 300 who attended a “Climate Leadership Summit” for high schools in Colorado last month.
These students were deeply traumatized by being locked away from their peers and mentors for two years just as they emerged from adolescence into early adulthood. They’re well aware that their lives will be burdened by heat and drought and wildfire and also by the scourges of violence and hate (Chatfield is a neighbor to Columbine High School less than two miles away). It was a lovely spring day, with the young rising seniors in their last week of school before summer.
I was very much struck in Steinberger’s article by two phrases: She had a “classic, boilerplate climate presentation, full of IPCC figures and facts and quotes.” This is an all-too-frequent framing for climate outreach. I prefer to speak form the heart, from personal experience, and to invoke students’ own experiences rather than any academic authority. Also “It’s always ‘3 years to save the planet’ but then nothing changes.” This is a hugely consequential “doomer” meme that we must confront head on.
Three Ss : Simple, Serious, Solvable
When I speak with nearly anybody about our climate crisis, I use the “Three S’s” framework — Simple, Serious, Solvable. Simple is how it works. Serious is why it’s bad. Solvable is what we’re going to do about it.
I use this framework for a 30-second “elevator speech.” And for 30-minute presentations to Rotary and other groups. And for a 45-lecture undergraduate course. I devote about one-third of the time to each S, avoiding overemphasis on any one component. The Three S framework provides a narrative arc from the surprisingly simple basis for our understanding of the problem, to the deadly serious consequences of failure, to a feasible and practical call to action.
The basic mechanism of climate change is SIMPLE: Heat in minus heat out equals change of heat. Those nine words explain why day is warmer than night, summer is warmer than winter, and Phoenix is warmer than Fargo. It’s why adding insulation to your attic keeps your house warm, and why adding carbon dioxide to the air warms Earth’s climate. Scientists figured this out more than 160 years ago. It’s not rocket science. It’s just the way heat works.
When I present the middle S (SERIOUS) I don’t pull any punches. I localize the consequences of climate change for every audience. In Colorado it’s about water shortages, wildfire, and the threat of permanent loss of our forests and snowpeaks and snowmelt. In the Midwest it’s about crop failure. On the east coast it’s about rising seas and storm surge floods. It’s not IPCC maps. It’s a pull-no-punches explanation of the certainty that bad things will happen HERE, where we live that will impact OUR real lives.
But when I present the middle S, I am very empathetic. I truly care that these young people will suffer. I am truly sorry to tell them that the future may be scary and bad. I warn them that it’s coming. I soften them up with humor during the “not rocket science” first S. And before I launch into the Serious consequences, I invite them to hang in there because we’re going to get through it and move onto the Third S, SOLVABLE.
My first slide in Solvable is huge letters “STOP SETTING CARBON ON FIRE!” on a flaming background. The ask isn’t to “Feel guilty for your lifestyle,” or “Save the environment,” or “Ride your bike to school.” It’s both hugely ambitious and appropriately narrow. Preventing catastrophe doesn’t require fixing all that’s wrong with our broken world. Eliminating fossil fuels won’t fix everything either. But living another day to work on hunger and war and brutality requires that we not burn up first.
Resisting our culture’s ‘pathological strain of doomerism’
OK, doomers: It’s flat-out WRONG that “We have only X years” or “We’re screwed” or “Nothing we do can help.”
In a beautiful and hard-hitting essay on “Conditional Optimism,” Dave Roberts a few years ago wrote:
The fight to decarbonize and eventually go carbon negative will last beyond the lifetime of anyone reading this post. That is true no matter how high the temperature rises. The stakes will always be enormous; time will always be short; there will never be an excuse to stop fighting.
There’s a pathological strain of doomerism in our culture. Some of it probably stems from the mistaken belief that by expecting the worst we protect our spirits from devastation when the worst occurs. Some of it is a rebellious middle finger of frustration and anger aimed at self-righteous adults who set the stage for global catastrophe and then got too old and died before they did anything about it! This is NOT a crazy reaction to the absurd position we’ve created for our beloved children.
Doomerism is death. To Hell with it!
Being bummed out about the seriousness of climate change is NO EXCUSE to give up and stop working to make the future less bad. Climate is not binary: There’s no magic line between Heaven and Hell that we cross at 1.5 C or 2 C or any other C. Every 0.01 C counts and will ALWAYS count. The thermostat turns only one way, and there’s a hidden ratchet in there that makes it almost impossible for it to turn back down. It’s flat-out STUPID to say “Oh well, we turned it up past 1.5 C. Now we might as well turn it up to 5 or 10!”
In the very first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones a 12-year-old character named Arya Stark practices sword fighting with an expert foreign mentor. She asks him if he believes in the Old Gods or the New Gods (her culture argues about religion). He replies that there’s only one god, the God of Death.
“And what do we say to the God of Death?” he asks Arya.
“Not today.” is her correct reply.
SPOILER ALERT: Arya grows up to become a bad-ass assassin who slays the God of Death in the penultimate episode seven years later.
Scott Denning for more than two decades taught as part of the atmospheric sciences faculty at Colorado State University. A frequent speaker and science educator, Denning says he “takes special delight in engaging hostile audiences” on climate change.