Teaching hope in the era of climate change - Albuquerque Journal

Teaching hope in the era of climate change

Atherton Phleger

Being a kid today is tough. On top of the ordinary melodrama of adolescence, Gen Z is coming of age amidst the greatest environmental crisis humanity has ever encountered, and every bit of available evidence indicates that the “adults in the room” are punting on this particular problem.

Many parents nowadays insist that their children learn about climate change (over 80% of American households, according to NPR), but the way teachers and civic leaders talk about climate change has a tendency to make kids feel hopeless. Most talk of climate change solutions exclusively consists of mitigation, or measures to reduce greenhouse gases, which ignores the powerful impact that talking about climate adaptation can have on kids’ wellbeing.

The way I first learned about climate change as a kid was deeply distressing. The lesson followed what is now a familiar arc in many classrooms. We learned about what the climate is, the tools that scientists use to model and understand it, how we know that the climate is warming, and how we know that people are driving it. We talked about the catastrophe that climate change will likely wreak upon the planet, and I remember distinctly the section where the teacher described how human behaviors and lifestyle choices were driving these disruptions. There was a final, pitiful resolution where we learned of a few lifestyle changes like composting and buying a fuel-efficient car that could reduce our contributions to the problem.

Climate education has improved and changed since then, but in discussion of solutions, the focus often remains on the reduction and sequestering of greenhouse gases. To be clear, these tactics are really important, but the enormity of the problem seems to invariably overwhelm whatever small-scale, carbon footprint-reducing solutions are offered as a balm.

What’s more, kids’ carbon footprints are just a shadow of their parents’, meaning that among the few solutions educators usually offer, most kids have no agency to enact. Shortly after that first lecture, I refused to leave the family car until my parents promised to get a hybrid. They didn’t. I tried to avoid reading or thinking about climate change for about a decade afterwards, only diving back in once I learned enough about adaptation to start feeling vaguely hopeful.

In the climate science world, carbon footprint-reducing options are referred to as “mitigation,” and for most people and curricula, mitigation encompasses the whole of people’s understanding of how we can combat climate change. But mitigation is just half of the equation. The other half is adaptation, where we use what we know about how climate change will impact us or the stuff we care about to plan and prepare for those changes.

Adaptation has a lot going for it, including a deep history here in New Mexico (namely the millennia-long tenure of Native peoples in this region, despite drought, colonization, flooding, etc.). Adaptation is easy to understand and, most importantly, kids can participate in it. Any choice that someone makes based on information that they have about climate change is adaptation. Planting drought-tolerant species in the backyard is adaptation, as is talking with your neighbors about a community plan for wildfires or floods.

Adaptation planning turns climate change from something big, abstract and scary into something that people can assess and address at any level, whether that’s the home, the school, the state, etc. Adaptation can be as small as planting gardens for pollinators or as large as relocating an entire community to cope with sea level rise, but nearly every climate impact has a tangible response that any person of any age can engage in to make themselves and the stuff they care about more resilient.

Mitigation is an essential part of climate education, but only talking about mitigation is leaving a generation depressed, anxious, resentful and disengaged. Want to get more kids to care about climate change? Talk about adaptation and give them something they can do.

Atherton Phleger of Santa Fe is program director at Climate Advocates / Voces Unidas (CAVU).


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