How do you Teach Kids about Climate when They've Been Raised amid Cultivated Doubt?Breaking News
tags: climate change, media
Something had been pestering 12-year-old Nakowa, and as he and his friends settled into their seventh-grade science class, he finally said it aloud: “This global warming stuff? My parents said it’s not true.”
His science teacher, Marc Kessler, had been expecting this. “So, you’re getting mixed messages,” he said. “That must be a little challenging.” For years, Kessler had been teaching middle school science in the low-income, predominantly White and deeply red community of Paradise, Calif. Every year, he taught a unit on climate change. Every year, students told him they’d heard it was a hoax.
Nakowa recited the arguments he’d heard at home: If the Earth is warming, why had it snowed so much that winter? And without carbon dioxide we’d be dead, so what was wrong with a little more? On the other hand, Mr. Kessler’s lessons on climate change seemed convincing, too.
As I observed this exchange, it struck me that Nakowa was completely unaware that he and his classmates were themselves climate refugees.
Scientists generally avoid blaming any individual disaster on climate change, but the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and incinerated 90 percent of the buildings in Paradise, including Nakowa’s and his classmates’ homes, was covered with its fingerprints, they say. World leaders gathered at this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, are focused on planet-scale climatic changes — the increase in global temperatures, the inches of sea level rise — but the changes that matter most in a place like Paradise are hyperlocal. In the Sierra foothills of Northern California, for example, the spring and fall rainy seasons have shortened; when the Camp Fire ignited, Paradise had received 0.88 inches of rain in six months, just 12 percent of historic averages. Meanwhile, the region’s summers have warmed: Paradise’s five hottest summers had all occurred in the previous five years, relentlessly sucking moisture from the town’s clay soil and ponderosa pine cover.
Four months after the fire was extinguished, Mr. Kessler invited me to sit in on his class as he taught his annual unit on climate change. The middle school had been moved to a shuttered big-box hardware store in nearby Chico. Teachers set up their classrooms in the aisles — Kessler’s occupied Aisles 9 and 10, where customers once found ceiling fans and light fixtures. The lunch lady served food from a former checkout counter. The kids played freeze-tag in the garden center. One display still offered a full rainbow of paint swatches. The teachers tried to make the kids feel okay in their new surroundings, but there was no denying how surreal and apocalyptic a place it was to learn fractions, medieval history — and climate science.
Climate confusion and denialism didn’t appear in schools by accident. Classrooms have emerged as a battleground in the American political war over climate change because what kids learn about it now will directly impact the speed and ambition of action taken for decades to come. That in turn will decide the quantity of fossil fuels extracted from the Earth. If a significant portion of young people grow up to doubt the reality of the climate crisis, as their elders do, little is likely to change. The inertia of the status quo is so high that even a modest dose of doubt inoculates against action. This doubt could reign in American politics another three years or another 30. That difference is a matter of trillions of dollars for the fossil fuel industry and of accelerating chaos for the planet.
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