By Joan Haley
In the field of education, climate change has become a hot topic (pun…unavoidable). It makes sense. Why wouldn’t we want to better prepare our students to address the challenges of global warming? In the past several years that I’ve been mining journal articles, the research in this area has increased dramatically, offering more effective instructional strategies and learning opportunities for our youth. Yet during a recent interview, a graduate of a local high school, politely, but pointedly, exposed an uncomfortable truth: Actions can speak louder than words or lesson plans.
In response to my question, “How do you believe climate change will impact you in 15 – 25 years?,” the mood of the young woman I was interviewing shifted. After continued probing and mounting awkwardness, it finally dawned on me what an offensive question this was. From my “privileged” status of having lived most of my life without really needing to face the consequences of climate change, it was easy to distance myself from a vision of…what? Even young children have heard of the dire predictions from scientists. It is not fun to imagine, and perhaps frustrating to hear someone pose this question who is part of a more culpable generation..
Understandably, this 19 year-old and other recent high school graduates I interviewed were disconcerted by the lack of progress over the past 40 years with climate change mitigation and adaptation. They expressed some confusion and dismay that their elders look to them to solve this complex issue, despite the fact that established adults have relatively more resources, connections, experience, and power to do so. Yet these graduates were still ardently trying to reduce their carbon footprints and enhance their carbon “handprints.”
While the youth attributed part of their sense of efficacy to skills and knowledge gained during their K-12 experiences (big kudos to our local teachers!), their responses emphasized how strongly their observations of adult actions and attitudes influenced their lives. Through vicarious learning, youth see what is possible and what is deemed important. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t fly. Our everyday choices—the cars we drive, the foods we eat, the clothes we buy, the houses we build, the policies we support—send powerful signals to our young people about our sense of responsibility and how much we value the quality of their lives and that of the other beings on this planet. It was both humbling and inspiring to realize that these youth were making more substantial lifestyle changes and working harder to change unsustainable systemic practices than many adults, including myself. While I have great faith that our community’s kids will “change the world,” is it fair to ask them to do this if we are not prepared to be role models and full partners in this collective endeavor? Our teachers are working hard to foster student agency, but their efforts will take on more meaning and authenticity if students can see these lessons in action through the behaviors of the adults around them.
Here are a few things we can do, in and outside the classroom, to help educate the next generation:
- Make choices together using systems-thinking. For example, discuss how carpooling to a sports event might impact the community and environment.
- Volunteer and invite youth to participate. Activities such as community gardening, Green Up Day, climate rallies, or serving on boards help youth practice civic engagement and contribute their much needed perspectives. Demonstrate that it matters, and can also be fun and rewarding.
- Reassure young people that they don’t need to be perfect. If we fall short in one area (e.g. indulging in long showers), we can try to make up for it in others (e.g. taking fewer showers, reducing food waste in the cafeteria).
- Strive for a more sustainable lifestyle and draw attention to benefits beyond greenhouse gas reduction, such as saving money on clothes purchased from a thrift store or enjoying the taste of a fresh, locally-grown tomato.
- Learn about climate change and what can be done to make informed choices; engage in social media or other youth interactions to exchange promising practices. Project Drawdown (drawdown.org) is an excellent resource for research-based climate solutions.
Perhaps the most vital part of climate change education is listening to our youth and learning from them. All of the ideas above, while supported by research, were suggested by youth who’ve indicated they feel the heavy weight of climate change fall upon their shoulders. Through our day-to-day efforts, the Woodstock community and the Upper Valley region can help (re-)build our youth’s faith in the future, demonstrating through our actions that we are in this together and are working to live up to standards that youth should expect from “grown ups.”
Earth is a mirror that reflects our commitment to future generations. What are we going to do about it? (NASA photo)
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Find one activity in Project Drawdown that calls to you and use it to role model for our community’s youth your contribution to climate solutions.
- Visit climatechange.vermont.gov to learn more about climate change in Vermont and specific actions you can take to reduce your carbon footprint.
Joan Haley is Director of Partnership Education Programs for Shelburne Farms with the National Park Service. She had help writing this article from Mateo Bango (16), Pete Wilson (22) and Carmen Bango (23).