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Climate change: Students, finally, are on fire

Aaron Schwartz

Walk into any American classroom and ask students to complete the sentence, “School is ________.” By far the most common response will be “boring.” Boredom is the elephant in the (class)room. There are many reasons for it — from outdated curricula, to the decline in deep reading, to the culture of distraction courtesy of social media, to dispirited, under-supported, teachers coping with ever-more mandates and dwindling resources.   

But finally, students are on fire.

Last week in the largest-ever youth-led demonstrations in history, young people took to the streets by the millions to articulate in hundreds of different languages and in cities big and small, on every continent on earth, sending a powerful message: We must act on climate change now.

And they are right. Climate change has already morphed into climate disruption bringing with it extreme events like droughts, floods and fires. Weather extremes during the last 20 years have claimed 605,000 lives. In about 10 years, the warming will be about 50 percent greater than the warming we have experienced so far, ushering in an era of dangerous climate change.  

Instead of happening thousands of miles away to someone else, climate extremes will move into our living rooms, becoming part of our lives. With unchecked emissions beyond 2030, continued warming poses existential threats to all homo sapiens, rich and poor, and to most species. The very future of our children, our grandchildren and unborn generations is at grave risk.

Young people are struggling to make sense of the planet’s finality. While all children come to contemplate the mortality of their parents and loved ones and eventually, their own, the mortality of the planet is not easily grasped. In their collective cry, they are articulating the existential terror of planetary death.  During last week’s events a 15-year-old boy spoke with uncanny clarity, “Basically, our earth is dying, and if we don’t do something about it, we die.

Fortunately, there is still time to avoid the most catastrophic of predicted outcomes. The first overarching solution is to declare fossil fuels as dangerous and outdated technology and switch to renewables, which are abundant across the planet.

The unresolved question is, how to make that happen. It is going to take a transformational change in behavior to wean society away from fossil fuels and unsustainable consumption.  Education for all is the only way to affect such mass scale behavioral transformation toward a sustainable planet and sustainable humanity.

Climate change has ignited the rapid kinetic movement for youth agency and action in service of the common good. To let this new energy, go to waste would be a shame. Climate change education for all should be a part of the solution for moving forward.

We are proposing a new narrative for climate education around the theme of a sustainable planet. This education must start with Kindergarten and continue on to adulthood. Schools have always organized around special themes  —  the arts, STEM, the humanities, coding and the like.  Sustainability education should be woven seamlessly into these special themes.

Last week, we saw up close an ethic of youth solidarity triumphing over the endemic culture of indifference. Education must build on this solidarity by providing meaningful new opportunities to connect with each other to learn about climate change and the levers to mitigate it. “You had a future and so should we,” was the chant in lower Manhattan last week.

Next, climate change woven into the sustainable planet theme is a powerful pathway for curiosity — the point of departure to all scientific thinking. The “sustainable planet” education can offer a way to alleviate the boredom that seems to afflict students and engage them in new discoveries to combat climate change.

The sustainable planet theme will expand the sense of “me” into “us” and the “us-versus-them” into the “us-with-them.” It can provide a compelling moral imperative to set youth on an active search for bending the curve to interrupt and reverse harmful disruptions in their environment.

For example, at the University of California, all 10 campuses partnered to create a Bending the Curve: Climate Solutions education protocol for college students and adults.

We are now embarking on an education protocol for Pre-K to12 students. A network of scientists, educators, NGO,’s and policymakers — all based in California, is endeavoring to put climate change education at the forefront of how we train teachers and how we teach the next generation of students about our sustainable planet.   Above all, we will expand the opportunities for every student to learn about climate change and to act on what they are learning effectively and for the common good of paving the way for a sustainable planet.

It is by nurturing socio-emotional learning, the values and virtues of engaged citizenship, and by imparting the basic skills to prepare youth for a changing world that schools and colleges become meaningful vehicles for collective empowerment and positive social action. Schools and colleges must endeavor to instill in youth humane sensibilities, empathy, communication and collaboration skills, higher-order cognitive skills for critical thinking, as well as the metacognitive abilities to become lifelong learners, civic agents and environmental warriors. They are crying for it.  Will we listen?

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan is a distinguished professor of climate sciences at the University of California at San Diego, holds UCSD’s Frieman Presidential Chair in Climate Sustainability and chairs UC’s Climate Solutions Education Protocol for college students and adults.His also a council member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican, advising Pope Francis.

Tags Climate change climate protest Education Environment Marcelo Suárez-Orozco Pope Francis V. Ramanathan

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