From Copenhagen to Paris: How I Have Changed the Way I Teach About Climate

This weekend, nearly 200 nations adopted the world’s first global climate agreement. While the historic deal is being celebrated around the world as a major step forward, many people feel that the pact is not strong enough. As I try to keep up with social media and news reports from Paris, I am also thinking about what I will say to my students on Monday morning.

Within an hour of the announcement of the climate agreement, I received an email from one of my 10th grade students with a link to a video from Paris. Why would a 15-year-old email his teacher on a Saturday about a breaking news story? While the news from Paris is the culmination of two weeks of intense negotiations, it also comes at the end of a six-week unit on climate change in my Global Leadership class. My student had role-played the Paris Summit in class and last week, wrote a speech directing world leaders to take action. He probably knows more about the Paris Summit than the majority of adults in the United States.

I first taught about climate change in the fall of 2009. That December, leaders from around the world met in Copenhagen for COP15, the 15th UN Climate Change Conference. This was the first time that I had been aware of the UN summits and overall, I knew a lot less about climate change (and how to teach it) than I do today.

In 2009, I taught my students about rising sea levels in Kiribati and Bangladesh, using video clips from the PBS newsmagazine, Now. I leaned on teaching ideas from Facing the Future and Bill Bigelow. We calculated our carbon footprints and talked about ways to reduce them. Toward the end of the climate unit, I asked Molly, one of my students who seemed most interested in climate issues, if she wanted to enter a video contest. ePals.com was asking youth around the world to record a 60-second message to world leaders attending the Copenhagen Summit. Two weeks after uploading the video, we were shocked to learn that Molly’s video was one of fifteen winners out of 27,000 entries. The top fifteen videos were shown to delegates in Copenhagen, including President Obama.

Molly then took the text of her video and sent it to the Seattle Times as a letter to the Editor. It didn’t take long for online commenters to attack. One commenter wrote, “Molly – The problem with the class you are taking is that you don’t have the knowledge needed to discuss the issues you are confronting. It is hubris to think that you can spend two or three weeks on a subject, and know all the nuance and depth of the subject to draw the conclusions that you are drawing.”

Another wrote, “Molly isn’t an adult. She is a teenager. I admire the enthusiasm and raw intelligence. But there is a reason why we send our best and brightest off to college and beyond. There is so much to learn.” Only a couple of commenters challenged these unsettling remarks. One person wrote, “We are lucky to have young people like you who are engaged in critical global issues and thinking about our future.”

Molly posted a couple of thoughtful responses, but when the negative comments continued, I counseled her to ignore them. The next surprise came when a postcard arrived to my mailbox at school. It was official stationary from the U.S. House of Representatives. Jay Inslee, then a Congressman (now Governor of Washington), wrote Molly a postcard while flying to Copenhagen as a delegate to COP15. He wrote that she must keep speaking out and that he admired her leadership. I was amazed. As a social studies teacher, I had always tried to get my students to write letters to their representatives in government. I never imagined that a member of Congress would write one of my students. The experience had an even more profound effect on Molly. She entered our climate change unit thinking that adults would never listen to teenagers. She emerged as a leader with a voice that could not be silenced.

The Copenhagen Summit was a failure. The only thing that world leaders could agree on was that we should not allow a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Looking back, I think that I failed in some ways that year too. Despite the tremendous (and unexpected) success of Molly’s video, my students left my class with a limited understanding of why it is so difficult for countries around the world to agree on climate policy. I taught them that the best way to take action was to drive less, turn off the lights, and eat less meat. We did not talk about the complex political and economic factors that get in the way of real action.

I also felt some pressure that year to present the other side. One of my students that semester argued that human activity was not contributing to climate change. I encouraged him to share his views and to bring in evidence to support his arguments. But facilitating a debate about the causes of climate change was probably the wrong move. Diana Hess, in her book Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion, writes about how teachers sometimes have to determine whether or not an issue is legitimately controversial. She argues that some issues like capital punishment are open and still up for debate. Other issues like women’s suffrage are closed. Closed issues are often still taught, but they are not considered controversial. Some issues are in the process of tipping from open to closed. Current issues in the tip often create the most controversy when they appear in curricula. Hess argues that global warming has already tipped and is now a closed issue. I agree with her (and with 97% percent of the scientific community). Now when I teach about climate change denial, my goal is to help students understand the political polarization of climate change in the United States.

This year, I have many more resources at my disposal than I did six years ago. I still show the videos from Kiribati and Bangladesh – they are too powerful to replace. I still use Facing the Future materials, especially to teach the more sciency parts of the unit. I teach a series of role plays to help students develop empathy for different perspectives on climate change. Most of them can be found in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, a fabulous 2014 book edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. If you pick up the book, check out the Climate Change Mixer, The Thingamabob Game, the Indigenous Peoples’ Summit (“Don’t Take Our Voices Away”), and the Climate Change Trial (“Who’s to Blame for the Climate Crisis”). I show about fifteen minutes from the film Do the Math from Bill McKibben and 350.org to help students understand why it is essential that we leave at least 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground. (If you are not familiar with McKibben’s important work, read his groundbreaking 2012 article in Rolling Stone.) I also use pieces of the new climate unit from the Choices Program, which ends with a simulation of the UN Climate Change Conference.

My unit culminated with students writing a speech. Some of them argued that wealthy nations like the United States, because they have long histories of using fossil fuels, should take greater responsibility for addressing climate change. Others argued that all countries, wealthy and poor, should share responsibility. They supported their arguments with evidence drawn from a packet of documents that I provided. We broke down Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech to the United Nations from September 2014 as a way to outline an effective structure for their speeches. I also told them Molly’s story from 2009, explaining that adults might actually listen to them when they speak their minds about critical global issues. Students organized their ideas, wrote their speeches, and are now filming videos of themselves delivering their messages to world leaders.

Six years ago, I emphasized individual actions as the best way to address the climate change problem. While lowering our personal carbon footprints is important, without major systemic change, climate change will only speed up. My students this year understand how fossil fuel companies have put profit over progress. They understand why it is important to have indigenous peoples’ voices at the table when climate agreements are drafted. And they understand the role that collective action can play in pressuring world leaders to lower carbon emissions. As a bonus, they learned how to write an argumentative speech. I am excited to go back to school on Monday to hear my students’ thoughts on the climate agreement. Will they be satisfied? My guess is that we will still be sending some videos of their speeches to the White House.

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