How to Teach Climate Change Without Terrifying Your Students

Jul 10, 2016

After a year in Bertha Vazquez’s class at George Washington Carver Middle School, 13-year-old Penny Richards says she reads climate news while she rides the bus to school.

Richards and  20-odd seventh graders sit transfixed as Vasquez tries to tease out the difference between the greenhouse effect and global warming by tossing out absurd half-truths. “Carbon dioxide’s completely harmless,”  Vazquez says. Should we ban Coca Cola because of the carbonation?

Penny’s hand shoots up. “The greenhouse effect”—which keeps our planet warm enough for life to survive—”is completely natural,” she counters. “With mining fossil fuels, you’re taking something out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere.”

 

These days, big questions about energy use and ecological balance punctuate  Vazquez’s classes throughout the year. Her students meet climate scientists and calculate how many desalination plants it would take to turn rising seas into a sustainable source of fresh water (too many).


But Vazquez didn’t always teach this way. “For many years, I covered the basic standard, probably like most people in the country do, because this is not something we learned when we were in school.”

As for that standard, Vazquez says, “If you really wanted to, you could take care of it in a couple days.” In fact, a study in the journal Science this spring found that half of U.S. science teachers spend less than two hours on climate change each year.

 

Then Vazquez saw former Vice President Al Gore speak at the University of Miami at a screening of An Inconvenient Truth, “And it really, it really, really, really, hit me. This is 2007 and, I've got to tell you, I lost sleep”—for precisely one night.

The next day, Vazquez resolved to do more to teach her students about climate change. George Washington Carver Middle School is in Coral Gables, a mile from Biscayne Bay and just eight feet above sea level; several of the surrounding neighborhoods are actually even lower.  

By the time her students were adults with families of their own, Vasquez thought,  storm surges could mean waves lapping at their front doors. “If we just despair, if we just start worrying, it leads to inactivity. So I thought, if I, if they’re doing positive things, it will be helpful,” she says.

 

That work started with the school itself. On a walk around campus, Vasquez points out improvements her students had lobbied for or installed themselves: smart thermostats and more efficient light bulbs, reflective white paint on the roof to keep the building cooler.

Maria Ojala is a psychologist and researcher at Uppsala University, in Sweden who studies how learning about climate change affects young people’s emotions. Ojala’s surveys and interviews find that responses often fall into two groups: one, where people become focused on the negative emotions climate change often inspires—that often breeds depression and lack of interest—and a second, where people fixate on the magnitude of the problem.  

You can't depress the hell out of them if you want them to start looking for solutions. In class, I put on my happy face. - Bertha Vasquez

In either case, she says, adults are often tempted to “come up with those simple solutions to evoke hope, and the young just get more cynical.”

“It’s extremely important to take young peoples' emotions seriously,” Ojala says, but also to try for what she calls a meaning-based approach: one that gives students an outlet for their fears and for their will to be a part of a solution at multiple levels. They must see the role individuals play not just in small fixes like weatherstripping and insulation but in big technological changes and political movements.

 

In her classes, Bertha Vazquez says she’s trying to balance out the fears a serious reading of climate science can inspire with a kind of measured optimism. “In your lifetime, you’re going to see a sea change,” Vazquez explains to her students at the end of class. “I don’t want you all to walk out of here like, ‘Woe is me, it’s going to be over!’”

Her teaching draws on examples of past environmental successes—like the 1980s campaign to save the ozone layer—to show what collective action can accomplish, and she highlights news of China’s investments in renewable energy.

Privately, though, she acknowledges a certain cognitive dissonance in teaching about the onset of a planet-sized crisis through an optimistic lens. Some scientists have projected that climate change will threaten a quarter of the world’s land-based species with extinction in the next 40 years.

With a deep sigh, Vazquez returns to the point that her students are still kids: “You can’t depress the hell out of them….if you want them to start looking for solutions.” She says.” So I don’t really go there. Do I feel that way personally? Yes...but in class I put on my happy face.”

 

The pivotal moment in Vazquez’s class often comes when her students open an app called Eyes on the Rise, where you can plug in addresses and learn how far you are above sea level. One kid will say, “‘I’m 10 feet above sea level. I’m going to be OK,’” Vazquez explains. “I’ll say ‘yeah, you’ll be on a little hill, but what about everybody else around you?’ We’re all in this boat together.”

 

For students like seventh grader Penny Richards—the one who reads climate news on the bus—that’s a sobering moment. “Miami’s basically at sea level. I live next to a canal,” she reasons. “Life as we know it, we’re going to have to move to an entirely different setting soon if we don’t do something about this, because my entire neighborhood will be under water.”

 

The operative phrase there, of course, is “do something:” Richards and her classmates think we can.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Bertha Vazquez' last name. She is Ms. Vazquez, not Vasquez.