The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Author: Jessica Dodick Fields

A Changing Cuba

Since December 17, 2014, when Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations after over fifty years without any diplomatic ties, Cuba has dominated U.S. headlines. Some people see this historic shift as the latest in a series of short, dramatic periods of change that characterize Cuban history—starting with Cuba’s struggles for independence from Spain and U.S. occupation at the turn of the twentieth century to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that continues to this day. These people view Cuba as a “place frozen in time,” characterized by vintage cars and crumbling buildings. But in reality, Cuba is constantly changing.

Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow

“Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow.” Bruce McCall, The New Yorker.

For instance, Netflix received a lot of attention earlier this year for announcing that it would make its TV and movie streaming service available in Cuba. The announcement was one of the first from many U.S. companies lining up to do business in Cuba as U.S. restrictions are lifted. As many critics noted, the Netflix announcement was primarily symbolic, for only about 5 percent of Cubans currently have full access to the global internet. Furthermore, Netflix would cost users $7.99 per month, which is almost half of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

But less well-known is that Cubans have been watching shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black for years, albeit illegally. Despite limited access to internet and outside media (both due to government censorship and the U.S. embargo), Cuban citizens have developed various strategies for accessing the news and entertainment they want. Many Cubans pay a small fee to receive what is called El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet), an external hard drive containing downloaded newspapers, movies, TV shows, music, sports, magazines, and other content produced in countries around the world. A new paquete is produced at the end of every week. Some have called this creative way of accessing media Cuba’s “offline internet.”

In addition to initiatives like el paquete that come from the Cuban people, the government has been making changes that originated well before negotiations to restore relations with the United States began. Since becoming Cuba’s president in 2008 after his brother Fidel stepped down from a nearly 50-year hold on power, Raúl Castro has passed a number of significant reforms, gradually but fundamentally transforming the Cuban economy and society. In this video interview with Choices, former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Bustamante discusses some of these many reforms.

 

[mediacore height=”225″ public_url=”https://brown.mediacore.tv/media/what-economic-changes-did-raul-castro-make-when-he-became-president-of-cuba” thumb_url=”https://mediacorefiles-a.akamaihd.net/sites/11066/images/media/3622825l-AnZZfq0Z.jpg” title=”What economic changes did Raúl Castro make when he became president of Cuba in 2008?” width=”400″]

 

While the recent shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is indeed a major turning-point for Cuba, the country—both its people and its government—has not been idly waiting for the United States to change its policies before making changes of its own. Yet many questions remain about what Cuba’s future holds. How will the economic changes in Cuba affect ordinary Cubans across the island? Will these economic reforms be paired with greater political freedoms? Will Cubans still have access to free health care and education? How will Cuba relate to other countries, particularly the United States?

 

History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for CubaChoices new curriculum History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for Cuba helps students understand Cuba’s most recent economic, social, and political changes with a historical framework stretching back to the country’s precolonial past. The curriculum puts special emphasis on the many perspectives Cubans on the island have about their country’s history and its future.

Young People Take Action on Climate Change

“Coming here today, I have no hidden agenda. I am fighting for my future. Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market. I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard. I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go. We cannot afford to be not heard.”

—Severn Suzuki, 1992

In 1992, thirteen-year-old Severn Suzuki spoke at the largest gathering of international leaders in history—the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—and she quickly became known as “the girl who silenced the world in five minutes.”  Her words helped put the issue of global climate change on the UN agenda.

The Earth Summit set in motion a series of international climate change conferences that continue to this day, with a major conference coming up this year. December 2015 is the deadline for international leaders to settle a new, binding international agreement on emissions reductions to prevent the most dangerous effects of climate change.

Now, more than twenty years after Severn Suzuki urged leaders from around the world to consider the importance of environmental issues, a new generation of young people is demanding that policy makers take action on climate change. In this video, fourteen-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and his younger brother Itzcuauhtli share their perspectives on their work to build a global network of teens fighting for greener policies and why climate change matters. The two indigenous activists are youth leaders of the organization Earth Guardians.

Note: Teachers should preview this video in advance before showing it to their students. Some language may not be appropriate for the classroom.

Xiuhtezcatl and Itzcuauhtli’s work is inspiring—they are models for the power that young people can have in creating change both at a local and global scale. Xiuhtezcatl and Itzcuauhtli are not alone—young people around the world are pushing for their societies to make positive changes that will help protect the environment. In this new video from the Choices Program, climate change experts discuss some of the many ways young people can take action on climate change.

[mediacore height=”225″ public_url=”https://brown.mediacore.tv/media/what-can-young-people-do-to-take-action-on-climate” thumb_url=”https://mediacorefiles-a.akamaihd.net/sites/11066/images/media/3533930l-8KS-cpf6.jpg” title=”What can young people do to take action on climate change?” width=”400″]

For more videos on climate change from the Choices Program, click here.

Each of these videos would provide a great jumping off point for discussing climate change in the classroom. Because climate change is often talked about as having potentially catastrophic effects, thinking about it can feel overwhelming and hopeless. But these videos, without downplaying the seriousness of climate change, focus on how much we can do to combat climate change and emphasize tangible steps that individuals and societies can take. This approach is crucial to keeping students engaged with the issue.

 

Climate Change and Questions of JusticeChoices has a suite of new resources on climate change. We have recently released our unit Climate Change and Questions of Justice, which is available in both print and digital formats. One of the lessons in the unit asks students to work in groups to design their own NGO to address their top concerns about climate change. The students then create a visual or multimedia publicity tool for their organization.

In addition, we have a fresh collection of videos to complement the readings and lessons included in the unit. These videos feature leading climate change experts discussing why climate change matters; who is most responsible for and vulnerable to climate change; how individuals, local governments, NGOs, and international leaders are responding to climate change; and much more.

Can We Trust Iran?

“If the nuclear crisis is ever to get resolved, now is the time for it to get resolved.”

—Payam Mohseni, Director of Iran Project, Harvard University

With the deadline for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program drawing near, The New York Times put out a video today outlining what is at stake in the Iran negotiations.

 

What's at Stake in the Iran Negotiations

 

As the video makes clear, reaching a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is a challenge, and violence is a real possibility if the negotiations fail. Domestic politics in both the United States and Iran presents huge obstacles, as do conflicts and instability in numerous other parts of the Middle East. But the video seems to claim that the core issue facing U.S. negotiators is whether the United States can trust Iran (and vice versa—whether Iran can trust the United States).

Lesley University Professor Jo-Anne Hart, an expert in U.S. and Iranian security issues, takes issue with this claim. In this video interview with the Choices Program, she argues that international agreements are never based on trust.

 

 

So which is it? Is trust the key ingredient to international relations or is it just an easy framework to latch onto when trying to understand exceedingly complex issues? What are the implications if we understand negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program as based on legally enforceable agreements instead of just on trust?

Choices has multiple curriculum resources to help students grapple with these questions. Our free online lesson Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue pushes students to explore, debate, and evaluate multiple perspectives on U.S. policy toward Iran and its nuclear program. In addition, we have just released a new edition of our full-length curriculum unit The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy, in which students analyze the history of Iran’s nuclear program as well as other pressing issues in the region, including the significance of oil, the rise of ISIS, the U.S. relationship with Israel, and instability in Yemen.

 

How Do We Know the Climate is Changing?

“You will never see a headline that says ‘Climate change broke out today.’”

—Andrew Revkin, New York Times reporter, 2007

Scientists around the world are confident that human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are drastically changing the climate. They draw this conclusion from a broad collection of evidence, including that:

  • over the past decade, sea levels have risen at almost double the rate that they have over the last century.
  • records starting in 1880 (when scientists started recording global average surface temperature) have shown that the earth is warming and that most of this warming has occurred since 1970. The ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1997, with 2014 being the warmest year of all.
  • glaciers around the world are rapidly retreating and ice sheets are shrinking. Glaciers have lost a total of roughly 400 billion tons of mass each year since 1994.
  • surface ocean waters have become about 30 percent more acidic since the start of the Industrial Revolution (oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide humans emit into the atmosphere, and as a result, become more acidic).
NASA

NASA

Despite the overwhelming evidence (and the findings listed above represent only the tip of the iceberg—no pun intended), it can be hard to understand and visualize the impacts of climate change. It is easy to see and feel the weather on a given day—if it’s sunny, rainy, snowy, hot, humid, etc.—but changes in the climate involve significant shifts in temperature, rainfall, wind, and other environmental factors that occur over decades or more. We can’t say whether the climate is changing based on our own observations over the course of days, months, or even years. So while scientists can study temperature records that have been collected over decades or more, how can the broader public get a clear picture of what “climate change” actually means?

Many artists have started to play an important role in helping to increase public awareness and understanding of climate change’s impacts. Some have turned to film—like Greenpeace’s Postcards from Climate Change, Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, and Ben Kalina’s Shored Up. Others, like David Arnold at Double Exposure, have used photography to show climate change’s dramatic but often unseen effects. Arnold returns to the sites of historic photographs of coral reefs and glaciers, some from as early as the 1930s, and replicates the original photos. Double Exposure then pairs the new and old photos together so viewers can see how each environment has changed over time.

Coral Reefs

Corals and the huge diversity of organisms they support are important in the fishing and tourism industries, and coral reefs also provide natural barriers that protect coastal communities from storms and floods. Yet, climate change poses a significant threat to corals—both through coral bleaching (a serious coral disease caused by increasing ocean temperatures) and ocean acidification, which reduces coral’s ability to grow and recover from damage and disease.

South Carysfort Reef, Florida Keys

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South Carysfort, Florida Keys—Before

South Carysfort, Florida Keys—After

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Before photo: Bill Harrigan, 1980. Used with permission. After photo: David Arnold, 2011. Used with permission.

Discovery Bay, Jamaica

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Discovery Bay, Jamaica—Before

Discovery Bay, Jamaica—After

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Before photo: Jim Porter, 1970. Used with permission. After photo: David Arnold, 2011. Used with permission.

Glaciers

Glaciers are a major provider of freshwater, both for drinking and for electricity generation, and also play a role in global climate regulation. But increases in temperature associated with climate change are causing them to melt rapidly. This raises ocean levels, threatening coastal communities around the world.

Valdez, Alaska

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Valdez, Alaska—Before

Valdez, Alaska—After

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Before photo: © Bradford Washburn, 1938 Courtesy of Archives, University of Alaska. Used with permission. After photo: © David Arnold, 2007. Used with permission.

Heney, Alaska

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Heney, Alaska—Before

Heney, Alaska—After

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Before photo: © Bradford Washburn, 1937. Taken on June 18, 1932 at noon. Used with permission. After photo: © David Arnold, 2007. Taken on September 13, 2006 at noon. Used with permission.

There are many barriers to responding to climate change. It can be expensive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially since fossil fuels are currently the cheapest form of energy to produce and use. Historical tensions and vast inequality in power, wealth, and greenhouse gas emissions between countries of the global North and the global South complicate international climate change negotiations. Local political disputes, including the denial of broadly accepted climate change science along partisan lines in the U.S. Congress, make reaching significant mitigation and adaptation agreements challenging. But despite these barriers, artistic efforts like Arnold’s can help to inspire individuals to take action in their own lives, facilitate a more widespread understanding of the importance of climate change, and build enough political will for governments to take strong action to curb the effects of climate change.

 

Climate Change and Questions of JusticeFor more on the causes and effects of climate change, as well as how to respond, check out our new full-length unit Climate Change and Questions of Justice. Lessons include opportunities for students to analyze countries’ greenhouse gas emissions data, the ways climate change impacts individual species, and how climate change policies are depicted in the media.

A lesson from the unit was also featured in the Jan/Feb issue of Social Education.

 

More photographs, as well as an extensive collection of additional resources on climate change’s effects on glaciers and coral reefs, can be found at Double Exposure’s website.

Why Does Climate Change Matter?

That the climate is changing, and that human activity is playing a substantial role in accelerating that change, is not a new discovery. About one hundred years ago, a Swedish chemist first calculated how human emissions of greenhouse gases might influence global average temperatures. At the Earth Summit in 1992—the largest gathering of international leaders in history—government officials from around the world agreed that climate change was a shared and dangerous problem. Why, then, has it taken so long for widespread public concern about this important issue to grow?

Historically, climate change has often been framed as an environmental issue—an issue that would drastically affect the lives of polar bears, migration routes of birds, habitat ranges of trees, melting of ice caps, and more. But why all of these changes matter to people hasn’t always been emphasized. In reality, humans rely on a multitude of services that plants, animals, and nature provide for our homes, health, and livelihoods. In the following video, Brown Professor Dov Sax discusses some of the reasons why climate change matters to people.

In addition, many of the countries that are historically most responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change are least vulnerable to its effects. Poorer countries, which generally have less capacity to take action and respond, are experiencing the effects of climate change first and worst. These dynamics make it harder to motivate wealthier countries to take significant action on climate change. The following cartograms (maps distorted to reflect a dataset) and captions from carbonmap.org help illustrate this gap between responsibility for and vulnerability to climate change.

Countries by Land Area

Countries by Land Area

Country sizes in this map show actual land area. Most world maps don’t show this accurately as it isn’t possible to represent the globe as a flat map without compromising on either shape or area.

Countries by Wealth

Countries by Wealth

Country sizes in this map show total GDP (2013), the sum of all the economic activity in each nation. The map is dominated by North America and Western Europe, which account for more than half the world’s GDP, despite being home to less than a fifth of the global population.

Countries by Historical Emissions

Countries by Historical Emissions

Country sizes in this map show CO₂ emissions from energy use 1850-2011. These historical (or “cumulative”) emissions remain relevant because CO₂ can remain in the air for centuries. Europe and the US dominate, having released around half the CO₂ ever emitted.

Countries by the Number of People at Risk

Countries by the Number of People at Risk

Country sizes show the number of people injured, left homeless, displaced or requiring emergency assistance due to floods, droughts or extreme temperatures in a typical year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate many of these threats.

These maps show that broadly, the countries that have contributed least to the problem of climate change are home to the most people at risk and have the least financial capacity to respond. As a result of these global disparities in responsibility and vulnerability, some environmental activists are now approaching climate change as an issue of justice. In this video, Brown Professor J. Timmons Roberts explains what this idea of “climate justice” means.

This new approach to how we think about climate change may help increase the urgency with which we view this issue. Indeed, attention to climate change has surged in recent years. This past September, the People’s Climate March drew over 400,000 people into the streets of New York City for the largest climate march in history. Over 2,600 additional events in 162 countries took place on the same day, all intended to send a message to international leaders that they must take significant action to slow and reduce the effects of climate change.

Since then, the United States and China announced a joint emissions reduction agreement—China’s first ever commitment to cap its carbon dioxide emissions. At the December Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Lima, Peru, governments from all countries—rich and poor alike—agreed for the first time to voluntarily create plans to reduce their domestic greenhouse gas emissions. In U.S. President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, climate change got quite a bit of air time. Obama appears committed to making action on climate change a key part of his presidential legacy.

All of this attention is leading up to the Paris, France COP in December 2015—the deadline for international leaders to settle a new, binding international agreement on emissions reductions to prevent the most dangerous effects of climate change.

How should the international community respond to climate change in a way that is both fair and effective? What roles can local governments, organizations, and individuals play in responding to this global problem? Should responses focus on preventing future greenhouse gas emissions or on adapting to the effects climate change is already having? What is the relationship between economic development and combating climate change?

 

Climate Change and Questions of JusticeChallenge students to grapple with these questions with our new full-length unit Climate Change and Questions of Justice. Students will explore the causes and effects of global warming and delve into questions of who is most responsible for and vulnerable to the changing climate.

The Umbrella Movement and Trends of Modern Protest

Over the past five years, we have seen a surge of public uprisings around the world. From Tunis, Cairo, and Madrid to Istanbul, Kiev, and Caracas, people have turned to public protest and civil disobedience to express frustration with their countries’ distinct social, economic, and political states.

The Choices Program has just published a new Teaching with the News lesson on the recent prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong. The protests have emerged in response to the Chinese government’s announcement that although it will allow universal suffrage in the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, voters will only be able to choose among two or three candidates selected by a nominating committee. Protesters fear that the Chinese government will use this nominating committee to ensure that only pro-Beijing candidates enter the election process.

Protesters gathered in downtown Hong Kong earlier this month. (Pasu Au Yeung, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

In what ways is Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement” similar to and different from other civil disobedience demonstrations that have emerged in recent years? In a video interview for our Scholars Online collection, Brown Professor Melani Cammett discusses some of the broad issues that contributed to the wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world in 2010-2011.

As has been the case with the revolutions in the Arab world, protesters in Hong Kong are demanding more democratic freedoms from their government—specifically, in this case, the right to democratically nominate and elect their government leader. Economic inequality within Hong Kongese society and frustrations among highly educated young people about challenges finding work and housing are also contributing to public discontent. In addition, like in the Arab revolutions, the Hong Kong protests are comprised of large numbers of young people—many of whom are still too young to vote.

But despite these similarities, there are stark differences between the protest movements. Many of the Arab countries that experienced mass revolutions beginning in 2010 and 2011 suffer from widespread poverty and government corruption. In contrast, Hong Kong is China’s economic hub and has become known for its “clean and corruption-free” government. Furthermore, many of the Arab revolutions demanded and ultimately resulted in the overthrow of authoritarian leaders from countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The Hong Kong protests, on the other hand, are centered primarily around one aspect of election policy in Hong Kong. While protesters have expressed a desire for Hong Kong’s chief executive, CY Leung, to step down, they are not attempting any sort of revolution to change the government structure of China as a whole. In fact, the Hong Kongese prodemocracy group Occupy Central has been vocal about its desire to be called a “movement” as opposed to a “revolution.” They are decidedly nonviolent and the scope of their demands is limited.

Moreover, many of the initially peaceful protests in the Arab world have resulted in tragically violent conflicts and harsh government repression—most strikingly in the case of Syria and its descent into a brutal civil war. While the Chinese government has not expressed any willingness to meet protesters’ demands for open public nomination of Hong Kong’s chief executive, a peaceful dialogue has already begun between government officials and student protest leaders.

Comparing the current protests in Hong Kong with one specific protest movement, like the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey, can also help to illuminate common tools and tactics of modern protests. In another Scholars Online video interview, Barbara Petzen, an education consultant specializing in how to teach about the Middle East, discusses creative ways Turkish protesters responded to media censorship during the Gezi Park protests.

While what triggered the Gezi Park protests and Hong Kong’s protests are different, there are similarities in how the government responded to each as well as in the strategies protesters used to get their messages across. Like in the case of Turkey, the Chinese government has censored many news and media outlets in response to the recent protests. In China, the press has depicted Hong Kong protesters as extremists who threaten the unity of China, and the government has shut down social media sites like Instagram. This government censorship has impacted how mainland Chinese view the protests in Hong Kong. In addition, censoring posts on Weibo (a site similar to Twitter) has affected the ability of protesters to communicate with each other. This has prompted creative solutions—for instance, many protesters in Hong Kong have been using alternative social media apps, like FireChat, that do not rely on the internet.

In addition, both the Gezi Park protesters and Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protesters have used strong symbolism in getting their messages across. Whether a spray-painted penguin with a gas mask in the case of Gezi Park or a trash collection bin emblazoned with the number 689 (the number of votes current Hong Kong chief executive received from China’s electoral committee) in Hong Kong, protesters have demonstrated ingenuity and creativity.

KeithPictures (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Hong Kong protesters have received international attention for regularly cleaning protest sites and setting up recycling centers. Many trash bags and cans have signs attached with messages such as “Throw out your 689 here” and “689! General waste.” (KeithPictures, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

Learning about the Hong Kong democracy protests can help students think about the role of mass public action in politics and grapple with the question of how protests in varied places and times can be both similar and different. How and why do public protests arise? What tactics do protesters use? Are there clear leaders of civil disobedience movements? What relationship do protesters have with government officials and police? What role do technology and social media play—both for the protesters and for the governments they are demonstrating against? What does it mean for a protest to be “successful”?

 

Check out Choices’ new free lesson on the Hong Kong protests, and for more on the history of China’s political development, see the unit China on the World Stage: Weighing the U.S. Response.

 

Some Choices units that deal with the theme of public protest and enfranchisement:

More FREE Teaching with the News lessons on uprisings:

And look out for our new unit on experiencing and responding to climate change, coming soon!

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