The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Tag: Climate Change

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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