(Mostly borrowed) thoughts on Hope, Climate Change, and K-12 Education.

Science is a bit like the joke about the drunk who is looking under a lamppost for a key that he has lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is. It has no other choice.” – Noam Chomsky

“…Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame[1]” – Romans 5:3-5a (NIV)

We’re coming off the Easter/Passover weekend, which almost everyone (not just those of the Judeo-Christian tradition) knows to be all about hope. It’s easy these days to be a bit jaded about hope, and to dismiss it as hopelessly (!) mired in simplistic platitudes. Chances are good you’re looking for a more-nuanced view, reflecting 21st-century-world realities: rampant distrust all peoples seem to hold in each other, in their leaders and their institutions (no branch of government or sector of human activity seems immune); systematic racism; endemic poverty; terrorism and war; widespread environmental degradation; and so much more. Well, then – try this NYT guest essay by Esau McCaulley entitled On Hope, Hate and the Most Radical Claim of the Easter Season. (To whet interest), it starts out this way: Easter has never been my favorite church service. Shouting “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” requires an emotional crescendo my melancholy temperament can’t easily manage

(a bit later the author continues) …I have never been a big fan of hope. It’s a demanding emotion that insists on changing you. Hope pulls you out of yourself and into the world, forcing you to believe more is possible. Hate is a much less insistent master; it asks you only to loathe. It is quite happy to have you to itself and doesn’t ask you to go anywhere.

Growing up poor provided me with plenty of opportunities to wallow in that much less complex feeling…

One of the 21st-century challenges that would seem to call for heaps of hope is climate change. Huge in scale, more complex and tangled than our minds can fully comprehend, it is also less tangible than the more immediate concerns of the century listed above. And if we’re all wallowing in Esau’s McCaulley’s easy grip of hate, with its polarization and division, it’s hard to imagine coping strategies that will get us where we need to be.

But some folks are trying. My daughter brought this post to my attention (thank you/good catch!): Why We Need Stories of Climate Optimism. The authors, Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, start out this way: how do we motivate large-scale collective action around a problem that is so complex, abstract, and vast in scale? One of the reasons it feels so impossible is that we have few stories of what a successful transition might look like. Even the most ardent champions of decarbonization sometimes focus more on sounding the alarm than on imagining and mapping out successful outcomes. Without positive climate futures, visions of climate adaptation and resilience that we can work toward, it’s much harder to motivate broad-based efforts for change in the present.

Scientific models and policy trench warfare are insufficient responses to the crisis [emphasis added]. We have to start with imagining our way through it first, and telling stories that inspire hope and action.

 (They then provide a handful of examples to illustrate their point, as well as provide links to their Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.)

An aside: depending on who you ask, you might conclude that hope and optimism are synonyms, or merely semantic cousins. The poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) makes this distinction: “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.” The apostle Paul’s perspective in Romans seems to fit this: hope (in contrast to optimism) does not put us to shame (that is, “disappoint,” the verb used in other translations of the text). Optimism often turns out to be misplaced.

But back to climate change. One piece of the puzzle – K-12 climate change education – offers reason for hope.

(Really, Bill? That’s not what I’m hearing.)

You’re right. Currently, climate change education is not in a good state. The New York Times published a story a few months back entitled What Do American’s Middle Schools Teach About Climate Change? Not Much. Some excerpts:

Climate change is set to transform where students can live and what jobs they’ll do as adults. And yet, despite being one of the most important issues for young people, it appears only minimally in many state middle school science standards nationwide. Florida does not include the topic and Texas dedicates three bullet points to climate change in its 27 pages of standards. More than 40 states have adopted standards that include just one explicit reference to climate change…

…“Middle school is where these kids are starting to get their moral compass and to back that compass up with logic,” said Michael Padilla, a professor emeritus at Clemson University and a former president of the National Science Teachers Association. “So middle school is a classic opportunity to have more focus on climate change.”…

…For those who do receive formal instruction on climate change, it will most likely happen in middle school science classrooms. But many middle school standards don’t explicitly mention climate change, so it falls largely on teachers and individual school districts to find ways to integrate it into lessons, often working against the dual hurdles of limited time and inadequate support.

(the article cites the efforts of one such teacher, Bertha Vazquez, to find a workaround) Ms. Vazquez makes the state’s requirement that she teach energy transfer an opportunity to talk about how wind turbines work. The ecology requirement becomes a chance to discuss the consequences of deforestation.

(but then notes) …her commitment to the subject is not representative of how climate change is taught around the country. Around half of middle school science teachers either don’t cover the subject or spend less than two hours a year on it, according to a survey by the National Center for Science Education.

(still waiting for the hope, Bill).

Okay, here goes. In the spirit of Noam Chomsky’s observation, the science of climate change illuminates possibilities, creates an appetite for more. The science of climate, weather, and water is inherently interesting and serves as a gateway attracting young people to science more broadly. The stereotype of youth and young people is that they’re all about hope. Equally fundamentally, the population of the future, not the current population, will shape our planet’s outcomes. Especially in democracies, a public equipped to identify, evaluate and choose among options for action is a necessary condition for success. Education is inexpensive compared with the costs of rejiggering the way the world does business to make it more sustainable.

Importantly, education is local. This ensures that a diversity of approaches to the climate change challenge will emerge, rather than trending prematurely to some suboptimal but appealing path. It requires widespread participation, not just from educators and schools but from each and every parent, each and every home.

Rapid fire. Each of these ideas requires unpacking. The list isn’t complete by any means. But hopefully (!) it will prompt thought and a spurt of better ideas.

 A final point, stemming from my roots in the American Meteorological Society. The AMS not only has a lot at stake in K-12 climate education, but also a lot to offer. A national and international reach: members from every corner of the globe. Renowned peer-reviewed journals. Scientific conferences. A local footprint: Thousands of subject matter experts, as well as weather enthusiasts. Thousands of teachers. A rich history of weather-, climate-, and water-related educational resources produced by its Education Program. Hundreds of broadcast meteorologists to shine a spotlight on the issues, engage local publics, and more. Local chapters.

Noam Chomsky got us started today. Maybe he can bring us home: “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there is a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.”

[1]Rule number 1 for Biblical scholars is “never pull snippets of verse out of the greater context,” but that’s okay, because this is a blogpost, not Biblical scholarship, and because I’ve given you the link to Romans 5 in its entirety. You don’t have to stop there; the book of Romans makes interesting reading, and it’s not that long…

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