Sunday, October 21, 2018

Climate Change Education: Maybe Too Little, Too Late?

I've been teaching about climate change since I started teaching in 1991. Back then, most students just laughed, and I came across as a crazy person. I was fine with that mainly because my favourite teacher from high school was also seen as a bit looney. Thinking the bearers of bad news insane is a handy defence from a difficult reality.

In the early 80s, my old history teacher, immersed as he was in details of war, turned his basement into a bunker with 2' concrete walls and a two year supply of food and water, just in case. He'd show us, on a globe, that Canada was smack dab in the middle of the U.S. - U.S.S.R. conflict, and if we lived through a nuclear strike, we'd be scrounging for clean food and water for years. The fear of that potential sat at the back of my head until the mutual disarmament started. Whew! Dodged that missile! (Except, not so fast....) I wasn't openly troubled at the time, but I do continue to blame Reagan's election for my teenaged drug experimentation. How could we possibly make it with that cowboy in command? In hindsight, it could be argued that he wasn't nearly as bad as what we're dealing with now. That's not good news.

In the early 90s, most students thought climate change was a hoax despite my well researched and carefully compiled data to the contrary, and some tried to soothe my concerns, genuinely worried that I had been sucked into a conspiracy theory. It was 15 years of slogging through a sea of profound disbelief until Al Gore's movie finally opened some eyes. An Inconvenient Truth changed everything - for a little while. We had the smallest of windows to get things going, and we failed. When the time was finally ripe for action, we had Bush and Harper at the helm.

And then that moment of belief and concern and burgeoning action largely went away again for about a decade. Since the widespread sharing of the most recent IPCC report that suggests we've got about a dozen years to turn things around before we're completely out of options, lots of regular people are suddenly paying attention again.

Some students still think that climate change is a myth started by companies to sell green products using the same methods Nestle used to sell water bottles: they convinced the masses that we don't absorb any water from food or beverages, so we need to drink 8 glasses of water a day but never from the toxic tap in our homes. They created a multi-million dollar scam that most people fell for. Some people still won't drink tap water despite the reality that it's far more regulated than the bottled water industry. But people with any wherewithal or common sense could look up reputable studies on necessary water consumption and tap water regulations and easily see the lies. This is different. The top climate scientists in the world agree that we have a serious problem. People can easily look up the research.

Yes, absolutely, some companies are using this current reality to try to make a buck. But most reputable scientists will tell you we can't buy our way out of this problem, that consumerism has to stop and that includes greenwashed products. No company would propagate a myth that we should stop buying anything that's not absolutely necessary. It's definitely the case that companies are making products to profit if off climate change, but that's not evidence that climate change doesn't exist. That's evidence of corporations benefiting from a traumatic event, something we should be used to by now. And absolutely any shift in consumerism that actually takes place will affect the economy. We didn't always follow an economic growth model, and we can't continue on this way. There are alternatives.

Now that we're at a very critical point of no return, if not completely past it, teachers have finally been sent curriculum and lesson plans, from Ingenium, to help talk to students about climate change. The lesson plans start with brainstorming what we think we can do about it. If my classes are any indication, many people really think littering is a significant contributor. I hit the last straw (ha!) when someone used examples of littering as mitigating factors on a test, and I wrote and posted a poem to help them remember, but they still forget (or just can't possibly hear it). The Ingenium site links to a useful site that demonstrates flaws in the denialist arguments. As a proponent of direct instruction, I'm not big on all the brainstorming and word cloud creations, but at least this huge dilemma is becoming a bigger part of our lessons.

More importantly, for the first time ever I feel like I have overt permission to discuss this in class. I have had students question my discussions because it can be upsetting just to consider the idea that, as George Monbiot suggests in Heat, this will be the last generation to luxuriate in long, hot showers. Just considering the privations we'll have to attempt is too much for some teenagers. I don't even much touch on what the world will look like if we don't. Now I feel like I can.

I think, for students, it will be like it was with me in the cold war. I largely ignored it, but there was a tiny bit that got in and made me worried. If I avoided the news it would quiet down a bit. In the 80s, ignoring it all was fine. We no longer have that luxury. All the legal pot and free beer won't mitigate that reality.

Here's the thing: some scholars think we have to abandon any misplaced notion that we can still avert disaster. The best we can do at this point is to postpone the inevitable. However, prolonging our future for a few more decades isn't nothing. Jem Bendell's "paper’s key point — that the velocity of climate change appears to have shifted so dramatically upward since 2014 that its progression is no longer 'linear' — aligns with other mainstream research." We had a window that closed, and now we have to deal with the consequences. We've ignored it too long for the option to turn it around through GHG cuts or technological fixes, and our only option left is Deep Adaptation:
"He has a three-part strategy in mind. It starts with that “resilience” component that everybody is already behind — seawalls and reinforced roofing, etc. . . .  a second stage of “relinquishment” (giving up treasured things that make climate chaos worse, like present-day living standards and homes that overlook the ocean). And then a third: “restoration” of cultural values and practices “that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded”: Examples include re-wilding landscapes, so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play, and increased community-level productivity and support."
A reporter from Australia describes the corporate and political system that got us here as a form of crimes against humanities:
"A small number of insanely wealthy individuals and immensely powerful corporations are making out like bandits from the business of pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They don’t much feel like stopping. . . . if human civilisation somehow survives this existential threat, climate-change denial will come to be thought of the way postwar Germany conceived of holocaust denial; an intolerable danger. . . . But time is running out. Twelve years, according to this latest IPCC report. To put that in context, we have a lot less than half the time The Simpsons have been on air before we may as well just give up and start lobbing nukes at each other over the last few drops of clean drinking water and arable land. But they have to stop, or be stopped."
If this weren't bad enough, we're also running out of oxygen. We've got several centuries left, so it's not as urgent an issue, but the quality of the air we're breathing sure is. I once wrote a short story about four elderly residents of a retirement centre who were the last survivors in the area because they were all breathing from oxygen tanks. I'm horrible at story writing, and I failed to finish it because I got too swept away researching what the world would look like with too much sulphur dioxide and not enough oxygen in the air and whether or not solar panels would continue to work to continue to have electricity in the centre and how oxygen tanks even work, but it was really going to be a vehicle to explore various philosophies of death and dying. I'll make a comprehensive chart one day (that's more my speed), so we can each identify our attitude of choice for our remaining time here.

And then there's the fact that mammals can't evolve fast enough keep up with the extinction of the species.

Absolutely, we should be discussing this in schools, and, much more so than my old history teacher, we'd be very wise to take some real life precautions, but I'm in a different place on the climate change education curve. I'm not sure it matters that the next generations mind maps their thoughts on some pretty images, or play some games that explore their individual footprint. They should definitely aim to reduce their own impact: forgo that pivotal first car purchase as a measure of adulthood, learn to tolerate the heat instead of blasting the A/C, and understanding the importance of meat-free meals. It would be really useful to teach them all how to grow and preserve their own food and how to fix their own clothes (and the general attitude that fixes things instead of throwing them away). But most importantly, we need to teach them how to take to the streets to force a much more pivotal change in the direction we're headed. If we can't get Trump and Trudeau to really get involved, then I can't see how we'll possibly turn this corner.

ETA - And then I just read activist Bill McKibben's article about getting death threats. I'll give him the last word:
"It was, in this case, a public call for someone to murder me, and not long afterward another commenter, 'Carbon Bigfoot,' supplied my home address. All of which stopped me cold. I thought I was inured to social media abuse. But this was something new: a calm public discussion about how to find me and what to do to me. . . . 207 environmentalists or defenders were killed last year around the world. . . . What does it say about a society when people just routinely call for the killing of those they disagree with? . . . A society in which critics fear death is a society with fewer critics, and hence with fewer chances for change."

Monday, October 8, 2018

Can We Turn This Corner?

September is always a busy month for me, and typically I don't get the luxury of reading the news significantly, but this time was different. It's been a car crash that I just can't stop looking at. When the Charter was first developed in Canada, largely a spin off of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, it seemed like we turned a corner with respect to human rights. It seemed like we were on a linear progression that would, bit by bit, get better and better. For sure there would be times it would slip back and have to be propped up again, keeping the quest for free speech at the expense of individual rights at bay, but I didn't expect it to be dismissed. And then, next door, we came to the harsh conclusion that they believed a woman's depiction of sexual assault, but they Just. Don't. Care.


Conservatives are winning elections everywhere, but not the normal types of fiscal conservatives that just want to lower taxes so we can benefit from a bit more cash in our pockets, but hateful, discriminatory radical right wingnuts who hang out with white nationalists or want to ban religious symbols for public servants or so much worse, like Brazil's Bolsonaro whose solution to poverty is to allow police to indiscriminately murder suspected criminals.

A B.C. teacher was called to the carpet to justify a civics survey (likely abridged from The Political Compass, which I also use) because the survey associated the right wing end of the spectrum with racism. The school board has assured the parent that the worksheet won't be used again because, of course, racism comes in all kind of boxes. But that's true of everything that we look at to deduce where we are on the political spectrum. Is it just a stereotype that the far right have a prejudicial agenda, or is that a legitimate claim? At least one set of studies suggests there's a correlation between conservative values and discriminating attitudes. Isn't it becoming clear from recent events that voting conservative is more likely to result in more overtly discriminatory policies on the books, or did I just imagine that? And, are we not allowed to make this connection in a classroom? Of course not all conservatives are prejudiced, but if MPs and MPPs continue to follow the party line, and their leader is racist, then that reflects on the entire party.

BUT none of that seems to matter nearly as much as climate change. Well, actually, it all really, really matters because, as I've said over and over here, we have to commit to a path of profound and intentional compassion if we're going to make it through the next few decades without slaughtering each other. It also matters because that same side of the political spectrum also generally wants to ignore climate change. Again, that's not to say everyone on the right thinks we should keep burning coal instead of investing in solar, wind, and tidal power, but, in general, that's the attitude of the parties in question. Ontario ministries are banned from using the term 'climate change,' Québec is looking at fewer environmental oversights, and Bolsonaro plans to withdraw from the Paris accord. And, according to one reporter, Trump has entered "stage 5 climate denial" - the "it's too late" stage.

Another IPCC report is out that suggests we really ought to do something about all this. We've got 12 years to cut our emissions by half if we want to have any hope of slowing this down. Here's the report, and here's an explanation on the scope and process of the report. The next one comes out in 2021. And here's a history of climate change science since 1824.

ETA: Naomi Klein expressed the gist of this long-winded post in a brief tweet:

A New York Times climate reporter says the IPCC report,
"paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought and says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has 'no documented historic precedent.' . . . The report . . . describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs. Previous work had focused on estimating the damage if average temperatures were to rise by [2℃] . . . The new report, however, shows that many of those effects will come much sooner, at the [1.5℃] mark. . . . the report says that heavy taxes or prices on carbon dioxide emissions . . . would be required. But such a move would be almost politically impossible in the United States, the world's largest economy and second-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China. . . . President Trump, who has mocked the science of human-caused climate change, has vowed to increase the burning of coal and said he intends to withdraw from the Paris agreement."
"The report makes it clear: There is no way to mitigate climate change without getting rid of coal." But the World Coal Association plan to "continue to see a role for coal in the foreseeable future."

This raises the question about the ethics and feasibility of corporations self-regulating themselves out of business - specifically including these 100 companies. We're not at a place in our embracing of ethics to actually stop harmful actions that come with huge personal rewards. Which airline or factory farm is going to willingly close their doors? Trump's statement say, specifically: "We reiterate that the United States intends to withdraw from the Paris agreement at the earliest opportunity absent the identification of terms that are better for the American people." But what's better for the American people is what's better for us all: the ability to continue to survive into the future. Preventing warming will also help reduce migration into the states. His focus is too short term. Obviously.

The BBC says,
"Scientists might want to write in capital letters, 'ACT NOW, IDIOTS,' but they need to say that with facts and numbers . . . And they have. . . . The report says there must be rapid and significant changes in four big global systems: energy, land use, cities, industry. But it adds that the world cannot meet its target without changes by individuals, urging people to: buy less meat, milk, cheese and butter and more locally sourced seasonal food - and throw less of it away .  . . use videoconferencing instead of business travel . . . insulate homes, demand low carbon in every consumer product. . . . You might say you don't have control over land use, but you do have control over what you eat and that determines land use. . . . the report's 'pathways' for keeping a lid on temperatures all mean that hard decisions cannot be delayed. . . . Ultimately, politicians will face a difficult choice: persuade their voters that the revolutionary change outlined in the report is urgently needed or ignore it and say the scientists have got it wrong. . . . If the nations of the world don't act soon, they will have to rely even more on unproven technologies to take carbon out of the air - an expensive and uncertain road."
According to Nature, here are those numbers:
"Limiting global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels would be a herculean task, involving rapid, dramatic changes in the way that government, industries and societies function. . . . The world would have to curb its carbon emissions by at least 49% of 2017 levels by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. . . . Scientists have 'high confidence' that 1.5℃ of warming would result in more severe heat waves on land. . . . Temperatures on extreme hot days in mid-latitudes could increase by 3℃ [5.4℉]. . . . Two degrees of warming could destroy around 13% of the world's land ecosystems, increasing the risk of extinction for many insects, plants and animals. Holding warming to 1.5℃ would reduce that risk by half. . . . Without aggressive action, the world could become an almost impossible place to live for most people . . . As we go toward the end of the century, we have to get this right."
At the current rate, if we don't make any changes, we could expect to reach the 1.5℃ mark in about a dozen years at the earliest, which is actually a few years longer than originally estimated, so there's that silver lining.
"Many scientists have argued that meeting even the 2℃ goal is virtually impossible. But the IPCC report sidestepped questions of feasibility and focused instead of determining what government, businesses and individuals would need to do to meet the 1.5℃ goal. These include ramping up installation of low-carbon energy systems such as wind and solar . . . and expanding forests to increase their capacity to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. . . . Other proposed options involve changing lifestyles: eating less meat, riding bicycles, and flying less."
Greenpeace executives commented,
"The world is on fire. In order to avoid more of these tragic fires, severe storms and loss of life, the world must halve global emissions in the next decade. This is a huge challenge, but is is doable and the costs of not following the right path are a matter of life and death to millions around the world, particularly the vulnerable. . . . What matters now is that we decide to try and that we make it our absolute priority. . . . Those who say it's unrealistic are actually telling us to give up on people, to give up on species . . . We do not give up on human ingenuity, courage or hope against political apathy and corporate greed. We will never give up on us."
In the New York Times, "Why Half a Degree of Global Warming is a Big Deal" graphs some of the differences between a 1.5 and 2℃ change, like ten times the chance of no sea ice in the Arctic, over a third of the world's population affected by extreme heat, and coral reefs mostly disappearing.

The Guardian tries to take a more positive spin, that we can limit warming to 1.5 C with political will. Figueres says, "Most striking to me, therefore, is the fact that the determinants of whether we head for 2C or for 1.5C are mainly political; they are not technical or economic." We've been saying this for a long time now, "We have the technology, we just have to put it in place," and it's still true, but it just feels so incredibly unlikely given the current sway in voting. I'm not sure it matters that "the price of large-scale solar and wind energy has fallen" when the elites have put all their money in oil. However, perhaps my pessimism is a result of location, since, "China, India and the EU appear to be ahead of their Paris targets."

Except, George Monbiot, on the other side of the pond, is also not entirely convinced of a rosy future.
"We can now leave fossil fuels in the ground and thwart climate breakdown. . . . So how come oil production, for the first time in history, is about to hit 100m barrels a day? . . . How is it that in Germany, whose energy transition was supposed to be a model for the world, protesters are being beaten up by police as they try to defend the 12,000-year-old Hambacher forest from an opencast min extracting lignite - the dirtiest form of coal? Why have investments in Canadian tar sands - the dirtiest source of oil - doubled in a year? The answer is, growth. . . . It doesn't matter how many good things we do: preventing climate breakdown means ceasing to do bad things. Given that economic growth, in nations that are already rich enough to meet the needs of all, requires an increase in pointless consumption, it is hard so see how it can ever be decoupled from the assault on the living planet. . . . Clean growth is as much of an oxymoron as clean coal. But making this obvious statement in public life is treated as political suicide."
He concedes that New Zealand is starting to make the change away from a growth model, and warns that we all play a part in this,
"No politician can act without support. If we want political parties to address these issues, we too must start addressing them. We cannot rely on the media to do it for us. . . . A crucial factor in the remarkable shift in attitudes towards LGBT people was the determination of activists to break the silence. They overcame social embarrassment to broach issues that other people found uncomfortable. We need . . . to do the same for climate breakdown. . . . Let's create the political space in which well-intentioned parties can act. Let us talk a better world into being."
Well, we can only try.