"I'm sick and tired of hearing about global warming!" My college-age son was quoting a friend. We'll call her Jessica. I teach at a university, so while the sentiment was not surprising, what gave me pause was knowing Jessica, who is no eco-slouch. She's a straight-A student I've known and admired for years, a child of progressive parents, someone with an environmental conscience.
He had my attention. Since spring 2007 I've volunteered with a new organization called YIKES! (Youth Involved in Keeping Earth Sustainable), which develops hands-on projects on energy/ climate change for older teens. "What else do your friends say?" I probed, conscious that my middle-age and teacher status consign me to the role of foreign interloper among the tribe of teens and 20-somethings.
"Well, it's not that we don't believe in global warming," he explained. "It's that, well, environmental issues have to compete with sports, computer games and a bunch of other activities. And we hear a lot of opinions, whether climate change is natural or manmade. And it's not like there's any agreement on what to do about it. Who wants to go around thinking about the end of the world?"
"Good points," I agreed.
The onus should be on our generation to fix this thing, or get us on the right track. After all, it was the boomers and our parents at the helm while we used up half the planet's 100 million-year-old fossil fuel supply and emitted all that carbon. Nice legacy, saddling our kids with a future of oil and water shortages, flooded coastlines and failing food systems.
And I know the drill: that we have to inspire to build leadership. We must focus on how "we can solve it," not on failures of the past, or the scary prospects that keep emerging. This was reinforced for me by a 15-year-old who helped paint rain barrels in a YIKES! event last spring. She told me her little brother was freaked out by global warming. Her mother confirmed this, noting that the fourth grader runs and hides when Al Gore comes on TV. This seems to be a wider phenomenon that some psychologists are comparing to the Cold War fears of the Cuban missile crisis.
A study by educational software company BrainPOP found that 60 percent of children surveyed said they feared global warming and the environmental disasters it may provoke more than terrorism, car crashes or cancer. A similar percentage believes more should be done to reduce emissions. A third of the children said they worry about global warming "a lot," and another 41 percent say they are "somewhat" worried.
And, guess what? For those who see their mission in life as protecting children from R-rated content in TV and films, kids' fears about climate change are just more proof that environmentalists are up to no good. Republican blogger Philip Brennan blames Leonardo DiCaprio for scaring children, because the actor has called for more green outreach to youth. Brennan cites a "shocking" incident in which "brainwashed" sixth graders "attacked" the Heartland Institute for holding a conference to debunk the science on climate change.
The poor state of science education in our country doesn't help with this dilemma of developing leadership and policy on a complex problem that is often invisible. Paradigm shifts based on evidence that is hard to "see"—Galileo's revelations about the Earth revolving around the sun, evidence for evolution, or ecological risks of genetically modified crops—are hard for people to accept when they're not in the habit of evaluating scientific evidence. People end up resorting to "experts" whom they feel good about. And climate change, with its complex and temporal effects, is ripe for charlatans—both debunkers and prophets of doom.
The "what-ifs" loom like storm clouds over my reading table. Losing the Gulf Stream could precipitate abrupt climate change in the North Atlantic; ecologists predict 50 percent of animal species might not make it past 2050; a growing consensus that human intervention will be useless to reverse the process if we wait too long. This week brings new reports on the melted Arctic Ocean, already caught in a feedback loop generating more warming due to loss of its reflective ice cover. The latest is that the melted water is emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A giant polar fart. Crikey.
Then my optimistic anthropologist brain kicks in. Maybe the energy crisis will slow down the global economy and buy us time. Maybe President Obama will boost renewable energy and Al Gore will broker an international agreement in which China and the United States agree not to burn coal. Or we could offset the Arctic fart by shooting the cows and having one last mega-barbecue, before the long vegan twilight.
"And pigs will fly," quips my pessimistic brain, which just read an account of failed carbon-trading schemes in the European Union.
The good news is that concern about the future has also stimulated activism among young people and adults. Thousands of students have taken part in Al Gore's "Step It Up" events on global warming, and students on hundreds of campuses across the country are pushing university administrations to green their dormitory and classroom buildings.
Youth awareness is interlocked with growing concern among parents and teachers. The Yale Project on Climate Change found in 2007 surveys that 71 percent of the public was convinced that climate change was happening, even though nearly half were not aware of the recent international scientific consensus. Other Yale surveys showed that roughly three-quarters of American adult respondents support local regulations for more energy-efficient homes and local subsidies to support purchases of home solar panels.
The Yale researchers noted a huge surge—more than a 20 percent jump—in the portion of the public concerned about climate change from 2004 to 2007, which likely reflects a series of catastrophic events including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and last year's drought. Announcements of an international consensus among scientists, and attention drawn to the issue by Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, likely boosted attention.
But the Yale research also shows that despite growing concern, most Americans don't feel personally affected by climate change, which ranks low on a list of issues people want politicians to respond to. The Pew Global Attitudes Project found Europeans to be more concerned about the issue than Americans, but they are also more cynical about solutions. They had a front row seat to European Union debates over carbon-trading, and they saw how rapidly politicians kow-towed to corporate objections, loosening the rules until they became meaningless.
The Pew surveys found that in countries like Japan, China and India, which stand to be heavily impacted by climate change, there are also high levels of public concern. Chinese, unlike Europeans, are optimistic about solutions, which analysts link to optimism over recent economic growth and belief that science and government will pull a technical solution out of a hat. Americans also tend to be suckers for a magic technological bullet that will save us all.
Maybe children have a clearer bead on this than the grown-ups. I am reminded of a green youth Web site I visited last year with a vivid image of people standing on their heads on a beach, with their heads buried in the sand.
This was striking, youth-created art that seemed aimed not only at their peers, but at the folks running things, who are a little tipsy on the fossil-laced cocktail and need a designated driver to get home from the party of overheated industrialization. It's inconvenient as hell. But c'mon folks, if we can't sober up for our own sake, let's do it for the kids.