I have taught about climate change for a decade now; it occupies an ever-expanding unit in my Globalization course. When I began, I was explaining the greenhouse effect. Now, students know the science by the time they leave middle school I have decided that teaching about the changing climate is most effective when organized around the concept of solutions.
What follows are thoughts on how this topic might be framed, followed by many links, a portion of which are specific to Portland, Oregon, and the Northwestern USA. But the idea here is to think about how to divide students’ study into layers of hopeful action, so the study of this daunting issue doesn’t merely make them feel helpless. (The flyer above is from an evening hosted by my class in the autumn of 2014.)
In Portland, then, thinking about climate change on a local level means looking at what the city government is doing in regards to transportation, waste management, growth, and, perhaps, a binding resolution for the city. On a state level, a lot of energy in Oregon is focused on a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme. The Northwest Economic Research Center at Portland State University has made a compelling proposal to the state legislature and a carbon tax bill is coming (slowly). For students, the next movement is divestment, especially at colleges. (This is something my school will likely think about in the next few years as well.) In the Northwestern US, there are also ongoing fights over coal export terminals and the like. These places are both symbolic and important: do our students think it’s a good idea to send dirty coal to China?
On the national level, tailpipe regulations, a carbon tax, regulations on coal-fired power plants, etc. It also means using the Clean Air Act or the Public Trust Doctrine to compel the government to protect our common atmosphere. This is where Professor Mary Wood at U of O comes in. Congress is hopeless, so the courts are probably the way to go. That and direct protest, though teachers might find this route difficult. Globally, my hope rests with the IPCC at the UN and, believe it or not, the World Bank. Not much students can do there but learn where the bodies are buried and how it boils down to the global north, especially the US, telling China and India they don’t get to go through a carbon-based industrial age.
In the classroom, I can frame climate change in a number of ways. It is an environmental issue, but I have come to the conclusion that, in the US, this route is a loser. This argument has been made for 25 years and it’s getting nowhere in this country. Another way is as an economic issue. This is where William Nordhaus of Yale comes in with his Climate Casino book. It’s a tough read for kids but has some good graphs. You can pay now slow change and mitigate damage or pay much more later. That idea.
Another way to pursue a solution is to see this as a legal issue. The federal government, this reasoning goes, is breaking the law by not stepping in to regulate this obvious pollutant to a degree that will stave off disaster. I think this is likely to be effective in the long run.
That and framing climate as a moral issue. Like slavery or civil rights. It is a civil rights issue, the right to live in a safe world, the right to inherit a land not devastated by species movement and desertification. God made Adam the keeper of the garden but he didn’t tell Adam he could burn the place down. This angle has lead to the action by the Catholic Church and a lot of evangelicals. It is immoral to leave the world in tatters. I think starting here and then achieving change through the courts (aided by technological efficiency, etc.) may be the most effective path. But I am open to change on this account. I am not, by the way, a fan of geo-engineering. This sounds lazy and scary. Nordhaus has a good chapter on this topic.
So here are some links. For my students, seeing them this way is helpful. Forgive me if some of the links are dated.
The big players here are the City of Portland, with its impressive Climate Action Plan. The problem is it is not the law. One graph worth noting is how Portland’s output started falling several years ago and it remains ahead of the national trend.
At the state level, I am hoping that Governor Brown’s desire to be elected in her own right (she replaced John Kitzhaber who resigned during a corruption scandal) will mean bold leadership on climate. The major place for hope is the Carbon Tax plan. The first link gives a brief summary.
Obviously, the big player here is the IPCC.
Global Emissions Breakdown (I love this one)
There are so many ways to attack the problems. One is through the development of new technologies. Others are by disincentivizing burning the bad stuff. This is where the debate between cap and trade, which CA has, and a carbon tax, which British Columbia has, comes into play.
Other actions include protest, petition, and lawsuits. The organization we worked with was Our Children’s Trust, which helps young people sue the government under the Public Trust Doctrine.
Pope Francis, “Laudato Si,” aka the Climate Change Encyclical