Many recent surveys and studies show that adolescents and young adults in wealthy countries are experiencing significant anxiety/fear/depression about their futures due to the unmitigated climate crisis. A recent global study showed that 39% of young people were hesitant to have children because if it. It is no wonder, considering that they are witnessing the unprecedented fires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, and hurricanes that the world experienced over the past two years- consequences of unmitigated CO2 emissions that scientists thought would not come for ten more years. When young people express their concern about the climate crisis to the adults in their lives, they are often met with well-meaning gaslighting like: ‘That’s what they’ve been saying since I was a kid, and it [Earth] hasn’t died yet!’ They also see world leaders meeting at expensive international conferences in oil states coming to no credible agreements on how to stop climate breakdown. Both responses leave them feeling betrayed, abandoned, and morally injured.
Students are feeling increasingly doubtful that their education is worthwhile. Why study for a degree while the world is literally on fire? It is clear to them that the crisis is NOW, not 10, 20, 30 years from now. The ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis fall under the umbrella of “rapid, transformative change in all aspects of society” (IPCC) - not future, market-driven technological miracles that require engineering degrees and financial incentives to develop. College and university students are dropping out of their degree programs to devote more time to climate activism during these critical next few years. This is incredibly brave. Without investment in the status quo, they are able to see that the status quo won’t last into their middle age if we keep on chugging along in business as usual.
Some educators are trying to change the system from within, as I tried to do. Recently, my former college found some one-time money for ‘climate initiatives’ – hard fought-for by well-intentioned former colleagues - and has given it to departments directly to spend as they like. That, however, is like giving adults on the Titanic money to buy life vests for the kids if they feel like it. I’ve seen a proposal solicited under this scheme, and it suggests voluntary faculty participation in facilitated discussions about the climate crisis, and then formulation of a plan for ‘moving forward’ as a department in terms of climate pedagogy. As a department. On a voluntary basis. At an institution with many departments (not all of which are using the money).
The fact is that nobody gets to choose if they want to experience the climate and ecological emergencies or not. Nobody. Least of all the students, to whom we are accountable. Haphazardly throwing money at the problem is a typical response in our present atomized human world, and it does not help the students. What they’ll end up with is an institution still in passive denial, with non-cohesive, uninformed, and/or redundant messaging to students who are already climate-crisis-fatigued, anxious, or in passive denial themselves. It is the saddest kind of institutional greenwashing in education - when people who care deeply about climate get thrown scraps and everyone goes home satisfied, feeling as though it was the best they could do. But during an emergency, we need to do what is necessary to address it. Point finale.
There are encouraging developments in terms of climate education around the world. In 2019, Italy made climate education mandatory at all grade levels, and are providing ongoing support and training for teachers. Students at the University of Barcelona conducted a sit-in occupation for seven days to demand that a course on the climate emergency be mandatory for all students, and that all faculty and staff undergo training to become climate literate, and it worked. This kind of training is exactly what I had proposed to do at my former college, and I shared that proposal with colleagues, who overwhelmingly supported it.
The response from the administration though was “that’s a Big Ask”. Well, um, yes - this is an emergency. And during emergencies, people change their behavior. Leaders lead by doing things that haven’t been done before. Plus institutions and workplaces have mandatory trainings. All. The. Time. My former colleagues should have refused the cash thrown at them and demanded comprehensive, mandatory climate literacy training in order to build a framework of support for students as they progress through their programs. 200 professors in Barcelona did just that by supporting the student occupation. This is how transformative change begins.
But training the ‘adults in the room’ at an institution of higher education isn’t really a ‘Big Ask’, it is the bare minimum that adults in positions of authority must do if we care at all about preparing and supporting students for their futures. A Big Ask would be to reorganize the educational system from elementary school through university around a firm understanding of earth systems as the very things that allow us to live on this planet. That these systems have limitations and boundaries that must not be crossed if we want to keep living here. That we already know how to live within the biophysical boundaries of Earth, and that the way we live now- consuming, destroying, competing, accumulating- is not natural, normal, or inevitable. A Big Ask would be to launch a public Climate Literacy campaign at the national, provincial, and local levels that would educate everyone about the climate science basis for emergency, that it is not too late to act, and that radical change is coming whether we want it or are prepared for it. But Big Asks in ordinary times are what are required during emergencies. This is an emergency.
The kids are not alright. They need to see adults behaving as though we are in an emergency - and risking our peace of mind, comfort, status and wealth so that they have a chance at a livable future. That is how we support them, and it starts with educating older generations for whom this life-destroying economic system has worked. Climate literacy education cannot be voluntary, especially within institutions of higher education. Every student needs to know that they can talk to an adult in their lives about their fears, grief, and anguish, and not be gaslit for it. Our denial and delay, whether passive or active, is what is causing their distress. Our inability to face the scientific truth, our magical thinking that things will ‘work out’ on their own, or that it is 'too late', is causing the young people in our lives irreparable harm. They will not forget it.
I once asked an administrator at my former college:
“What would you say to someone born today, who asked you 20 years from now: ‘What did you do, back when we still had a chance at preserving a livable planet?’”
He replied: “We tried our best!”
I don’t think so. Most of us adults have absolutely no right to say that, good intentions or not.