January 29th, 2013
Innovative organizations are bringing the climate change issue into schools and, as a result, today’s young people are taking the lead in reducing their carbon footprint. What motivates kids to action? And how are parents and school boards across the country responding?
Carleen Cullen, founder and executive director of Cool the Earth, became climate conscious when she saw the film An Inconvenient Truth. She connected on a personal level because, like Al Gore, Cullen almost lost her son. “I thought, I can’t let this happen to our children. I thought what am I doing with my life?” Cool the Earth, provides an assembly, “a slapstick cartoonish program”—Mr. Carbon and the polar bear. “The children know when they leave the assembly that they can use the coupon book to reduce carbon emissions and teach their parents about reducing carbon as well. There is virtually no fear at that young age.”
Cool the Earth has now worked with 446 schools in 22 states, and along the way, Cullen has come up against parents and school boards who didn’t want the program in their schools. She related the story of how, about five years ago, a school board member brought the story to the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which was already negative on climate change. “At every school we had at least one parent who was a skeptic. But that’s diminished over the years.”
According to Mike Haas, founder of Alliance for Climate Education, the only ways we can be successful in making a difference is through education. “The most effective way and the quickest way to get there is to invest in young people. They’re not getting it in our schools.” The Alliance for Climate Education has trained nearly 1.5 million high-school students across the country in how to reduce their carbon footprint and engage others to do the same. “If you tell the story right, young people engage,” he said.
“It’s easy to be overwhelmed with these issues,” Haas continued. “That’s why we put so much faith in young people. I believe young people give us the best opportunity to give us the space to mitigate effects. What we try to do at these assemblies is create an extraordinarily memorable experience so they will connect the dots in a meaningful way. “We do pre- and post-assembly surveys to measure knowledge and behaviors. Our analysis is something like a 50% shift—from unconcerned to concerned, and from concerned to alarmed. Researchers have never seen anything like this after a one-hour experience.”
Rosemary Davies, a graduate of Berkeley High School Green Academy, recalled how shocked she was when her family moved from the chestnut orchard, where she was raised, to the city. She chose to go to Green Academy, which “helped tie me back to nature,” she said. She got involved with local activism, and in 2012 traveled to the Arctic for a transformative experience learning about climate and culture. “It showed me that what I did had real life consequences.” Now in college, Davies finds that “green” is fun. She spoke of an event held before finals, where students could swap things. “You don’ have to be a huge consumer to be happy. Sometimes green seems so fun that isn’t green.”