Teaching the reality of climate change, one classroom at a time

20160426_151339-aYou wouldn’t think that it would be controversial for a journalism professor to come to high schools in the Midwest to discuss his reporting on current issues in science. And it wasn’t. Justin Catanoso, director of the journalism program at chair of the Wake Forest University, came to St. Louis the week of April 25. In addition to meeting with students at Washington University, he visited six high schools and one middle school to discuss his research on climate change in Peru. And it was not controversial.

This is Missouri, and contrary to myopic and outright mean memes that have been coming out of the recent session of the state legislature, this is not North Carolina or Florida where state law forbids teachers from using terms like “climate change” or “rising ocean tides.” Yet the issue of climate change is still political and many schools shy away from teaching about it.

Catanoso diplomatically discusses the issues with, as Barack Obama says, “the fierce urgency of now.” He says that we cannot shy away from the challenges and look for a Plan ‘B.’ His reasoning is straightforward: because there is no Plan ‘B.’ If the human species (as well as all others on earth) is to survive, humans need to take affirmative and significant steps to restore the climate to where it was in the 1850s, with only 225 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; not the current level of 400.

He notes in speaking with students that the United States is the only country in the world where climate change is a public issue. Every other country has come to face reality and without equivocation wants to contribute to the solution. This was very apparent at the COP21 conference in Paris that he covered in December 2015. He pointed out to students that the existence of a COP21 conference meant that there were twenty Conferences of the Parties that preceded it, and they had all failed to reach the meaningful consensus and agreement that came in Paris.

The question of why the United States has not followed the recent movement of Australia and Canada from skeptics to “accepters” is difficult to answer. But there is no denying the presence of the elephant in the room: There is one political party in the United States that seems to refuse to accept science, at least so long as the producers, distributors and financers of fossil fuels continue to pad their candidates’ campaigns.

Catanoso is not closed-minded about fossil fuels. He notes that over the past fifteen years, carbon-based fuels have played a major role in allowing three hundred million Chinese citizens to move out of poverty. These fuels propelled us into and through the industrial age. But now the damage that they do to our planet has become of far greater consequence than any economic good that can come from their continued wide-spread use. With extinction as a possible outcome of their continued use, the choice is relatively easy for most human beings.

Thanks to the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which sponsored Catanoso’s trip to St. Louis, Catanoso was able to reason with students at Crossroads College Preparatory School, Hixson Middle School, Lindbergh High School, Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School, Nerinx Hall High School, Parkway Central High School, Parkway West High School and St. Louis University High School about how the actions of humans have taken our planet out of its natural balance.

Regrettably, there are still millions of Americans who deny climate change. Fortunately, the head in the sand is less prominent among young citizens than the more elderly. But young people become old and often adopt the ways of their elders. In the case of recognizing climate change, this is not a wise risk.

We need more Justin Catanosos going to our nation’s schools and dispelling the misinformation that many teachers and parents bring to these schools. Climate change is hardly the only issue in which ignorance is bliss in many schools. Conservatives have blanketed our airwaves and suffocated many of our school districts. Most issues that progressives care about do not lend themselves to short-term solutions; they require generational change. As progressives have historically done in our colleges and universities, they need to make their presence disproportionately known in our elementary and secondary schools. To paraphrase the words attributed to Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men”, “Boys, if you screw this up, nothing less than the future of the free world rests in your hands.”