Other Voices: Students' strike for climate change inspires hope

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Los Altos High School students take part in the School Strike for Safe Climate Change March 15.

Disappointment. Bubble. Apathy. Hope.

Those are the words playing over and over in my head at the moment. Teenagers around the world organized a peaceful School Strike for Safe Climate March 15. Events were unfurling around the world. In Los Altos, a handful of teens lined up on El Camino Real with signs, chants and cheers.

Disappointment. I can’t help but feel we have failed our children: as parents, as a community, as mentors, as educators and as inspirers. I had hoped the schools would rally together and support our children as they organized events in the Bay Area. Yet as I have personally witnessed more than once, our children receive no encouragement in standing up for what they believe in. They are given no constructive pathways, no validation in actively expressing their convictions and values.

Ever wonder how many hours are dedicated to teaching climate change in middle and high school? In a 2016 nationwide study of 1,500 middle and high school teachers conducted by Pennsylvania State University and the National Center for Science Education, researchers found that teachers devote all of one to two hours per course year to climate change, and often get the facts wrong. While three out of four teachers are teaching the topic, only half of them attribute it to anthropogenic causes.

In high school, it is taught again in earth sciences, an elective taken by only 20 percent of teens; the majority prefers sciences like biology and chemistry. Yes, you must have four years of mathematics to graduate, but it’s elective to learn the science, social and environmental consequences of climate change. That’s a fundamental reality for us and for future generations.

Our bubble. We worry about our children’s level of stress, anxiety and depression; the number of Advanced Placement classes they might accumulate before college; and their college acceptances. We hope they find careers they like and can find jobs that lead to happy and generally fulfilled lives. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are big challenges. But the truth is, there will be no greater challenge than living in a world devastated by climate change in the next 50 years. We are already living extreme droughts, floods, wildfires, food shortages and loss of coral reefs. And the United Nations’ latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report clearly states there is “no documented historic precedent” of what is to come. We thoroughly prepare our children for everything else, but not this.

Apathy. One could argue it’s part of human nature. As the great American physicist Albert Bartlett once explained, one of our major shortcomings as a species is “our inability to understand the exponential function.” Think lilies growing exponentially on a pond: once it is half covered, it takes only one more cycle to completely cover it. Our second, explained by Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” is our limited ability to think in the long term.

The UN IPCC’s most recent report projects we will have hit the +1.5 Celsius over preindustrial level temperatures by 2030 – yes, less than 12 years from now – much earlier than originally expected. Our pond is already almost half-covered with lilies. Is a mere 12 years too long term for us to grasp the consequences of apathy and inaction?

Hope. That would be personified by those 25 or so amazing kids who stood along El Camino all morning, chanting and holding their signs up high, cheering every time a passing car acknowledged them with a honk or a wave.

Thank you. You inspire us to do better.

Jennifer Mitchell is a Los Altos resident.

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