More than Just Words on Paper
Climate Action Resolutions Build Resilience in Students, Teachers, and Institutions by Creating Context of Hope, Action, and Optimism
During the Garrison Union Free School debate about their climate action resolution, some school board members expressed reservations. They did not understand why it is so important for school board members to break silence about generational climate justice. This is a really common and reasonable position and displays a healthy skepticism. We should all be grateful that our de-centralized democratic institutions are forums for healthy and respectful debate---places where people with different values and opinions come together and find common ground.
I think there are many important benefits of even purely "soft" resolutions which articulate the political will for national climate action, but may not take tangible local action that requires money or resources from a school district. The most important benefit is simply that several members of Congress have suggested a groundswell of these resolutions it will be a very useful tool to get Congress to act. And getting Congress to act boldly and quickly on climate is one of the most important things we can do to protect our students. All of the school-based sustainability and curriculum efforts are important, but their potential GhG reductions and the speed with which they can alter our dangerously out-of-whack socio-ecosystem are dwarfed by the power of Congress to help reset the system.
But here's another, less obvious, way that school climate action resolutions are important. These resolutions may mitigate climate harm on a much smaller, but important scale---the psychology and neural pathways of our students. I am pretty sure that school climate action resolutions and especially widespread uptake and spread of climate action resolutions by school boards, student councils, PTAs, and educators' union can protect young people from some of the negative psychological impacts of climate change. Multiple studies suggest disasters, such as the climate-related fires touching the lives of so many young people in the West are harmful to their psychological health and well-being. Climate action resolutions may dramatically shift the psychological context in which people, including young people and educators, process the same difficult truths and hardships related to our new climate realities. As such, climate action resolutions are a free, easy way to improve individual and collective psychological resilience in the face of increased incidents of extreme “natural” events.
Here in Sonoma County, we've had smoke from the Mendocino Fires off-and-on for more than a week. Fortunately, for us, it's mostly high haze and hasn't hurt air quality too much yet. The haze makes for bizarrely beautiful sunrises and sunsets that you almost feel guilty enjoying. The haze also reminds us to be grateful for the first responders and to keep our neighbors to the north in our thoughts and prayers.
But there is a sinister, unsettling side to this smoky haze, less obvious than the tragedy of thousands of Californians directly traumatized by this current firestorm. The haze is also a constant, creeping reminder that the devastation Sonoma county experienced just 10 months ago is not some freak occurrence. Devastating firestorms are part of a new norm. A summer and fall completely free from fire haze and fire anxiety or fire trauma may now become the new freak occurrence. For the rest of our lives. And it’s likely getting worse. And it feels like it’s definitely going to get worse when leaders continue to delay national climate discussion and action, to reverse policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and to actively undermine international action on climate.
Next week, I'll welcome my new 6th grade class. Later this year, I'll be teaching them the basic science of climate change. Imagine the dissonant climate-related data points these 6th graders will have to struggle to integrate. Not only will they look at raw data---twin hockey stick graphs of rising CO2 levels and temperatures with a clear and disconcerting trend. But they will also bring with them a first hand experience with climate-related fire---an effect long predicted by climate scientists using the same raw data on the hockey stick graphs.
Ten months ago, some of these students were evacuated from their homes in the middle of the night to escape the Tubb’s fire. Although none of our students lost their homes, nearly all of them know at least one family who did---it’s almost impossible not to in Sonoma county. These personal experience data points are real and visceral, etched into student neural pathways through multiple senses---smell, feel, taste, sight. Added to these primary sense data points is the generalized community anxiety or trauma related to these fires. Kids absorb this kind of stuff, no matter how calm and matter of fact the adults holding them are. Students will need to integrate all these sensory and experiential data points with the scientific information we study in class.
But in addition, most of the students will have socio-cultural-political data points associated with climate change. They will have heard about national leaders in both the legislative and executive branches making (or tweeting) a-scientific statements related to climate and to the fires. They will have heard about national decisions to actively reverse policies to counteract climate change. At some point they will likely learn about the 50+ years scientists have been trying to convince broader society to take action. Any honest reflection on the American experience related to climate knowledge, climate discussion, and climate debate will have to conclude that scientists for at least 30+ years have been making a reasoned, rational case for climate action. They have been citing the exact kinds of climate-related conditions we are currently experiencing as reason for action.
These socio-cultural-political data points may be impossible to integrate coherently with the scientific data with with the first hand experience and sense-memories related with high temperatures, smoke, fear, anxiety, loss, and dread related to climate change.
It just won’t make sense to them. How could adults with access to this same information refuse for so long to act? If it’s really as bad as the science and fires seem to suggest, why aren’t more adults doing more, more of the time?
They may not articulate it exactly like this, but their beautiful, busy, curious minds are always struggling to piece things together and make sense of them. How does my experience with direct threat from fire mesh with the rollback of vehicle emissions standards? This sense-making is part of our shared human drive. So they’ll ask me, a trusted adult, to help them make sense of it all. This fall, they’ll ask me to help them make sense of the vehicle emissions standards rollback, just like they did about the Paris withdrawal or the infamous "Chinese hoax" statement in the years before. If climate change is really so bad and our country is supposed to be so great, why aren’t we ____________? There are so many ways to fill in the blank. Doing more. Taking the lead. Cleaning up our messes. Working together to solve problems. Speaking up for justice. Protecting our children.
We are playing with fire, adults. Sometimes when the dissonance is too great, when there is no possible way for a young person to integrate these disparate and contradictory data points (personal experience, scientific data, socio-cultural-political lenses) into some sort of coherent narrative, kids, just like all people throw up their hands, and give up. What the @#x??!! So starts a possible slide into disengagement, distrust, despair, and cynicism. It’s a terrible thing to do to a young spirit. It’s a spiritually toxic broth we’re serving up, my generation.
But, it’s especially toxic when we are silent. It impoverishes not only the kids it’s being served to, but also the adults (teachers) and the institutions (schools) who are silent witnesses.
It seems justice issues are always worse when nobody talks about them, when we all witness it silently. But therein lies a seed of tremendous hope and resilience. Because, conversely, some of the power to inflict psychological harm dissipates when justice issues are named and accurately described. New paradigms can be created so individuals and institutions can see and understand it clearly, so they can react to it in a way that aligns with all of their other values. To be for kids and for our country, you've got to be speaking up and acting for the climate. From these new paradigms, flow all kinds of new possibilities.
Climate action resolutions dispel some of the psychological harm from the climate mess we’re serving up our young people. It’s a free, fast, and relatively easy way to build resiliency by creating ripples of optimism and action.
This year, when we talk about climate change in my 6th grade class, my students will have some extra data points that may help them string together a coherent AND optimistic narrative connecting all the climate data points. You see, this year, not only has their school board passed one of the strongest climate action resolutions by any school board in the nation, but so did their county office of education board along with 6 other Sonoma county school boards. And not only that, but thanks to the courageous example these Sonoma county school leaders have set, there are school boards in Colorado and now New York---clear across the country---who have joined in. There’s reason to hope that soon, school boards in every community across the country will break the silence on climate change and speak with a clear, resounding voice to protect young people and future generations.
There will be more devastating climate-related firestorms in California and climate-worsened hurricanes in the South and East and sunny day flooding in coastal communities no matter what we say or do at this point. Even if Congress took bold effective action tomorrow, there would be a significant lag-time before we started bringing our climate back into balance.
But imagine how different the context would be if 10,000 school boards, student councils, PTAs, and educator’s unions responded in unison to this year’s climate-related disasters and decades of national climate silence and climate inaction by standing up and speaking up for our kids. Imagine how differently the same hockey stick graphs, the same flippant tweets, the same suffocating and eye-watering smoke would land for our kids. It’d still be bad, but there would be rational hope and it would be clear that there is a huge village of caring elders and energetic young leaders closing ranks around them, holding them, helping them create the world where they can assimilate all the first hand and scientific information related to climate, while at the same time preserving their trust in their elders and their country. They won’t have to make a terrible Solomon’s choice between belief in science and their first hand experience and a trust in elders and country. They’ll be able to integrate the two into a coherent narrative because the elders most directly linked to them---educators, educational leaders, and parents---spoke up together in a non-partisan way to remind the country and all elected leaders that we are better than to turn our backs on our young people in favor of blind partisan loyalty.
We, educators, can create this more optimistic lens for our children to process the same difficult climate reality by simply passing our own climate action resolutions and then reaching out throughout the schools network and asking our peers and our leaders to do the same.
So, thank Garrison Union Free School trustees. Not only has your resolution built political will that will help move Congress to act, but you have also created an important ripple of optimism that will touch young people across the country. A groundswell of school board resolutions will not only help move Congress to act, but it will also help young people, educators, and school communities preserve a context of hope and optimism as we all struggle to process our new and difficult climate realities.
Kai Guthrie is a ninth grade student at Credo High in Rohnert Park, a Citizens' Climate Lobby volunteer, and one of the founders of Schools for Climate Action campaign.