“The Heat’s On” – An Effort to Create Young Activists to Face the Challenge of Global Climate Change – and Simultaneously Teach the Critical Skills!

Guest post by Dr. Arnold Packer, former Assistant Secretary of Labor and Executive Director of the SCANS Commission.

The Heat’s On!

by Arnold Packer

“It was just a cop-out,” pronounced the Economist.  “[O]ne of the worst outcomes in a quarter-change century of climate negotiations,” said the NY Times.  These are verdicts on the U.N. Climate Conference (COP25) held in Madrid last December.  Real action from the world’s leaders is missing and time is short. 

This is where the educators come in.  Teachers have a major role to play in giving students the skills, such as science and economics, to manage the threat to their future.  And they must do it during the spring, summer, and fall of 2020.   The next UN Conference of the Parties (COP 26) is scheduled for November, a week after our Election day. 

Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, is the best-known of the young activists, having started the world-wide practice of skipping school on Fridays to protest inaction. In the United States, 16-year-old students, like Kallan Benson and Jamie Margolin, have started such large-scale movements as Climate Strike Action and the Zero Hour.  Last year the Extinction Rebellion, a new movement, disrupted many cities.  In Germany, the Green Party is gaining. Students all over the world are involved. 

A study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that active opinion leaders can influence up to 1,000 people through interpersonal connections.  A thousand new young activists might change up to a million minds.  The contest described below is a potential path to thousands of new opinion leaders.

The San Diego Unified (SDUSD) has begun to act.  Beginning this spring and continuing through the summer and beyond, students in San Diego’s schools will be working on climate change projects in  SDUSD’s Project Based Learning Institute. Students from grades K to 12 will form teams of four to six and choose a subject such as Clean Jobs, Clean Oceans, Food Sustainability, Immigration, Making the Internet of Things Carbon-neutral, or other subjects of their choice. 

This is where town/gown collaboration comes in.  Students will connect with an authentic audience of industry and university partners.  The technology leader Qualcomm and the energy company Sempra are headquartered here, as are the University of California at San Diego (which houses the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and San Diego State University.  Students will learn how STEM subjects apply to real-world problems.

In May, projects will be judged during SDUSD’s Innovation Showcase with the best projects acknowledged on electronic billboards in San Diego. A week later, winning projects will be featured at the Climate and Weather Event aboard the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier in the port.

The 2020 summer months provide a big opportunity to create change-makers throughout the country.  Millions of youngsters will engage in some sort of learning program in schools, museums, libraries, summer camps, YMCAs and other youth-serving organizations.   Here too, a Climate Change Project contest is one way to bring these diverse youth-serving organizations together in a common effort. 

This where contests come in.  Under the aegis of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), a 25-year-old non-profit, nearly 250 organizations applied for prizes on other themes this past summer (sponsored by New York Life and Lands’ End); the four winners receiving $10,000 each. NSLA hopes that even more organizations will enter on the subject of climate change.  NSLA will provide access to the lessons learned in San Diego and technical and curricula advice.

Teachers who enter the contest will have curricular flexibility to test new ideas.  Students will have time for more hands-on learning so important to STEM subjects. They will acquire collaboration, communication, and other workplace skills as they carry out their projects.

Madrid showed there was insufficient political pressure for policy change in 2019.  The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) noted that “the deal they eked out evoked disappointment on multiple fronts.”  In the first days of 2020, Australia gave the world a dramatic new lesson of the price of inaction.  Yet, there is reason to hope. Greta and youngsters in the U.S. and elsewhere illustrated that students can change minds.

San Diego and California’s experience of forest fires, rising oceans and drought have convinced this state’s voters that rising temperatures are dangerous.  Revising the political calculus of lawmakers, however, requires convincing more voters in other states who remain skeptical. Young people can influence what happens in the U.S. and at the meeting in Glasgow next November and, thereby, what policies take hold over the next decade and beyond.  Teachers can influence what students do.

Arnold Packer

464 Prospect St,

La Jolla, CA, 92037


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