The salient prospect about climate change for students today is not doom but uncertainty. Nobody can stop climate change, yet much climate education still only goes as far as helping young people try to reduce incremental adds of carbon to the atmosphere. I’ve started a unit that fuses climate science teaching with civics, economics, social psychology and negotiation. In a high school classroom, role-playing and psychology can help students absorb the hard choices climate change will force and the complex concepts involved. Teaching in a framework of urban design spurs young people to reach consensus around conflicting choices
A high school classroom defines a place where people readily accept the proposition that most people behave irrationally- and where students work together to find ways to make group life more forward-looking. In the spring of 2013, I taught 39 young people in three New York City high schools a module that combines psychology, climate science and planning. It has also steered students to think about health benefits and biodiversity as intrinsically useful factors in public urban design. I discuss here how this connection can emerge more brightly to address both storms and anxiety in their cities. Young people can work methodically through how urban land use evolved to shape ecosystems. They can then negotiate to solutions on how urban land use should change to arrest runaway ecosystem disruption. They began by shrugging about finding celebrities to persuade folks to act “green” and ended with plans to reduce carbon through scalable and novel new kinds of parks and business. This departs from the cultural narrative about climate change, which somehow still equates turning out a particular light switch with the rescue of a particular polar bear. And none too soon.
Living with climate change means accepting daily stresses and huge shifts in political economy- and making each day as sweet as it can be anyway. I saw as a reporter how urban planners proposed climate-protected utopias while ordinary people greeted climate change with widespread pessimism or magical thinking. As the idea of stopping climate change became manifestly fictional and as successful projects to build resilience began showing data, I decided to teach a planning process to young people.
I learned that students primed to think about climate quickly learn to collaborate and to seek co-benefits when they propose schemes. I learned that they resist “real” projects but dive into role-play approximations. And I learned that they can think about ecosystem data in an applied context with consideration for human irrationality. Most important, I learned that they can see climate change as a prevailing uncertainty that also works as a spur to integrated thinking.
While I can share data with anyone who wants it, the takeaway challenges us to think about combining disciplines as we teach science and civics in this era. It turned out that the language of urban design stoked sophisticated thinking about social and economic issues within the constraints of climate change. Each group I taught began as pessimistic about the ecosystem’s future and citing personal actions as the only available response. Each ended with consensus that uncertainty - not doom- would mark their future, And each group agreed that they could manage that uncertainty’s risks by designing changes to urban land use. These students had done no prior urban planning, and they all began with more intuitive knowledge of basic psychology than I’d expected.
Their proposals balanced prosocial cues with long-term adaptations. Most of them seemed financing-ready. One group proposed optimizing public parks for biodiversity, harvesting cafeteria waste for rooftop vegetation, and proposed urban gardens with, biodiversity-promoting landscapes and green infrastructure. equivalent to what comes out of many professional design competitions. Another group went in three days from splitting along gender lines to presenting a unified plan for 26 acres of Manhattan’s West Side..
This sample of student work shows how my unit, which I thought would put urban planning in its place, helped young people see urban planning as a real venue. These students, like the others I taught, synthesized experimental ideas about climate, justice and stability in design proposals. One early statement sought "less chance for global warming," with sketches of an electric car fleet. The final proposal detailed ways to harvest food scraps from the cafeteria and compost them for a rooftop garden.
The psychology, which I’d thought would shock students, only fired up their intensity. The climate science made them curious to know more about what might possibly happen, not just what has happened so far. .It’s not news to kids that decisions affecting public life lack sound basis. It is news that carbon effects last tens of thousands of years and can run away in unknown directions. So I learned that climate science for young people should drive home the idea of uncertainty- and that climate response can usefully come from asking what sort of city they’d want to cherish in any climate. Give the kids a chance to play-act a proposed change to a real place or system, I conclude, and they will show a skill at thinking from multiple perspectives. This skill will lead to a plan with instant ecological co-benefits and carbon-reduction gains.
21st Century kids will learn about climate change the way 20th Century American kids learned about capitalism. Whatever their beliefs about its cause or coda, climate will frame their sense of what’s possible in civilization. It will draw their dominant symbols for art and literature. And it will both constrain their future careers and open new channels for professional and civic leadership. Studying how people behave in order to analyze how to guide people through climate uncertainty represents an experiment. The outcome can’t be clear yet. The benefit to students and teachers comes as a capacity for addressing both climate and human volatility as pressure builds.
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change
Location: New York, NY