05/03/2019 by Michael Brosnan |

Thank You, Greta Thunberg

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A year ago, few of us knew of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden. But she has quickly become an international figure as a lead voice for environmental sustainability.

Back in September 2018, it occurred to Greta that attending school made little sense while adult leaders in the world sat on their hands and let human-driven climate change wreak havoc and endanger the future of all life. To draw attention to this collective political indifference, she decided to skip school and protest in front of the Swedish parliament.

Every day for two weeks, Thunberg sat outside parliament in central Stockholm, handing out leaflets and encouraging political action and citizen activism. Her view is that the time for debating global warming has passed. We need to collectively shift into action mode — even panic mode — if we hope to stop the damage we’ve done and continue to do. We must find a way to live sustainably on the planet starting today, she says. Until adults in power understand this, she sees it as her moral responsibility to stand up for the planet and the future of life.

“People are slowly becoming more aware, but emissions continue to rise. We can’t focus on small things. Basically, nothing has changed,” she said at an Extinction Rebellion rally in London recently. “This is not just young people being sick of politicians. It’s an existential crisis. It is something that will affect the future of our civilization. It’s not just a movement. It’s a crisis and we must take action accordingly.”

Traveling by train only, Thunberg has met with Pope Francis and has addressed members of the European parliament. She says she is willing to meet with any leader interested in hearing her views — which boils down to encouraging them to engage in conversation with climate scientists about what needs to be done to stop the bleeding. She wants everyone to be clear about the problem, and for those in power to take immediate steps to solve it.

Greta has gotten attention because she is speaking truth to power. She is brave enough to stand up and challenge adults. And she knows the science well enough to understand what has gone wrong and what needs to occur next.

Impressively, an estimated 1.6 million other schoolchildren have followed Greta’s lead — skipping school to protest climate inaction in Sweden and elsewhere.

I imagine it’s upsetting to some educators to see students skip school for any reason. But if we are serious about educating children for their future, don’t we also owe them a healthy world in which they can live? As Greta points out, this is one of those problems that we can’t keep kicking down the road. If adults don’t tackle the problem now, young people should hold them accountable.

In an unflinching and moving TED talk, Greta admits that she in on the Asperger’s spectrum and that she tends to see all issues in black and white. But she considers this a strength — at least in this case — arguing that there can be no gray areas regarding climate action. Either we live sustainably or we don’t live. There is no such thing as partly sustainable. She also understands that the impact of climate change is greater on the poor than on the rich and that we’re already causing great and irreparable harm to the rest of nature — currently losing around 200 species per day.

“People tell me I should stay in school and study to be a climate scientist,” Greta says. “But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.”

In the U.S., three young women — 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor of New York, 12-year-old Haven Coleman of Denver, and 16-year-old Isra Hirsi of Minneapolis — have taken on similar national organizing efforts for climate action. This past March, students in Northern California whose communities were ravaged by wildfires instigated the Schools for Climate Action Summit in Washington, D.C. They also brought together students affected by Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area and by agricultural droughts on tribal lands in New Mexico to lobby at the U.S. Capitol.

In their recent article, “Climate Change: What Educators Can Learn from Students Around the World,” independent school educators Stephen Siperstein, Susee Witt, and Jason BreMiller also make the case that schools need to step up their engagement. “Scientists agree that humanity only has a few years to slash greenhouse gas emissions to prevent — or at least limit — the most catastrophic potential impacts of climate change. Without action, experts warn that there could be innumerable extreme weather events, endless droughts and food shortages, tens of millions of climate refugees, the inexorable spread of infectious diseases, and a sixth mass-extinction event.”

These three leaders in environmental education make the point that a combination of environmental education and climate action needs to be part of the program in every school. Yet, while a recent NPR poll indicates that 80% of parents think climate change should be taught in school, very few schools teach it.

We owe Greta and these other students our support and praise. We also need to take immediate action. As adults, we should prioritize responding to climate change in every political sphere. We should also hit the pause button in schools, listen to what leading climate-change educators are saying, and adjust our curricula accordingly. Only by opening up the conversation in the public sphere and in schools can we address our largest collective problem in a way that leads to a healthy future. Indeed, as the Teaching Tolerance team notes, we need to think of man-driven climate change as a central social-justice issue of our times.

As Greta says, why continue to educate children for the future while continuing to ruin the planet they will inherit?

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A Few Resources for Educators:


Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor with a particular interest in education and social change. His latest book of poetry, “The Sovereignty of the Accidental,” was published by Harbor Mountain Press. He can be reached at michaelbrosnan54@gmail.com.

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