A short excerpt about growing up in the Climate Movement
BY CHIARA FIELDS
Every Monday and Wednesday, I help teach environmental science and climate justice to middle school students in South San Diego. Today, I sat with them as they drew visual representations of what they understood climate change to be and how it made them feel. I watched them draw screaming people and dying fish and empty fridges and flooded streets, and it made me think back to when I was in middle school and I first decided that I wanted to become an environmental policy analyst. The more I watched and thought, the more I couldn’t help but feel profound indignation.
My parents taught me about climate change when I was very young. My mom helped me draw magazine covers for the fictional National Geographic articles I wrote about melting ice caps and bleached reefs, and my dad was constantly explaining the environmental benefits of vegetarianism. They instilled in me a deep care for, and love of, the environment–but that was about as far as those feelings went. I wasn’t looking to make a career out of them.
I was in middle school when I started learning more about climate change in class, and I was twelve when I first learned what it meant to write policy. It was then that I wholeheartedly decided exactly what I wanted to dedicate my life to. I was interested in so many different things, but climate change scared me, and I thought I could make large-scale differences by shaping policy. Much like the little kids I work with, the prospect of mass extinctions and burning forests incited fear and guilt. I felt as though I had to do something about it, and all of a sudden, my decision to fight climate change was less about my love for nature, and much more about climate change’s consequences and the necessity for change.
I still hold fast to the decision I made when I was younger as I study Environmental Policy in college now, where my everyday life revolves around climate change. I learn about it, I write about it, I read about it, I talk about it, I protest it, and I build my community around those who are similarly passionate about it. I love what I’ve chosen to do, but every so often I find myself wishing that it didn’t have to be my job, or any young person’s for that matter.
Over and over again, upon hearing what I wanted to be when I grew up, adults would smile amiably and respond, “We need more people like you” as if climate activism was a chore and environmental stewardship was inherently impractical for daily life. As if they couldn’t be a part of the solution too. It was meant to be complementary, but the phrase was so isolating. Every time I heard it I felt crazy for attempting to tackle an issue as big as climate change and angry that young people were expected to fix it.
The effects of carbon dioxide emissions on Earth’s temperature were first predicted in 1896 when scientist Svant Arhhenius observed that human activity was increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. He correctly predicted that this would warm the Earth. The Keeling Curve supported the Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change in 1958 by proving that CO2 concentrations were disproportionately increasing over the last century. It further linked rapidly increasing CO2 concentrations to global temperatures. After a series of international climate conferences, where it became apparent to world leaders that climate change was real and dangerous, the UN established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The IPCC specifically aimed to guide policy makers by providing “regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options.” Even though the first IPCC report, released in 1990, predicted that the Earth would observe a 1℃ rise in temperature by 2025, the U.S. decided not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This led to the first ever climate change protest, held in 2001 by Britain’s Campaign Against Climate Change.
Put simply, people knew about climate change and could have done more to stop it.
The same adults who kept telling me that more environmentalists needed to exist in the world had the knowledge available to them that their actions were contributing to climate change. I felt like I was being commended for wanting to fix their problem. Yes, powerful corporations skewed information and politicians purposefully fueled debates that made climate change seem fake, but still, the research and discourse were there.
Now, it’s 2022, and climate change is unquestionable. Myself and other young people are confronted with daunting truths that make the future feel hopeless. For instance, based on the latest IPCC report, up to 143 million people in Africa and South Asia are projected to be displaced by 2050, and the number of people living in extreme poverty is projected to increase by 122 million by 2030 as a direct result of climate change.
So, it’s Wednesday, and I watch these kids, who talk to me excitedly each week about becoming artists and bakers and writers, draw scared, sobering images of what their futures will look like. It makes me sad that how we as young people interact with the environment is largely borne from fear and dictated by the actions of generations much older than us.
Of course, this is the crux of nearly every single social justice issue. Groups of people are disproportionately affected by a whole host of different issues, all of which deserve attention. So, in reality, young people can, and should, still pursue their passions, regardless of whether or not they’re directly related to climate change. Not everyone has to dedicate their lives to the Climate Movement like I’ve chosen to, but it’s an incredibly interdisciplinary issue, so the more perspectives that are heard and bolstered, the more likely we can combat it. Importantly, everyone, especially adults who have the power to educate and make things better for future generations, need to normalize and incorporate sustainability into our daily lives. This means supporting greener policies, moving away from consumerism, protesting or boycotting corporations that emit greenhouse gasses, and so on.