Earth Matters: Changing the conversation on climate change

  • Earth rising over a moonscape during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission. William Anders for NASA

For the Gazette
Monday, February 14, 2022

A few years ago, I watched a fascinating series of interviews with Apollo astronauts as they talked about first seeing the Earth from space.

These usually laconic engineers and stoic test pilots talked about how they were moved by the beauty of our blue planet, and the fragility of the thin layer of atmosphere that separates us from the vacuum of space and creates the conditions for life on Earth. They talked about feeling homesick for Earth as they headed toward the lonely, lifeless and cratered expanse of the moon.

Today, as we continue to burn fossil fuels for energy to power our buildings, factories and cars, we are releasing more carbon dioxide into that atmosphere. The buildup of this excess carbon dioxide (along with other gases such as methane) acts like a heat-trapping blanket around the earth, and is disrupting the balance of our climate and the conditions for life on Earth.

What would the Apollo astronauts have thought about this? As some of the first explorers to venture into space, they had a unique perspective on how all humans and all other living things are interconnected, and how our atmosphere, oceans and biosphere are all part of a complex and interdependent system. As engineers, I suspect they would have started to join together with others to “work the problem” and find solutions.

Yet, according to the Yale Project on Climate Communication, even though 76% of Americans understand that climate change is happening, 61% rarely or never discuss it with friends and family.

This lack of public engagement is a barrier to action. Those Americans who do talk about climate change are more likely to see it as a risk and support policies to reduce it. In fact, discussing climate change with family and friends is the most reliable predictor of climate change’s absolute and relative importance as a voting issue.

The need for increased public engagement in addressing climate change is recognized at the international level, and is incorporated in Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in Article 12 of the Paris Agreement as “Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE).” The goal of ACE is to empower all members of society to engage in climate action to provide the sustained public support needed to advance policy change; build the workforce of the future; enable broad inclusive public participation that centers equity and climate justice; and promote transformational education, learning and engagement at all levels of society.

How can we promote public engagement to support ambitious goals such as the Massachusetts Decarbonization Road Map to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050?

Educators, in and out of school, can support learning about climate change, sustainability and climate solutions to prepare the rising generation to lead a sustainable future. Through youth leadership programs (such as the Western Mass Youth Climate Summit, supported by the Hitchcock Center and Mass Audubon) young people can develop skills for action, and discover that by working together they can make a difference.

The education sector can advance climate equity by prioritizing communities most affected by climate change and involve youth, families and community members in decisions about climate action.

However, according to the Aspen Institute’s K-12 Climate Action brief, the education sector has yet to establish its role in addressing climate change, and large-scale climate solutions too often overlook the role that education can play. Over the past two years, I have been working with a group of organizations from across the country about how we could reshape environmental education to be more impactful.

We realized that we need a more holistic approach to how we think about education as a critical tool in a participatory democracy, a concept that goes back to John Dewey. We need ways to help people now and in the next generation to engage productively, peacefully and equitably to grapple with the problems we are facing in our society, and make good decisions for the future.

This group came together around a common vision of “education for a just and sustainable future.” One thing the last two years have taught us is that so many of the issues we have been dealing with and talking about — the pandemic and inequities in health care, natural disasters and human-driven climate change, economic disparity and social injustice — are all connected. Human and environmental health, climate and social justice are inseparable.

We can all contribute toward this collective effort to change the conversation on climate change to be more productive, inclusive and focused on solutions. In the words of climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, “Use your voice to talk about why climate change matters to you, here and now. Use it to share what you are doing, what others are doing, what they can do. Use it to advocate for change at every level. Use it to vote and to inform decisions your school, your business, your city, and your country can make. Talk about it in every community that you are part of and whose values and interests you share.”

The health of our planet depends on it.

Billy Spitzer joined the Hitchcock Center for the Environment as executive director in August. A primary goal of his directorship is to advance the center’s work at the intersection of climate change, sustainability and environmental justice. For more information about the Western Mass Climate Summit, visit hitchcockcenter.org/western-mass-youth-climate-summit.