That climate change is occurring is unquestionable. And almost all scientists have agreed on the cause: Human activities (primarily the burning of fossil fuels) generate greenhouse gases that are dramatically changing our world. There is an overwhelming international consensus that global cooperation and action are essential to curb these emissions.
Young people have the greatest stake in whether or not the world succeeds in cutting emissions and addressing climate change. They have the most to lose if our national leaders fail in this task. Young people's voices and actions can make a difference, especially in the U.S., the country that emits the most greenhouse gases. Despite this, US leaders have so far been unwilling to require cuts in emissions or to even participate in international agreements aimed at curbing them.
The reading below provides a brief overview of the climate change problem. An annotated list of organizations and websites active on the problem follows. Youth-oriented groups lead the list.
Four earlier sets of materials on energy and climate change issues are available on this website for student and teacher use. All include background information and suggestions for further student inquiry.
- The Controversial Bush Energy Program
- Oil and the Bell-Shaped Curve
- The Unpleasant News about Global Warming (including a suggested class project on global climate change in the "For Citizenship" section)
- Problems at the Pump
Playing Games with Our Children's Future
2005 will probably go into the books as the hottest, the stormiest, and the driest on record.
A United Nations Climate Change Conference reached this conclusion in December 2005. The conference took place in Montreal, Canada and included representatives from 189 countries.
Robins have been sighted by Inuit Hunters 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, wreaking particular havoc in New Orleans and was one of the storms that made this year's the most violent hurricane season on record. A long-lasting and unprecedented drought in Brazil's Amazon region is destroying farmers' livelihoods. Coral is dying in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. These are some of the signs of mounting global climate change. Most of it "over the last 50 years is attributable to human beings," according to a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an overwhelming scientific consensus.
Current levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are the highest they have been for hundreds of thousands of years. CO2 is the key "greenhouse gas" contributing to global warming, one of the signs of climate change. The average American contributes 12,000 pounds of CO2 emissions each year (that's per person). The United States, with 3% of the world's population, spews about 25% of total global emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Globally, between 1990 and 2003, greenhouse gas emissions were up 13%. (www.pewclimate.org)
Future consequences of climate change are certain. Some of these consequences are predictable, others are unclear or unknown. Leaders of 189 nations agree that climate change is a vital issue for people everywhere on earth—one that requires global attention, cooperation, and action. In 1997 delegates from around the world meeting in Kyoto, Japan, agreed to what became known as the Kyoto Protocol. Its key provision requires industrialized nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012 by at least 5% below levels measured in 1990. This restriction does not apply to developing nations like China and India.
At the Montreal meeting, the participating nations agreed to work for new and more ambitious goals to take effect after 2012. But global action to limit greenhouse gas emissions is limited and faces significant problems.
Among the most serious problems is that United States does not participate in the Kyoto Protocol and rejects mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. At Montreal the chief American negotiator walked out of discussions on finding new ways to reduce emissions.
The Bush administration position is that a) much is unknown about the consequences of climate change; b) drastic actions may be unnecessary; c) participation in mandatory agreements like Kyoto would hurt the US economy; d) the Kyoto agreement is also unfair since it excludes restrictions on developing nations; and e) a better approach is one that focuses on the creation of new and cleaner technologies and incentives for American industries to make voluntary emissions cuts.
Internationally, this US position is very unpopular. Waves of applause greeted former President Bill Clinton when he said in a speech to the Montreal delegates, "I think it's crazy to play games with our children's future."
Present in Montreal were some 500 of these "children," most in their 20's and determined to make their presence felt. They talked with delegates, held daily demonstrations, and pressed for meetings with national delegations.
One campaigner, Nia Robinson from Detroit, is a worker for the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, "a group focused on the social impact of global warming." She was "ejected from the meeting hall...for trying to deliver a 'climate change survival pack' to American officials, consisting of a face mask for air pollution, a life jacket to counter the threat of rising sea levels and a can of Spam, symbolizing the potential disruption of traditional food sources for indigenous people." ( New York Times, 12/9/05)
Others in the group with her were told that the US"had no plans to start negotiating new agreements on climate change, that existing policies were already producing results."
Josh Tulkin of Sustain Us, a network of youth organizations, said when he came out of a Montreal meeting, "While this upsets us, it also motivates us to go back and fight as hard as we can back in the United States. We know we have to take it back into our own hands. That's what we're doing at the cities, the campus and our communities. This is our future and we need to take control of it right now, today, take action."
An older campaigner, John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, said, "There's never been a social movement that didn't have young people as the moral standard bearers. They realize the fate of their world is being decided in the shadows at these conventions." ( New York Times , 12/9/05)
Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University, said recently, "If we won't get a serious program in place for the long term in this post-Kyoto phase, we simply will not make it. We will be crossing limits which will basically produce impacts that are unacceptable." ( New Yorker, 12/12/05)
1. What do almost all scientists agree is the main cause of global climate change?
2. What is the Kyoto Protocol? Why isn't the US part of it?
3. What other problems do you know of that contribute to the difficulties of international cooperation on climate change?
4. What was the purpose of the recent Montreal meetings?
5. Why is climate change an urgent problem?
Youth Action Opportunities
Many organizations work to promote a sustainable global environment and to fight the dangers of unbridled climate change. The following youth groups offer opportunities for individual and small-group involvement and action that might be part of a class study of climate change issues—or independent of it:
Sustain Us (www.Sustainus.org) is "a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of young people advancing sustainable development and youth empowerment in the United States." It maintains its network of young people through a list serve.
Climate Campaign (www.climatecampaign.org) is "a collaborative effort of the Northeast's environmental networks" and posts a variety of activities, workshops, projects and fairs.
Climate Change Action (www.climatechangeaction.blogspot.com) provides worldwide environmental news and commentary as well as suggestions for individual action.
Among the older environmental groups that work on climate change as well as a variety of other environmental problems are the following:
Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org) offers access to a special global warming home page. It provides information, resources, links to other organizations and activities.
Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org), the well-known global activist organization, has a youth activism section on its website called "solar generation."
Environmental Defense Fund (www.edf.org) finds "innovative, practical ways to solve the most urgent environmental problems." Its website includes a global warming section.
Pew Charitable Trusts has a website (www.pewclimate.org) devoted to environmental issues that offers detailed, accurate information on global warming.
United Nations (www.un.org) has a link to United Nations Cyber School Bus, which includes many educational materials on the environment and climate change for both students and teachers.
Th is lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org