I’ve spent a lot of my time teaching environmental education to kids in a variety of settings and age groups. A pretty typical situation has me walking into the job and being given a sheaf of lesson plans on a variety of topics, adjusted for the age of the students I’ll be working with. No matter where I am or who I’m teaching, from preschoolers at a nature center in rural Ohio to middle schoolers at a public school in Washington, DC, one thing was always true: the content of existing lessons completely left out any mentions of environmental justice and environmental inequalities. This leaves a huge gap in children’s conceptions of the environmental issues facing us today.
Happy Earth Day!
Which is the day we all pat ourselves on the back for doing our little bit to increase sustainability and protect the planet, right? Only the planet ain’t doing so well.
Here’s a sobering thought: If you were born after March 1985, you have never experienced a colder-than-average month. Climate change isn’t “coming.” It’s here. And weather instability is the name of the game. It’s the new normal. Human civilization was fortunate to emerge during a period of unusual stability in the earth’s climate–global mean temperatures are estimated not to have moved more than one degree Celsius in either direction in he past 10,000 years. (Click for nifty infographic!) But that equilibrium has been ruptured, and even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped now, it could be hundreds if not thousands of years before the climate reaches a new stable state.
When the US Congress failed to pass a cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions in 2009, I commented to friends that it would take a hurricane hitting New York City to get this country to focus seriously on climate change. Well, that actually happened last fall.
And as people give up on effective action from the US government or the United Nations, people are increasingly talking about adaptation. When people talk about climate change, they speak of “adaptation” and “mitigation.” Mitigation is the actions we take to reduce our emissions so as to lessen the severity of climate change. Adaptation is the task of adapting social and natural systems to a changed climate the increasingly common and severe natural disasters that will result.
But let’s be real.
I have seen the devastation that nature can wreak first-hand, working on the front lines of relief and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. And I’ve studied the topic extensively in graduate school and reported on it from the floor of the UNFCC conference in Copenhagen. But the ugly truth is that, absent serious and near-term reduction of emissions, “adaptation” is triage at best. It is fundamentally insufficient to protect the billions who are most vulnerable to climate impacts—impacts that will fall disproportionately on women. The idea that we could just adapt to a changing climate is a cruel joke. But with climate change upon us, adaptation is also needed. Lessening suffering is important, and it is important to bring a gender analysis to this area.