As students around the country return to school in the coming weeks, many will be asked to write an essay on a familiar theme: how I spent my summer vacation. Many will have stories of riding waves off the coast of sandy beaches, others will have epic tales of harassing siblings while their parents make their way through mountain passes to hidden lakes. Still others will have rich memories of their first ride to the top of the Empire State Building or of a cool ice cream devoured on the edge of a toasty estuary at sunset. How many, though, will recognize in their stories the face of climate change? Who would go as far as to call it “climate change tourism”?
What is climate change tourism? Well, it’s visiting the places now that won’t be here in 100 years due to climate change. It’s visiting the cities that will be under water and the glaciers that will turn to liquid; the places that will be forever altered by our changing climate.
This is how I spent my summer vacation on the shores of North Carolina, where houses are built on stilts sometimes two stories high to avoid inundation from storms, where the rental units come equipped with detailed information on emergency evacuations in case of hurricanes, where the concern of a rising sea is as salient as the salty air—but where the science has been hushed by legislation that bans the use of scientific predictions for coastal policies.
This week, as students return to their classroom, The New York Times reported on the leaked 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in which, for the first time, researchers stated that they are over 95% confident that human activity is causing climate change. With this comes the concern about impacts, most notably for me and my beach adventure, was that sea level could rise as much as 3 feet by the end of the century. The home I was staying in, not far from the town of Sea Level (I kid you not), would certainly not survive.
Though classrooms this fall will be filled with stories of where the students went and what they saw over their summer break, how many teachers will ask them to think about what it means in the face of climate change? Could teachers ask students to ponder how rising sea levels might alter the landscape of the beach or town that they visited? Could they ask students about what they saw from the Empire State building, and how that might change after another Sandy-type storm? Would educators feel comfortable asking these questions, without concerns of being accused of terrorizing the student or at least importing their personal politics into a typically mundane assignment?
The IPCC report is a serious document with the world’s best science on climate change. It is full of news that no one is enthusiastic to hear—but it includes news that we can use. It states that if governments are able to get emissions under control, the impending sea level rise will be substantially reduced. So the report gives a beam of hope for both policymakers and citizens. If brought into the classroom, it would allow students to see what their outlook holds and to understand how it is within their power to change the future.
Just as there are many ways to spend your summer vacation, there are many ways to address climate change with students. The worst option is to say nothing at all—after all, aren’t all children eager to share where they’ve been and what they’ve seen?
However a teacher chooses to bring climate change into the classroom, it’s up to them to show where the students are going in the future and how the students themselves are in control of where we all will end up.