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The power and the perils of talking to teens about climate

Getting Real

The power and the perils of talking to teens about climate

A classroom's chalkboard with an earth on it
GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

As CSOs, we typically get pretty good at public presentations, learning how to engage audiences early, to give a compelling presentation without slides (or at least without slides loaded with verbose 12-point bullets), how to blank the screen so that the audience will focus on us — or, better, on one another. To truly hear their voices ourselves and steer the group to common ground.

We learn the techniques for communicating with execs, customers, peers, suppliers, competitors, NGOs (friendly and otherwise), like-minded people, indifferent people and even angry people. Some CSOs are foresighted and lucky enough to engage with the workers at our suppliers and with the communities in which we work.

We learn to balance: hard business rationale with ethical and moral reasoning, rapport with challenge, level-headedness with passion, logic with emotion. 

But I wasn’t completely prepared for this.

Last week, I had the privilege of conducting a workshop — three, actually — at a local high school. The topic was climate change and extreme weather, and it was one of 30-plus workshops included in an all-school, all-day Day of Action organized by two outstanding students as their senior project, sanctioned by the school, teachers and parents. 

[Please take a 60-second time-out to be blown away by the ambition of these students and the level of enthusiastic support from the adults. Okay, back to the point.]

Yes, classic presentation techniques served the situation well. As a trained Climate Reality Leader, I had a rich stash of compelling photos to appeal to the right brain and tons of data for the left. I used direct slide access to let the students prioritize which types of extreme weather events we should discuss, exploring how and why climate change effects them, and their impacts on society.

(In case you’re interested, all three groups started with hurricanes, then went on in various orders to floods, drought and wildfires. None of the groups thought of heat waves and were shocked at how dangerous they are. One group did actually bring up snow storms. All of them asked about tsunamis, which I hadn’t expected, although I was not surprised that they wanted to know the effect of climate change on the strength of tornadoes.)

Where I did struggle was with balance. First of all, each session was attended by about 30 students ranging from freshmen to seniors. If you have kids or a good memory, you know that these are the years of wide-ranging levels of maturity. Really, really wide. Second, they were not in the same place in terms of basic science or math — and in particular, of probability theory. Or of vocabulary, for that matter.

The good news? They all seemed pretty clear on the difference between climate and weather (or at least had listened well in the opening plenary). The definitions of "anomaly" and "exacerbate," not so much. It’s tricky not to talk down to them or talk over their heads.

The more important balance challenge was one that we all have to consider when speaking about climate change, but which is especially delicate when dealing with kids: how to create urgency without despair, determination without fear, hope without illusion. I wanted those students to leave charged up and determined — neither terrorized and hopeless, nor bored and apathetic. 

That was awkward for me because there were multiple plenary speakers and workshops on solutions, and I was just supposed to talk about extreme weather. But honestly, without discussing action or solutions, extreme weather is a pretty brutal topic. My heart broke when I showed a photo from the impact of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique last month, and one young woman groaned and put her head in her hands. I immediately switched to talking about why they shouldn’t despair and what kinds of actions they could take. I ran out of time, but this seemed more important than discussing tidal flooding. 

There’s another balance to be struck — that between focusing on how we got here versus where we need to go. As an activist friend pointed out, what we’ve done in the past will not work in the future, but how we avoid it means we have to know what we did. On the other hand, the biggest obstacle I see to action among those who understand the threat of climate change is that they don’t believe they have any power to influence the future. (I touched on the need to vote in local elections as well as national, and to use their voices as employees and consumers. But there was no time to help them learn how to decide who to vote for or against, what [not] to buy or where [not] to work.)

One plenary speaker went all in on the side of how we got here, placing blame categorically on the racist, misogynist, colonial systems that exploited, and continue to exploit, the poor, the powerless and the planet. She told the assembled students and teachers unequivocally that all politicians were in the pockets of rich, white men. She didn’t give them much guidance about what to do, though, other than take "direct action." And she told them to respond to accusations of shared responsibility with "F--- you." 

The range of maturity was evident in the response to this last remark. The audience erupted in a variety of sounds from "Oh, yeah!" to giggles to gasps to clapping. My immediate reaction was to feel that this was over the top, that so much anger was inappropriate with this audience. 

On the other hand, kids these days are exposed to so much. What was I protecting them from? When my host teacher asked the first class what they thought of the speaker, many of them thought she was "a little extreme"; others just were thrilled that someone "told it like it is."

Clearly, they’re capable of making their own judgments. We have no choice but to try to make sure they are informed and trust them to figure it out. And anyway, she is right. The systems are broken. And this isn’t the kid's fault. They should absolutely be indignant. 

At the end of the day, my workshop went well. The feedback was good; lots of the kids seemed to appreciate it. The teachers, too, and I was excited to see that my host teacher was determined to explore ways to incorporate discussion of climate change into his math lessons. What a great role model!

I love doing this. These kids inspire me and give me hope. And I learn from them. But they also make me ashamed. By now, you’ve heard the quote by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg: "It’s sometimes annoying when people say, ‘Oh, you children, you young people are the hope. You will save the world.’ I think it would be helpful if you could help us just a little bit."

She’s right: They deserve more.