Climate Change for High Schoolers

What follows are the notes and slides for a talk I gave to high schoolers in NYC on April 26th, 2019. Please feel free to use these materials without attribution.

Hi everyone, as [the head of school] just said, my name is Genevieve Guenther and I teach English Renaissance literature in the Literary Studies department at The New School. I am also the Founder and Director of the digital activist group and I’m writing a book about climate change and representation entitled “Keywords for a New Climate.” What I’m going to do today is talk to you a little about the basics of climate science and the history of climate denial, and then I’m going to tell you about the ways you’re empowered to change the politics of this issue.

Slide 1:

Image Credit: Sara Harris, UBC

So this is a complicated picture of something I’m going to describe in its simplest terms.

The climate of our planet is based on the energy balance in its systems. Electromagnetic radiation from the sun hits the Earth. Some of it bounces off the atmosphere and radiates back into space; some bounces off reflective surfaces like ice. Some of it is absorbed by the oceans and the land and then re-radiated as infrared radiation or heat. This heat is trapped by greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, gases such as CO2 and methane, which due to their molecular structures, absorb this heat and then radiate it back out in random directions.

The reason our planet is not just a ball of ice sailing through incredibly cold space is that greenhouse gases act collectively as a blanket keeping some heat in. During the Holocene, the geological epoch during which human civilization arose, our blanket of greenhouse gases was relatively thin, like a cotton sheet over a bed. The level of CO2 in our atmosphere was about 280 parts per million. But since 1850 we have emitted enough CO2 to significantly change the composition of our atmosphere and make our planet hotter than we’ve ever known it. It’s as if we have transformed our thin cotton sheet into a thick wool blanket, and as if we keep adding weight and thickness to that blanket each and every day.

Slide 2:

Image Credit: NOAA

So here is a graph that represents the increase both in CO2 pollution since about 1850 and in CO2 concentrations. The blue line represents emissions; the green line signifies atmospheric concentrations. [Ask if anyone knows or can guess why these two lines diverge (because oceans are absorbing CO2) and please note for them that the slide is from 2012 and CO2 concentrations are now at 410ppm.]

We have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in three main ways:

  1. by chopping down trees in order to clear land for animal agriculture (for cows in particular) and increasingly for palm-oil agriculture
  2. by producing and using cement
  3. and especially by burning fossil fuels. (And the majority of those fuels have been burnt only in the past 30 years — since Madonna released the song “Vogue.”) [Note: the high schoolers I spoke to did not grok this reference at all — I only managed to date myself ha ha.]

Slide 3:

As you can see here, the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is causing the temperature of our planet to rise. This graph shows a kind of hockey stick with a long handle of relatively even temperatures over the past 1000 years and then a red blade where the temperatures spike up from 1850 on. And again, this graph is a few years old. At this point we have warmed about 1°C. And I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but the climate system has had to absorb an enormous amount of energy to raise the average temperature of the planet that much. The oceans alone have absorbed the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb of energy every second since 1850 to get us to this point. And even 1°C average warming has tremendously destabilizing effects. The Arctic is now repeatedly 20°C warmer than normal. (That’s like walking out of your house wearing a jacket and a scarf, expecting a brisk Fall day, but getting hit by a blast of hot NYC summer air instead.) And as you can imagine the Arctic is melting like an ice cream cone in that heat, affecting the jet stream on which we rely for the stability of our climactic zones and the security of our food supply.

Slide 4:

Image Credit: Skeptical Science

And to put this in context, here is a graph of the last 400K or so years of CO2 concentrations. As you can see current concentrations are significantly higher than they’ve been in that timeframe. In fact the Earth has not had 400ppm of CO2 in its atmosphere for three million years, since {the Pliocene epoch}, before human beings even existed. At that point our planet was about 2.7° C hotter, and it looked completely different. Most landmass was covered in Savannas or Grasslands. Camels lived in Canada. Alligators lived in the Arctic, which was swampy like Florida. And the seas were about 20–30 meters higher.

Slide 5:

Here is Brooklyn Heights after 20 meters of sea level rise. The blue is water. The white is dry land.

So we don’t want that to happen. We don’t want [our school] and our neighborhood to be destroyed.

[Note: the slide above is a screenshot of the search results I got on Climate Central’s Risk Zone Map. I encourage you to find an instance of sea-level rise that might resonate personally with your audience.]

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, released a report in October which stated in no uncertain terms that the world has about 12 years to halve its greenhouse gas emissions and 30 to cease them entirely if we are to have a 66% chance to halt warming at 1.5°C and a greater than 66% chance to avoid 2°C of warming.

2°C warming was the main goal of the Paris Agreement, the 2015 agreement pledging to hold emissions at 2°C or ideally well below. It was signed by all the world’s countries except Nicaragua (which said that the agreement didn’t go far enough), but of course Donald Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement when he took office.

So we basically must halve emissions in the next 12 years, right around the time a 15 year old today would be done with grad school or med school or an MFA program, and we would need to end emissions in 30, when a 15 year old today would be at the peak of her career, in her mid 40s, in order to have a fighting change to halt warming at 2°C. And this is it. We don’t have a second chance after this. Once the ice melts, we can’t freeze it again on human timescales.

And, I’m sorry, but it’s also important to understand that 2°C of warming doesn’t mean that everything will be ok.

Let’s just look at the effects of 2°C warming on water only. This leaves out heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and new diseases, all of which will be orders of magnitude more destructive in the future than they are now.

Slide 6:

Image Credit: New York Times

32-80 million people will have their homes damaged or destroyed by flooding. Now 80 million people is greater than the population any European country besides Germany. Imagine the economic and human catastrophe of an entire European country flooded. That catastrophe will be spread all over the world.

So that’s too much water. But in another way, we will have too little water.

Slide 7:

Image Credit: New York Times

Because, for example, glaciers in the Himalayas are melting, 400 million people will not have enough water to drink. 400 million people is greater than the population of the US. It will be as if our entire country didn’t have enough to drink. But again, the thirst will be spread all over the world — including the US. The Colorado River, which supplies water to parts of California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and all of Arizona, is already drying up.

Slide 8:

Image Credit: New York Times

And finally, at 2°C of warming, coral reefs will die. And this is a tragedy not only because the reefs are gorgeous and amazing and a natural wonder. About one billion people on this planet depend on the reefs for food. What are those people going to eat when the reefs die off?

That all sounds very bad, I know, but what’s really bad is that we would be extremely lucky to halt warming at 2°C. Not only are nations not fulfilling their Paris pledges to cut emissions, in fact global greenhouse gas pollution is going up.

Slide 9:

As you can see, after a short plateau global emissions rose in 2017 and 2018. US emissions are also once again on the upswing.

Slide 10:

Again this is a complicated graph that I’m going to discuss in simple terms. Basically this graph shows different pathways which lead to different atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and thus different temperatures. Due to the rate at which our emissions are rising and the lack of sufficient climate-abatement policies on the part of nearly every world government, we are on track to warm 4°C pretty much over the course of your lifetimes. 4°C is the difference between the last ice age, when a glacier a mile thick covered what is now Manhattan, and today, when Manhattan is as you know it. We’re currently on track to add that much heat to the world again, and drastically alter the composition of the planet again, if we don’t stop using fossil fuels now.

I’d like to pause here and acknowledge that this is all very frightening. Honestly, I am frightened. I’m just going to stop for a moment and take a couple deep belly breaths. I encourage you to do the same. [Once the energy of the room calms, continue.] And now I’d like to tell you that I personally cope with my fear by converting it into anger. Because, you know what? I am outraged that we are in this position. I mean, how did we get here? How could people in power have let this happen? I didn’t know this was happening, even though I saw Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” when it was first released. I mean, I guess I kinda knew, but I didn’t really absorb the implications of what the science was saying because nobody else seemed to be alarmed. My teachers and mentors weren’t alarmed. The media wasn’t alarmed. And our leaders in government certainly weren’t alarmed.

There are lots of reasons why so few people seemed to be alarmed — and why so few people realize we’re in a climate emergency even today. But the most important reason, and the one I’m most angry about, is that executives at oil and gas companies teamed up with powerful Republican politicians to run the most well-funded, well-organized, massive propaganda campaign in human history. And this campaign has left the vast majority of the world, including smart and well-meaning Democrats, with absolutely no idea how dire the situation really is.

According to extensive research by journalists and historians, since the 1960’s oil and gas companies knew that their products would kill millions or even billions of people, but they covered up that knowledge and continued to drill for oil and gas with ever wider greed. Then in the late 1980’s, once scientists started speaking publicly about the threat of climate change, these companies and their Republican servants began to attack the credibility of climate scientists and cast doubt on their findings, all in order to make the general public believe that we don’t really know enough to be sure that we must transition to a clean, safe energy system. I’m sorry to say their efforts have been wildly successful.

I’ll just give you one example of their propaganda strategy. Since the late 80’s right up to last October’s IPCC report that I mentioned earlier, the climate deniers have at every opportunity made public statements highlighting what they call scientific “uncertainty.” Now, what do you imagine when you think of “uncertainty”? You think of “not being sure,” right? Not being able to make a decision. For most of us, the experience of “uncertainty” is like the experience of being in a restaurant and not being ready to order — you don’t really know, you’re uncertain whether you want a salad or a sandwich, or whatever, so you ask the server to go around the table and come back to you once you’ve made up your mind. In this sense, “uncertainty” means the state of not having enough information to make a decision and act.

But that’s not what it means in climate science. In climate science, “uncertainty” is actually synonymous with “confidence.” Weird, right? But it’s true. Take a look at this graph again [refer back to Slide 10, which is still showing]. Do you see these bars here on the right? See how they represent a range of possibilities for each concentration pathway? That range of possibilities is the confidence interval, also known as the uncertainty interval. In this sense, “uncertainty” does not signify that scientists don’t know stuff yet; it means that they know that there is range of potential outcomes, some bad and some really, really bad. In fact, scientific uncertainty means that scientists can’t rule out the really, really bad stuff, which in fact means that scientific uncertainty requires us to take more action to hedge against the possibility of these worst-case scenarios.

But this complicated, scientific sense of “uncertainty” was suppressed by the climate deniers’ public relations campaign. And in a terrible irony, whenever a scientist referred publicly to the “uncertainty” of the science, she would reinforce the underlying message of this campaign — that we don’t know enough to justify action — because generally when people hear scientists speak they use their personal, common-sense definitions to understand what those scientists are saying. And that’s what the climate deniers relied on.

Since October’s IPCC Special Report, and since we’re beginning to see the horrors of climate change with our own eyes, the fossil fuel industry seems to have switched its strategy. It is now claiming that it accepts the need to transition to a clean energy system, but as you might not be surprised to hear, this claim is just a new form of PR called “greenwashing.”

So, for example, oil and gas interests spent 30 million dollars in WA state in 2018 to defeat a ballot measure to impose a $15 tax on a ton of carbon. Thirteen million of that funding came from BP, a company who says explicitly in their public relations that they support a carbon tax.

Exxon, for another example, announced to great fanfare that they were pledging one million dollars to study the best way to design a carbon tax (spoiler alert: we already know plenty about how), but that one million dollars is literally a hundredth of what the company spends each month to explore for new oil and gas deposits.

The fossil fuel industry is not supporting the transition to a safe energy system and a decarbonized economy. On the contrary. They are blocking it. And so are the Republicans and some Democrats. The truth is we have the technology today to get us to 80% carbon neutrality, and we, both in America and in the world, can totally afford to pay for the transition (I have references to the economics to back that up, if anyone wants them). In fact the work of decarbonizing--installing solar and wind power, retooling the grid, retrofitting buildings--and the benefits of decarbonizing--vastly greater public health, smaller weather damages, cheaper food, revalued low-carbon work--will raise the standard of living for the vast majority of the world's people. But some people in power are blocking the transition. And they are doing it in order to stay rich and powerful. That's really all it boils down to.

And it’s a moral outrage. I hope, at some point in the future, that these oil and gas executives and the politicians they bought are tried for crimes against humanity at The Hague. Of course most of them will be tried posthumously. They will be dead. And you and your children, if you want to have them, will be left to deal with the consequences of their ability to hold on to wealth and power.

Let’s make those consequences as minimal as possible. And how do we do that? More specifically, what can you guys do, when you’re not even old enough to vote yet?

Well, you have the power to change things, on three different levels: political, personal, and cultural. I’m going to talk about them a bit out of order. I’ll start with the political level. We need a new politics that will decouple itself from the fossil fuel industry and marshal collective wealth and creativity to produce the systemic change that will save us.

How do young people change politics?

Slide 11A:

Does anyone know who this is? This is Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year old climate activist from Sweden. Last summer, after studying climate change and becoming horrified that our governments are doing nothing to address it, Greta went on strike. She sat in front of the Swedish Parliament every day for three weeks, and then every Friday once school started, demanding that the Swedish government pass a plan to decarbonize its country by 2050.

Slide 11B:

For many weeks she was totally alone. But the European media began to take notice of her, and her action began to grow.

Last month, a mere seven months after she started her strike, a world-wide school climate strike she organized saw 1.5 million kids across the world march to demand climate action to save their futures.

Here are some photos from the march, first published in the New York Times.


Cape Town, South Africa:



New Zealand:


The UK:


These school strikes have sent shockwaves around the world. Unfortunately these waves been a bit quieter in the United States, although two kids in New York City are planting the seeds that could flourish into a larger movement:

This is a thirteen-year-old girl named Alexandra Villaseñor. She sits mostly alone in front of the UN every Friday between 12–2

And this is Zayne Cowie, a nine-year-old boy who sits in front of City Hall every Friday between 11–1.

Please consider joining them! ([Head of school], I apologize.)

Slide 12:

Another way for you to transform the politics of climate change is to get involved with The Sunrise Movement, a youth activist group working to get the Federal government to pass a Green New Deal, a plan to decarbonize the American economy soon enough to halt warming at 1.5°C and raise the standard of living for the 99% in the process. Go to their website and read up on the Green New Deal. Or read the resolution itself. And if you like what you read, call your congressional representatives and tell them you’re a teenager who wants them to co-sponsor the Green New Deal Resolution.

Now. Let’s talk about the things you can do on a personal level. Each of these actions alone are tiny, and not everybody can do all of them, but just as the ocean is made up of billions of tiny drops of water, so is a changed world made up of billions of tiny changes in a transformed system.

First, embrace a vegetarian diet. It’s delicious, super-good for your health, and a great way to lower your carbon footprint. At the very least, try to limit your intake of beef and lamb, as well as fish flown in from faraway places. And don’t waste food. Every little bit counts.

Next, ask your parents to try to buy electricity from clean sources. I just signed up for community solar, after a 10-month wait on a wait list, and I know my utility offers wind power as well. Maybe yours does too.

Finally, take public transportation as often as you can; consider taking a train instead of a plane; and if you do buy a car one day, buy an electric vehicle.

So those are some personal actions you can take to reduce your carbon footprint.

The last level where you can make change is on the cultural level, by shifting the norms that govern our behavior. The best way to do this is by speaking out.

Talk about climate change with your parents. If you’re scared or angry or sad (or even just annoyed you had to listen to me!), tell them. Talk about it with your friends. You don’t need to know anything; even just sharing your feelings is enough. And talk about it with your teachers! If you learn or experience something in school that you feel is connected to climate change, but no-one else is mentioning it, bring it up! Again, you don’t have to know anything; you can just ask questions. Even asking questions fights complacency and silence.

And as you envision your future, maybe imagine dedicating your talents to transforming the world. Any profession in which you might be interested can be applied to solving the challenges of climate change: not just science and politics, but also finance, law, medicine, journalism, teaching, engineering, coding, architecture, all of it. And if you’re interested in the arts? All the better. I encourage you to make art that helps people understand what we face if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels right now. And even more importantly, I encourage you to make art that enables people to envision a new world that has transitioned to a safe energy system, and that is more democratic, more equitable, and more just — a world built on the principle that no-one deserves to die, or even just to suffer, so that other people can continue to make unimaginable amounts of money. Imagine and make visible a world built on love — a world that truly values life.

And as you go forward, have courage. I know this all feels overwhelming, and it’s inevitable to wonder what one person can really do. But please: have courage and faith.

A friend of mine named Beth Sawin tells this story: Imagine a pond, with water lilies floating in it. The lilies are growing, doubling the area of the pond’s surface they cover every day. Say in 30 days they will grow from scattered individual plants to a collective green that covers the full surface of the pond. If day zero sees only scattered individual plants, and day 30 is when the surface is fully covered, on what day will the pond be half covered? On day 29.

Now imagine the surface of the pond as political will, and the lilies people ready to act. Imagine that when the pond is fully covered, power shifts enough to pass laws and direct spending and build infrastructure in support of a livable climate. What will the pond look like on the 26th day? Or the 27th day? Or even the 29th day? Not very full, right? But then — bam. A green pond.

Unless you are very practiced at thinking about exponential growth, you might look at the sparsely covered pond that is our current politics and loose heart. But actually now is the time to try your hardest. Now is the time to let your hope rise the highest. Because we’re making systemic change even when we can’t see it. Because that’s how systemic change happens: very slowly, and then all at once.

So live your lives and be young. Love one another. And have the courage to embrace the challenge rising ahead of you. Do the work you are called to do, and keep the faith. Thank you!

Author. Founder & Director of Lecturer at The New School & Affiliate Faculty at its Tishman Environment and Design Center.