Hurricane Harvey and Student Action on Environment

We teachers are asking ourselves how to help students process the horrific destruction wreaked by Hurricane Harvey. And many of us and our students who are oriented toward thoughtful civic action in schools then ask, “But what can we DO?”

Of course a first step is to become well informed. Much of the news focuses, understandably, on the destruction itself and the struggles to survive and recover. Only a very few sources address in any meaningful way the question whether global climate change was a cause or at least a factor. One of the most thorough and thoughtful responses to that question was provided on the NPR “Science Friday” program Sept. 1st program. The host, Ira Flatow, interviews Penn State Atmospheric Science Professor Michael Mann, who explains the various factors that increased the power, the path, and the rainfall associated with the storm, and the urban planning that might have helped avoid some of the damage. It’s clear that meteorologists knew this kind of disaster was coming; they just couldn’t be sure when it would hit. The 33-minute podcast makes excellent listening to deepen students understanding of the event.

The issues and dangers of climate change can seem distant to young people who are not near to the disaster or possessed of family in the area. It requires more immediate involvement to help them connect with such an event. There are several possible directions for inspiring this involvement. Obviously, collection and donation of clothes, personal items, funds for relief agencies are the first responses that may come to mind. But students can also be helped to investigate environmental vulnerabilities in their own neighborhood. Are there flooding possibilities in their community? Is pollution from nearby factories, highways, or electricity generating facilities endangering people’s health or adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere? And then, are there local advocacy organizations working to address such issues that could help educate students and suggest some meaningful actions for students to take on?

One such group in Chicago is the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. Along with organizing and engaging in advocacy in the Little Village section of Chicago, the group works with students in local schools to provide information as well as help with organizing student groups for specific local efforts. Similar resources exist in communities across the country.

The effects of human-induced climate change are upon us, and they’re frightening. It’s inevitable to feel frustrated and helpless since the problem is so large and the resistance to wise action is so entrenched in this country right now. But the more we teachers can prepare young people to become informed, thoughtful, and active citizens, the stronger will be the voices for change.