“Hey, Got a Light?” How Chemistry, Law, and Climate Justice are Related

What does the film, Youth v. Gov. mean for higher education?


Think about it: the rights of youth in the climate crisis came into the spotlight when Greta Thunberg started Skolstrejk för klimatet — which if you don’t speak Swedish well, translates into English as a SCHOOL strike. Sure, they were in high school then (and we college professors love to blame things on our K-12 counterparts) but those cute sign-waving kids are now college students (or often, not, because why bother with a college degree when it won’t prepare you for a future you might not even get to have?)

Youth v. Gov., an independent film recently released on Netflix, follows the case of youth plaintiffs who are suing the government for their future. “Twenty-one young Americans, including 11 Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth, filed their constitutional climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, against the executive branch of the U.S. government in 2015”. The case argues that the impacts of the climate crisis have violated young peoples’ “constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, and equal protection of the laws, and impaired their essential public trust resources.”

Image: ourchildrenstrust.org

Julia Olsen, Chief Legal Counsel for Our Children’s Trust, is an eco-warrior with an incredible skillset. She is patient and humble and brilliant and poised — and, of course, understands Constitutional Law. She is able to articulate the intentions of the Constitution in a way that aligns with social justice. (I had to remind myself that this was not Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich — even though I love that film too — this is a real woman unfolding something huge, in real time.) This case will undoubtably triumph in the long run and in doing so, it will redefine our relationship to Earth, time, and the future.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that the same Supreme Court that can overturn Roe v. Wade could rule in favor of children against governmental obfuscation and collusion with fossil fuel companies. The film expains separation of power, and how the Supreme Court is supposed to check any imbalances in the Executive or Congressional branches. You remember how that works.

In the film, Youth v. Gov, there is an ominous section detailing the evidence of governmental harm in the form of subsidies and pipelines and profits all the way back to the Carter administration: it was Reagan and Bush and Clinton and Bush and yes, even Obama. The evidence presented in the film, tens of thousands of documents taken from boxes and boxes of pre-digital books and reports, starts around 1971 — the year I was born.

This story has been the backchannel of literally my entire lifetime.

It never occurred to me to Skolstrejk when I was in high school (although I did cut school with some regularity). Yet, as I was graduating, in 1989, James Hansen was giving testimony about intensifying climate impacts. As I was graduating from college (where we numbly watched the first Gulf War on television), in 1992, George Bush (Senior) passed a new energy bill and said that he envisioned a future where “government acts not as a master but as a partner, and a servant” [to Big Oil]. This is a big reason why global emissions are 62% higher now than they were back then, when the IPCC started.

Side note: it’s really such a bummer how Obama’s oceanfront property in Hawaiʻi has that seawall, a loophole that goes against conservation policy. University of Hawaiʻi coastal geographer Chip Fletcher said:

“Why are we, on the one hand, warning the public about climate change and professing to value beaches,” he said, “and on the other hand allowing major renovations of a shoreline that was on its way out?”

Yeah. Why are we doing that?

I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but you might guess that The Juliana v. United States case lost its most recent court battle. However, they received a potent dissenting opinion from Judge Josephine Staton who said:

“It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses. Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the Nation.”

Funny how that asteroid metaphor keeps coming up!

Kelsey Juliana, who was 15 when the lawsuit started and is now 23, is the child of tree-hugging parents. In the film, her mother says of Juliana’s involvement, “I just wanted to make sure she was full-on and it was coming from her impulse. And she was. And we just support her the best we can.” This attitude resonates with me as a teacher: my only job now is to summon all the wisdom and information and skill that I can to help young people prepare for the uncertain future.

There’s a famous essay by David Bartholomae called Inventing the University that was significant in my thinking as a writing teacher. It’s about the discourse conventions of academic writing, and how students learn to adopt them. What has stuck with me from that essay is that we are all inventing the university, all the time, in how we talk and what we talk about.

Faculty might feel powerless, our faces bloodied from keeping our nose to the grindstone of a five-course teaching load, but there is separation of power in universities, too, and academic freedom protects our ethical obligation to tell students the truth about that asteroid, and prepare them for impact.

Over 1 million people in the United States have a faculty role, if you include the whole spectrum of professors and adjuncts and part timers. Faculty are the ones who sit in classrooms with the next generation. We assign the reading and design the courses and grade the assignments. We are, increasingly, the ones holding space for the emotional dimensions of existential threat.

Youth climate activist Xiye Bastia said:

“We demand comprehensive non-Eurocentric and intersectional climate education including literacy on climate justice, environmental racism, ancestral and indigenous wisdom, historical movements, disability justice, green careers, and sustainability living.”

This is how we must (re)invent the University.

Many months ago, I interviewed Dr. Heather Price, a professor of Chemistry at North Seattle College. She’s the one who shared with me the quote, above, from Xiye Bastia. As we were talking on Zoom, I pictured Dr. Price with a lot of post it notes around her, notes like:

author image (Canva). Quote from Ugandan youth activist Vanessa Nakate

Price, who like me is a Gen Xer, mentions by name the many teachers and mentors and students who have influenced her career, from her Calculus professor, Millie Johnson, to her undergraduate research adviser, Richard Gammon, who was a lead author on the first (1990) IPCC report.

Dr. Price is who we are talking about when we talk about what climate scientists tell us about climate change. She was so friendly that I felt safe to ask a dumb question, so I asked her “what exactly is a climate scientist?” She likened it to being a doctor: “there are doctors for the body, they can specialize in the body when it’s young, like a pediatrician, or when it’s old like geriatrics, or someone that specializes in neurology compared to a neurosurgeon — they are both working on the human head but in different ways…All this just for the diversity of human bodies. I think about climate scientists the same way.”

They are all the doctors of the Earth body, with different specialties.

“Being an environmental chemist is harder than being an analytical chemist. You have to take classes in oceanography, maybe soils, depending where your research is. I needed to understand ocean circulation, and I still had to take chemistry and analytical chemistry…I can’t not to that, that’s what my Ph.D. is, but I have to do even more to connect the systems.” One of the first college classes she taught was about environmental issues in Asia — a topic she knew well from her undergraduate major in East Asian Studies. She also taught a team-taught course on climate change in 2001, where her role was to teach the science and policy aspects, such as the Kyoto protocol.

Dr. Price speaks the language of chemistry and talked a lot about methane. “I teach students the tetrahedral shape, I show them the symmetry of methane, but I would feel I’m leaving something out if I didn’t also talk about how this is natural gas and the harm that comes from this, that a child that lives in a home with a gas stove has a 42% increased risk of asthma, compared to an electric stove.”

Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash

Yes, she also speaks the language of environmental justice.

“I don’t feel like I’m being preachy. I’m giving my students information they otherwise wouldn’t have if I was only talking about this molecule and how its tetrahedral, and how the Delta-H for this is 800 kilojoules per mole. It’s not enough to just give them the science. How does it impact others, and what can they do with that information?”

I never really pictured a chemistry professor as a climate justice advocate and wondered how she came to understand this deep connection. Heather described an infographic from the early aughts that influenced her, “Time Magazine had this image of smokestacks coming out of the world map and the height of the smokestack was the cumulative emissions of that country, and I was like hey, we have these carbon emissions!” (See below: “CO2 Emissions by Country: Total Emissions Since 1950” and I also looked up a related chart of current annual emissions by country, also in billions of tons, here.)

Image: Time Magazine, “Is Global Warming Fueling Katrina?” August 29, 2005.

“I was like ‘look at this! I’m a person in the U.S. and compared to Bangladesh, my emissions are like 25 people in Bangladesh! And, I have a cat! And I buy it food! My cat is like five people in Bangladesh in terms of his emissions!”

“My cat is five people in Bangladesh in terms of emissions.” Image: Unsplash

“We didn’t call it climate justice at that time, but the terminology around equity has been embedded since the inception of the IPCC.” And it’s also embedded in her disciplinary conception of Chemistry and her philosophy of teaching.

“These systems of oppression that are at the root of the climate crisis are embedded in our educational system, particularly science and math.”

“Oh yes,” she said, “science and math are built on the military industrial complex, and our push for STEM came out of the cold war and our push for weapons and technology.”

There’s so much interest now in redesigning STEM Education, particularly to encourage more underrepresented students. But a lot of teachers don’t see the connection between what they teach and the social justice and equity issues that seem fraught, and they might rather leave to someone else. Heather said:

“We’ve got to give teachers and the professors the time and the funding to learn what’s going on because that’s where the disconnect is. Our students learn from us, or at least we help facilitate their learning, and right now our colleagues are not caught up.”

She continued: “They’re wanting to be and I’m seeing a huge shift thanks to the world waking up after the tragedy of George Floyd and so many others who have died at the hand of oppression, and that is opening up an opportunity to show the connection to climate justice.”

Dr. Price is also a parent, and she has one child who has gotten involved in climate activism and one who hasn’t. “If they want to do something, absolutely support them, but they did not cause this — they were born into this problem. The protective effect of adults doing something gives (my daughter) time to focus on finals or the kid she has a crush on and let the adults deal with this problem because this is our responsibility — it’s not the kids’ responsibility.” Yet, young people can benefit from talking about the climate crisis, not just as activists but in their communities and at home.

“I tell my students, “Hey you know more now than most people out there, so go home and talk about this and share this information.”

Dr. Price is primary investigator on a National Science Foundation grant called Climate Justice in Undergraduate STEM Incorporating Civic Engagement (C-JUSTICE). When I asked how she describes what it’s like being a chemistry professor and a climate justice advocate at the same time, she said:

“Someone once gave me this metaphor, that like, ‘I’ve got this light, this candle I have lit and I’m going to light yours, because yours hasn’t been lit yet, and you’re just lighting these candles of knowledge and flipping that narrative where the student becomes the teacher for their community.”

And that, friends, is how you teach climate change in higher education.

Image: Unsplash

About the blog: Teaching Climate Change in Higher Education is a field notes blog associated with a research study, profiling faculty exemplars from all academic disciplines. You can learn more about Dr. Heather Price from the Union of Concerned Scientists post, “From Scientist to Activist”.

If you liked this blog, check out these related posts: “Seeing the World as It Is; or, Becoming a Transparent Eyeball” (Climate Justice and Law) “Blessed-Cursed to Be Here” (Geography) “Behold the Fractal” (Sustainability Administration) and “Earth on Trajectory to Sixth Extinction, say Biologists” (my higher ed commentary on the film, Don’t Look Up).



Krista Hiser
Field Notes: Teaching Climate Change in Higher Education

Speedreader w. educational tendencies towards sustainability.