Making Climate Change Cool in the Classroom

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Vernard Williams is about to drop some knowledge on the kids of Food and Finance High School in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. He's not facing the easiest audience. It's a Friday afternoon in early October, the school year is still settling in, and the teenagers filing into the auditorium look less than engaged. Making things even less promising is the subject matter of today's assembly: climate change. Williams is a senior educator for the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., that sends speakers — armed with an original video produced by ACE — to schools to talk a little basic science. They're prepared for an uphill struggle. "We do this in a way you've never seen it," says Williams, a Brooklyn native and lawyer. "We know you have to engage them from the beginning."

And against the odds, that's what Williams does. As a video illustrating the impact of climate change plays behind him, Williams breaks down global warming, making it clear how the buildup of carbon dioxide leads to higher temperatures — and how we're responsible for that CO2. Greenhouse-gas footprints, methane, parts per million, carbon sinks — Williams runs through topics that would make most kids nod off, but the students in his audience begin to creep forward in their seats and pay attention. The ACE way makes climate change meaningful to young people because it makes them understand how their lifestyles contribute to global warming — and how they can help stop it. "We need to understand the power that youth have on this issue," Williams says. "And we need to harness it."

That's what ACE was launched to do. Al Gore opened the door on climate education with his venerable slideshow, and later with the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. But while Gore's cerebral, stat-heavy style might work for science wonks, there was also a need for something that had what Williams calls "the cool factor." Most school science curricula still have relatively little room for climate change, despite the subject's importance, never mind a presentation that was going to engage kids anyway. With money from the wind-power entrepreneur Michael Haas, ACE set out to fix all that. "This is a niche we can fill," says Pic Walker, the executive director for ACE. "Climate literacy is pretty haphazard in the U.S."

Walker's right — Americans as a whole don't even know what they don't know about climate change. A sobering report released last month by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that Americans lack an understanding of even the basics of climate science. Just 57% of Americans can explain what the greenhouse effect is, and only 45% understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the earth's surface. Ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification? If yes, then you're in rare company — just 1 in 4 Americans has. "Without that basic understanding, how can we make the choices we need on global warming?" asks Walker.

So far, ACE has reached more than 1,000 schools around the country and more than half a million students. And they seem to be having an impact: a recent study found that an ACE assembly contributed to a 58% improvement in climate-science understanding among high school students. For the really motivated kids, ACE provides a structure to act on global warming as well: helping students establish green clubs that support carbon-cutting projects at home and at school. "They can all be leaders in this area," Williams says.

ACE isn't without controversy. Given how politically charged climate change remains, some skeptics have attacked the group for spreading global-warming alarmism. But ACE isn't an arm of the Green Party — most of the presentation is focused on the science of climate change, not on cap and trade or any of the other legislative solutions being kicked around Congress. At its best, an ACE presentation not only can educate kids about one of the most important issues of our time, but it can also get them viscerally excited about science and the world around them. "Youth right now are ready to explode!" Williams exclaims as he ends his presentation with a little freestyle rap. It's not something you'll likely ever see Al Gore do, but it could be the way to energize the next generation on energy.