At some point in the 1980s or 1990s, environmental issues became hopelessly and depressingly politicized. By “politicized,” I mean it stopped being acceptable to talk about environmental issues in, for instance, a high-school setting, in the same way that evolution was made into a controversial subject to talk about in many school settings. I’m not sure when I would pinpoint that this politicization really sunk in, but I’d be interested in what those who were around at that point might have to say. By the Republican revolution of 1994 — around the time I first became aware of something called “politics” — this seems to have already definitively taken place.
But in the past of couple years, while it has remained fairly partisan, climate change has been rapidly depoliticizing as an issue. Even with a former Democratic vice president as its standard-bearer, it’s now acceptable for companies, organizations, and institutions that would never consider taking what they see to be a political stance on an environmental issue — or any other issue not directly concerning their core business — to take a stance on climate change.
In my role as a grassroots organizer with a student environmental organization, it has only recently become possible to approach a wide variety of potential coalition partners for the very first time. My organization could never have approached a typical university president to register the school’s public opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — but we can and do approach hundreds to work on climate change.
This is phenomenally important in repositioning the environmental movement beyond its role in the ’90s as a “special interest.” It’s an immense boon to anyone trying to figure out how to spark the political moment that could result in good clean-energy legislation getting to the president’s desk, and the society-wide coalition that will succeed in getting her or him to sign it.
I’d measure the completion of this depoliticization process to be when primary and secondary schools start including climate change — and then carbon reductions and clean energy — in their curricula, assemblies, and more. I’m not talking about when high schools stop teaching kids that there’s a scientific climate debate — I mean when they take the only step a responsible educator could take and ask students to consider this: Now that we have a problem, what are the solutions to this problem?
Obviously, we’re not there yet.
The New York Times recently reported that a principal in Colorado was too scared of angry townsfolk to invite a Nobel Laureate to speak on climate at his high school without “balance.” (Happily, the reaction from students and parents in this rural ranching town was that this decision was absurd.)
Showings of An Inconvenient Truth at high schools get spiked every once in a while. Every time this happens, it causes a huge local media storm, the people opposing it look like idiots, and the community generally gets closer to agreement that this issue is worth civic consideration. Not far behind will be the community thinking and talking about what can be done on the issue (because it is so simple a high schooler can understand it).
So here’s my point: I was recently introduced to a high school student, Taylor Francis, who has become a pro at giving Al Gore’s slideshow to packed crowds. For every other high school student (or high school teacher) out there, you don’t have to get specially trained to give the Inconvenient Truth slideshow to hundreds of people.
All you have to do is get together some friends (or fellow faculty) at your school, set up a meeting with your principal, and say that you’d really like to have an assembly this semester with a speaker on climate change — maybe a professor from a local university, or failing that, a school-wide showing of An Inconvenient Truth. If you’re in a city where the mayor has signed the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, get the mayor to back you up on the fact that climate education is important in your community.
This will force the issue in your community. Will your principal, your school board, and other local opinion leaders in your area stand up on the side of science, community preparedness, doing their part, and being good citizens? Or will they stick with politicization of a threat to human well-being?
When principals and school boards find some guts, or blink, or whatever, and allow lectures and Inconvenient Truth showings to go forward, that’ll just be the first step. (The next is to join the Campus Climate Challenge and turn your school into a green school.) But repeating this exercise in rationality is the cleansing process that is going move climate away from being a political issue — and toward being considered, fully and finally, the civic, human, and humanitarian issue that it is. Class dismissed.