But Only White People Care About the Environment, Right?

Educating youths of color annihilates the assumption that understanding climate science and caring about the environment are reserved for a privileged, putative few.

(Photo: ACE Team/Flickr)

Apr 22, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Lonna is External Communications Manager at Alliance for Climate Education. She manages to sustain climate conversations in one of the most fickle newsrooms there is—a high school cafeteria.

Faceless green, purple, blue, pink, and orange figures appear on-screen. Though they lack any giveaway physical traits, one has thick strands of locked or coiled hair, suggesting he could be black.

He is joined by a green boy, a pink girl rocking a stylish bob, and a blue girl with a ponytail. The narrator forecasts that climate change will significantly limit the choices they will be presented with to create the life they might imagine. The figure with the ponytail strikes that stupefied hand-on-hip pose and gesticulates the familiar “Oh, no, you di’-in’t!”

The colorful cast is computer animated and expressive—moving to the precisely timed narration of a live educator who might be white—not like the cartoony, absence-of-color type of white but Caucasian (or black, or Asian) and tasked with captivating the interest of thousands of students packed into an auditorium for a school assembly on the “environment.”

More than 1.7 million high school students around the country have seen the Alliance for Climate Education’s award-winning climate science presentation. The ACE Assembly is a riveting account of what science knows to be true about climate change, taken directly from reports by IPCC, NOAA, and NASA and refashioned to appeal to high school students. It’s fresh and funny and far from pop culture’s depressing portrayal of a climate-altered future in which the world is overcome by rising seas. The ACE Assembly is hope fueled, inviting young people to join the movement to shape the world they will inherit—acting not out of fear but because the future needs the innovation that gamers, fashionistas, athletes, scientists, activists, and musicians can bring to one of the most pressing issues of their time.

ACE is focused on climate solutions and empowering young people to act. We begin by reframing how climate change is discussed. Climate change is not an environmental issue; it’s a human rights issue. With that repositioning, caring for the environment becomes the face of those who can’t afford not to—every human being on this planet—not just those who have the luxury to care.

We are not so naïve or arrogant as to think our polychromatic cast overshadows the historical and stereotypical contexts in which climate change exists. One of the most common questions our educators get is “But this stuff is for white people, right?” We feel the language that’s been used to talk about climate change is partly responsible for how often we hear this. We try to debunk, through education, racial stereotypes that can impede interest and action. We take the climate conversation out of the often abstract environmental context and cocreate local solutions with students, not just for them.

Another misapprehension we struggle against is the idea that climate science is some arcane, super-sophisticated area of study that the average mind just can’t comprehend. If you struggle through the humor in The Big Bang Theory, then “positive feedback loops” and “isotopes of carbon” are going to seem foreign. Too often, the designated “experts” are white— reinforcing the falsehood that they care more or are more knowledgeable.

ACE is particularly adept at teaching climate science in a way that is simple and retainable. The animation in The Ace Assembly, coupled with the simplicity of language and the relevance of examples, make the science leap from the screen and get locked in the minds of our rapt audiences like heat trapped by carbon dioxide. (See what I did there?) After seeing The ACE Assembly, students show a 53 percent increase in climate science knowledge. They will never again say anything about the ozone layer when asked what climate change is; nearly all American teens think climate change has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer (which isn’t actually a hole).

ACE talks about climate change as a daily threat to our health, safety, and economic well-being. The ACE Assembly covers its tangible effects: rising asthma rates in Harlem (emission of toxins affecting breathing is closely correlated with greenhouse gases), projected increases in violent crimes in big cities, and crop depletion. By educating young people of color, ACE annihilates the assumption that understanding climate science and caring about the environment are reserved for a privileged, putative few.

Climate change and the issues associated with it are often portrayed as environmental issues. Who can care about the environment when bills need to be paid? The “environmental” designation reinforces the notion that concern for the environment is a preoccupation of people with the luxury to care about something as extrinsic as climate. That’s problematic.

Through ACE’s Leadership and Action Program, educators and students collaborate to identify and implement community-based solutions to climate change. We don’t dictate how students should respond to climate change but instead support them to apply knowledge both scientific and social to the future they want to create for themselves in response to the realities facing them.

ACE climate fellows recently put forth a compelling video titled “I’d Choose Us,” which is the heart of their citywide campaign around sustainable schools: “We believe sustainable schools are green, and also healthy, safe, smart and supportive communities. We have to take immediate action on climate change that is thoughtful enough to recognize the bigger picture of what our schools are dealing with. That’s how we’re going to build truly sustainable schools. That’s how we’re going to win. Because what good is a recycling program if the school gets shut down the next year?”

Now what fifth-period presentation on the “environment” can do that? One that is deeply rooted in the belief that young people are the greatest investment we can make toward ensuring an equitable and sustainable future. One that recognizes that no, the world is not made up of black, white, purple, and green people; our response to the climate crisis requires the richness in the experiences we all bring to being an intricate amalgamation of atoms and cells that form diverse Homo sapiens. Ahem, human. Being human.