Warming Trends: Climate Divide in the Classroom, an All-Electric City and Rising Global Temperatures’ Effects on Mental Health

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A teacher speaks to students in a second grade class at Weaverville Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 in Weaverville, California. Credit: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
A teacher speaks to students in a second grade class at Weaverville Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 in Weaverville, California. Credit: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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An All-Electric City

In an ambitious, first-in-the-nation effort to combat climate change, Ithaca, New York, has pledged to decarbonize all 6,000 of its buildings, including homes, businesses, schools and churches, before the end of the decade.

Leaders in the city, which is home to Cornell University, decided on Nov. 3 to convert all buildings to run on electric power. The plan is part of the city’s Green New Deal, a plan adopted in 2019 to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. 

Gas-powered appliances like furnaces, water heaters and stoves account for nearly all the carbon emissions from residential buildings in the United States, according to Rewiring America, so replacing these items with alternatives powered with carbon-free electricity can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


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Ithaca is partnering with BlocPower, a climate technology company that has retrofitted more than 1,000 buildings. The company estimates that the decarbonization of Ithaca’s buildings will reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 40 percent and provide 400 jobs in construction, technology and management. 

Felix Heisel, an architect and professor at Cornell who is assisting the city with its decarbonization plan, hopes that the lessons learned from this initiative will help other cities in the United States take on the challenge of decarbonizing their buildings. 

“Ithaca is such an important case study,” he said, “because we’re looking at a town of 30,000 inhabitants with 6,000 buildings, which is a scale that is very much like many, many other towns all across the nation.”


A Red-Blue Divide in Teaching Climate

After observing in more than a dozen classrooms and talking with teachers, students and textbook authors, journalist Katie Worth found a significant red-blue divide in American public schools over how climate change was taught to children. 

In a book set to be released on Tuesday, Miseducation: How Climate Change Is Taught in America, Worth details her striking findings on how climate denial and dismissiveness has been worked into lesson plans about climate change, and how some students may never hear the words “climate change” during their schooling. Inside Climate News recently discussed the book with Worth. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is the state of climate education in public schools right now?

In some parts of the country and in some schools, kids are getting a really robust education about it. And then in other parts, they may not literally ever hear the words climate change on school grounds. And then in some other schools, they may actually be taught that climate change is a hoax. So there’s kind of a whole diversity of it. 

[When I visited] Oklahoma, it didn’t include climate change in any required class, and maybe if a kid took high school environmental science or high school earth science, which aren’t required and very few students actually take, they might hear about it, but even then in kind of an attenuated way. But a kid in Hawaii might first hear about climate change in third grade social studies, then middle school science, high school biology, U.S. history and government, world history and culture, Pacific island studies, Earth science, environmental science and at least one math class. So the education a kid is getting about this phenomenon that will affect their life, no matter where they live, is really dependent on what kind of a community and school system they attend.

Do you have any memory of learning about climate change during your own education?

I don’t remember ever learning about it. I graduated high school in ‘97. So it was definitely a thing that people knew about, but I have more memories of learning about, like, the hole in the ozone layer. And like, you know, needing to save the whales.

With fights over masks, vaccines, critical race theory and other topics, schools are hotbeds for controversial topics in our country right now. How does teaching climate change fit into this bigger societal trend? 

The classroom is not an ideologically neutral place. We like to think like, ‘Oh, we go to school and we learn the facts,’ and then we go out in the world armed with that. [But] the politics of the adult world really filter into this domain of children pretty unhindered. And then what’s happening in the domain of children gets very political and people have really strong feelings about it. And so that’s where there are conflicts over what to teach about climate change in school. It’s like adults that have these really ideologically entrenched views about it.

People got very emotional about what their kids are learning and who has control over it. And I think underlying that is this sense of, these kids are gonna be citizens and participating in the civic process pretty soon. And so controlling their narratives is powerful.


Temperatures Rise and Mental Health Suffers 

Climate change exacerbates mental health issues like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and disproportionately affects groups like children, women, communities of color and low-income communities, a new report has concluded. 

The Mental Health and Our Changing Climate report, published this week by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, builds on a similar report published in 2017 and shows a clear connection between climate change and mental health and how inequitable these effects are. 

For example, heat waves can exacerbate existing mental health disorders like anxiety and schizophrenia, the report said, while also causing strain on mental health services.

“Heat itself is not only a physiological but also a psychological stressor, and this disproportionately impacts low income communities and people of color,” said Meighen Speiser, executive director of ecoAmerica. At the community level, she said, “the rising temperatures are linked to not only interpersonal aggression, including domestic violence, assault rape and murder, but also intergroup violence, like political conflict and war.”

Plus, hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires and other climate-related disasters can displace people from their homes and lead to stress that has lasting ramifications, Speiser said, especially in children. 

The report offers several ideas for how to address climate-related mental health, at both the individual level, like creating a plan for potential climate-related emergencies, and at the community level, like fostering climate discussions and projects.

“Of course, we want to mitigate climate change. We want to stop that so that we don’t have to deal with these effects, but unfortunately, they’re going to happen most likely, so we all have to be prepared for them,” said Howard Kurtzman, a senior science advisor at the American Psychological Association. “And in fact, one way to protect against negative mental health impacts is to be prepared because that way you feel like you have a sense of control and you’re not just paralyzed in fear or uncertainty.”


Measuring Climate More Precisely

A satellite that will provide important data about Earth’s climate is moving into its preliminary design phase. The satellite, slated to launch at the end of the decade, was highlighted at COP26 in Glasgow. 

The TRUTHS mission, developed by the European Space Agency and funded by the United Kingdom Space Agency, will focus on radiation coming from the sun and radiation reflected by the Earth, with precision that is “an order of magnitude better than what is currently in place,” said Thorsten Fehr, a European Space Agency atmospheric scientist working on the mission. Energy exchange between the Earth and sun forms the basis of our climate, so researchers can directly detect changes in the climate system, he said. 

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The mission will help reduce uncertainty in climate measurements, according to the U.K. Space Agency. Plus, other existing satellite missions will be able to utilize the more precise data by calibrating their results to the measurements taken by the TRUTHS mission. 

“What you have already now is a big suite of satellites, different agencies, different generations, different instruments,” Fehr said. “TRUTHS is serving as a kind of reference standard. We call it the golden reference standard for these observations.”


Two Futures, One Choice

The latest draft text for an agreement at COP26 includes a call to phase out fossil fuel subsidies—something the Paris Agreement didn’t have. But the draft agreement lacks any explicit reference to oil and gas and, as the international conference comes to a close, it’s clear that fossil fuels will continue to be a significant player in the economy.

A group of activists with Glasgow Actions Team staged a visual protest on Friday, hoping to make clear the choice between a future with and without fossil fuels.

A protest takes place outside of COP26 on Friday, organized by Glasgow Actions Team. Credit: Simone J. Rudolphi

On a street near the entrance to the COP26 event, two giant signs in the shape of arrows in opposite directions. One arrow pointed to protesters holding cutouts of company logos and red and yellow flames, symbolizing a future where warming exceeds 2 degrees Celsius, a “death sentence for millions of people around the world,” Glasgow Actions Team director Andrew Nazdin said. “That’s like a radically changed climate where some of the worst impacts, whether it be wildfires, droughts or flooding, are everyday incidents.” 

The other arrow pointed to protesters, including  young children, holding cutouts of green leaves and yellow flowers, showing a future where “humanity is given the chance to continue to live with dignity,” Nazdin said.