Children’s book author and illustrator Lynne Cherry  presented the Brandwein Lecture at the NSTA National Conference on Science Education in Philadelphia, March 20, 2010.

Young Voices on Climate Change: Inspired and Empowered Youth Tackle Climate Science and Solutions

Lynne Cherry

It’s a great honor to speak to you today and follow in the footsteps of so many eminent Brandwein Fellows who I greatly admire such as Richard Louv, Lynn Margulis and William Stapp. Bill was an early mentor of mine, and his work on cleaning up global rivers inspired my book A River Ran Wild. Lynn Margulis, the co-author of the Gaia Hypothesis which theorizes that Earth is one big interconnected living entity, is featured in my kids’ book, “How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming; And Richard Louv’s book The Last Child in the Woods deeply resonated with me because I was one of those children. Richard’s book tells heartbreaking stories of young love lost — of children who had special places where their imaginations could run wild, where they could breathe in fresh air, hear the spring peepers, or hang onto treetop branches as they swayed in the wind–and they saw those places destroyed.

I had such a place, a magical place that I dearly loved. It was a piece of heaven on earth. I wrote about this place in a recently published National Geographic book, ‘Written in Water.” There was a stream with mossy rocks. Under one rock I could always find a big black salamander with yellow spots. I am often asked, .What made you care so much? It’s an important question because the same things that made me care then will make kids today care about their natural world. The passage below is about taking the time to be quiet, to observe, to listen and to develop a relationship with a place. This also describes my first questioning of the adult world and my realization that adults didn’t have all the answers–maybe it was up to us children to yell, “the Emperor has no clothes!”  In the “Written in Water” National Geographic essay, after describing a bog on my Maryland farm, I continue: This bog reminds me of one of my childhood haunts — a swampy place on the way to .the crick. where I spent every summer day sunrise to sunset. Once, after a rain, the clay-colored ground began to undulate around my yellow boots. Kneeling down for a closer look I discovered hundreds of minute clay-colored frogs, smaller than the fingernail of that child I was long ago, and they were springing around like jumping beans, exulting in the rain.

But one day I came home from school to find my world destroyed. A bulldozer was erasing my forest, my stream, the bog–with all its inhabitants–from the face of the earth. The deep sadness of losing the one thing that was the most important to me — the place that, in essence, defined me–followed me throughout my life as profound loss often does.

In my young psyche I realized that things were not as they ought to be and that perhaps these adults did not really know what they were doing. Certainly, when they destroyed my forest, no adult had the intimate knowledge I did of what lived there, nor did they know or care how profoundly they were affecting my life and those of the forest creatures. As in the children’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes where a child shouting out the obvious takes the blinders off the eyes of all those adults in denial, a seed was planted in my mind that some day I might help the grown-ups to see the world with new eyes..

Having had that strong connection to a natural place, I understand the profound sense of loss Native Americans experienced in losing their land. I understand viscerally, from the Amazon Indians who I have lived with, how who they are depends on where they are. Although you may be disconnected from nature, even in today’s world, you are a different person depending upon where you are and how you live. As an educator one of the greatest gifts you can give to children is the opportunity to hear, feel, smell, understand, love, and bond with a natural place on this Earth.

To me, the most serious, and the most personally felt environmental issues are the destruction of the natural world and climate change–the potential destroyer of the whole world; They are, of course, integrally interconnected. Twenty-one years ago when I wrote “The Great Kapok Tree,” the terms global warming and climate change had not yet been coined. Carl Sagan spoke of .the greenhouse effect, but the realization that we were headed for a planetary emergency wasn’t really understood.

Many of the ecosystems I wrote about in these past twenty-one years — rain forests, ancient forests, deciduous forests — turn out to be key to stopping runaway climate change or, as in the case of mangroves, mitigating the effects of more severe storms and sea level rise. In “The Great Kapok Tree” there are many ecological lessons. But now we know that we won’t get through this climate change crisis without the rain forests. They are crucial for our existence and for saving the planet– — they absorb CO2 emitted from running our factories, heating our homes and schools, lighting this room, and fueling the planes, cars and trains that brought us here today. And they produce the very air we breathe.

George Woodwell of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts has said that in order to keep CO2 at current levels, we need to save the rainforests, plant a billion trees and stop the burning of coal — which means we all need to be focusing on renewable, sustainable energy and on conserving energy. So, what can we as individuals do? I’d like to talk to you about how millions of people each doing something relatively small can make a difference and how kids fit into this equation. A recent Harvard study confirms that conservation can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, hence, help abate climate change.

A large focus group study conducted by the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund showed that even environmentally-minded citizens received most of their information from educational materials that their children brought home from school and that their children were the most common source of pressure on them to act responsibly toward the environment. As wearing seat belts, recycling and stopping littering succeeded through youth education, young people can change society from the roots up. Once kids understand, they teach their parents. Children are the best messengers.

You might remember the story of Tillie Smith and the tsunami? She was a British schoolgirl and her family was vacationing in Indonesia. Tillie had learned about tsunamis in school. When she saw the ocean racing out to the sea, she ran to her mom and said, .Mummy, I think there’s going to be a tsunami.. They cleared the beach and saved countless lives. Here is an example of how Environmental Education is Essential education. It is life-saving education. In the case of climate change, it could be planet-saving.

We, as educators, have a crucial role to play and we are on the front lines in this fight to save our planet and the children’s futures. But how can we teach kids about climate change without scaring them? How can we inspire and empower them? And how can we motivate the general public and our elected officials to act now to reduce carbon emissions?

About 15 years ago I met Gary Braasch, a world-renowned photojournalist. In his travels around the world photographing for National Geographic, LIFE, Time, and Discover, he began to notice changes —  especially in the polar regions. He found old photos of glaciers from the turn of the century and he began a project, World View of Global Warming. Traveling to the glaciers to re photograph them 100 years later, he found them greatly receded. You’ve probably seen his photographs in An Inconvenient Truth and various publications. Gary also photographed scientists doing their research all over the world. Once these scientists realized that the changes they were seeing were due to climate change, many of them turned their entire research to studying how climate change was affecting the organisms they had been studying, in some cases, for decades.

Gary was writing his book Earth Under Fire about these climate scientists and their research and when I saw his big fat manuscript, I thought we needed to translate this information into a children’s book. So Gary and I wrote How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming which documents the work of these IPCC scientists –scientists who contributed studies to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and who won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work. Our book is written on a 5th-8th grade reading level with all the definitions of the scientific terms embedded in context to make climate science accessible to kids, their parents, the public, Congress, and anyone interested in knowing the facts and the science. We synthesized the science from journal articles and then had the scientists themselves read over the manuscript to insure that our account of their research was entirely accurate.

Camille Parmesan, a professor at University of Texas, studied the Checkerspot butterfly and found that it was changing its range due to climate change. Australian scientist Steve Williams was studying the rain forest and noticed that all the critters he was studying were moving up the mountain. He discovered that they were trying to stay in the same temperature gradient that they needed in order to survive. But for the frogs who lived at the top of the mountain there was no more up. Those species are now extinct.

In his introduction to our book, David Sobel wrote, .this is a hopeful book in a discouraging time. The global climate change wave is cresting and it’s about to crash on public schools.Ö and in a note to teachers, he asked, .How can you meet the global climate change challenge in a joyful fashion? How can you engage children’s creative thinking in devising great school solutions?. This book and the Young Voices on Climate Change movies are my answer: We can inspire and empower youth by focusing on climate solutions and citizen-science and by helping to give young people a voice.

For our kids’ book, Gary Braasch and I chose the IPCC studies that were easily understandable to kids —  those about bird and butterfly migration, ice cores, mud cores, tree rings. And for each story of a scientist, there is a story of a group of citizen-scientist children who are doing their own studies with projects such as GLOBE or Budburst. Citizen-science is empowering because the students make arguments using EVIDENCE so they can reach the conclusions. For example, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdSleuth ties in perfectly with the story of Dr. Terry Root in our book.

Dr. Root is an ornithologist at Stanford University who began noticing that the birds she was studying were changing their ranges–they were moving further north. She attended an ornithology conference in Europe and one after another, the researchers from all over the world got up and told of their research  —  and they all told the same story–all their research was showing that birds were changing their ranges and they wondered why. Terry put together the largest compilation of this research that showed unequivocally that birds throughout the world were changing their ranges in response to changes in temperature — in response to climate change.

When people ask me, .how can we respond to the current onslaught against climate change in the media?. I give them the same answer–that we need to have kids not just learning about climate science but doing climate science — especially going outdoors and doing climate science, because any student involved in these citizen science projects in school can come home and explain to their parents, .but, mom and dad, we’ve been collecting data about these birds in school and we’re comparing that data with baseline data — data from years ago. And from that older baseline data we know which birds were here before and we can see with our own eyes that the birds are moving north — and we’re correlating their range changes with temperature changes — and the birds are responding to climate change.. In this way, the kids can explain climate science to their parents.

Anya: Citizen Scientist in Siberia tells the story of a 13-year-old indigenous girl from the village of Zhigansk who sees her world literally melting away due to warming caused by the developed world’s CO2 emissions. She joins Arctic scientist Max Holmes’ research team that is studying the effect of melting ice on the Lena River and she learns about global warming. She then teaches her schoolmates and traditional community elders about the effects of climate change. All through the Arctic winter she drills holes through the ice in order to collect water samples for Max Holmes and his research team.

“How we Know What we Know About Our Changing Climate” received 15 awards including the AAAS Subaru award and NSTA recommends but, even so, it clearly wasn’t going to reach the millions necessary to change the world. So I decided I needed to make movies. With the help of Gary Braasch, many friends, foundations and businesses, I raised some funds and found a great cameraperson who had filmed BORAT as well as many National Geographic specials, and I began making films. One of the first was about Anya. The movies are now a series, Young Voices on Climate Change, and I will be showing you a few of them in a minute. You can see some at

“The Young Voices on Climate Change” films feature young people age 9-18 collecting data and finding solutions to the global warming crisis. They are reducing the carbon footprint of their homes, schools, communities, and, as in the case of 11-year-old Felix Finkbeiner, even their countries. Felix founded Plant for the Planet through which 500,000 trees had been planted in Germany when I filmed him in July 2009. Now, through Felix’s viral internet website, the millionth tree is about to be planted.

The young people in these films–from across the ethnic, geographic and socio-economic spectrum–have an earnestness and a sincerity that reaches our hearts. The trailer will be posted on the websites of many non-profits including National Wildlife Federation, the Climate Institute, and the Alliance for Climate Education.. And we’re encouraging other groups to put up our trailer and link to our website.

The films have been screened at the United Nations, at the American Museum of Natural History, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, at the annual conferences of ASTC–The Association of Science & Technology Centers, the American Bar Association’s Environmental Law Conference and National Council of Science and the Environment. They were screened at the COP15 Climate Talks in Copenhagen at many different venues and included in the .prep-kit. for Next Generation which helps Copenhagen students develop sustainable strategies for their local school and the surrounding areas and provides a compelling model for schools in this country. The films are also touring with Mountainfilm at Telluride’s and Wild & Scenic’s traveling film festivals.

The movie “Dreaming in Green” had its pilot screening at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida last month at an NSF-sponsored workshop by ASTC, NOAA and Yale University. Four girls in “Dreaming in Green” show us that saving energy, reducing CO2 emissions, and helping to stop global warming can also save money. The students in “Dreaming in Green” also emphasize that their use of science, evidence and data was key to their success in reducing their schools’ CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, though, for many Americans, the science alone is not going to convince them to change their consumption habits, but saving money will. After all, nothing is more American than saving money.

Back in the 60s a friend of mine was a reporter in Northern Ireland. He was captured and held at gunpoint and they yelled at him, “Protestant or Catholic? Protestant or Catholic?” Knowing that the wrong answer would get him shot he put up his hands, grinned and said, .I’m American. In America we worship money!. They laughed and put down their guns and didn’t shoot him. Many a truth is said in jest. And “Dreaming in Green” is for all those people who aren’t going to save energy to save the planet, but will reduce their carbon emissions if it’s going to save them money.

The following films and a trailer can be viewed at “Kids vs Global Warming”: At 12-years old, Alec Loorz created Kids vs. Global Warming, imatter, the Sea Level Awareness Project and the Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels campaigns through which he powerfully delivers his systemic transformational idea–that youth have a civil right to life, liberty and happiness and that they have a right to their future.

In “Girl Scouts,” we watch Girl Scouts go door-to-door distributing thousands of free energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs and telling people how much money and CO2 CFC’s save. Green Ambassadors features teenagers from the Environmental Charter School who recycle, compost, plant trees, educate elementary school students and do much more to green their school and reduce their CO2 footprint. Student Jordan Howard lauds sustainability and renewables such as wind and solar.

Young people listen to kids their own age; the youth in these films are peer role models sharing with them the skills, motivation and confidence to reduce CO2 emissions in their homes, schools and communities. Each short film has its separate web HOW-TO page to make each of the movie projects replicable. For instance, the movie Team Marine shows high school students who learned the connection between fossil fuel, plastic bags, marine debris and global warming  — and they got a ban on plastic bags in their city. The movies also teach civic engagement. Many of the kids in these movies have presented their scientific data to their school board and county council.

Another film that I will be producing features students in Vermont who had an air quality monitor in their school They would read the data each day before and after school buses pulled up in front of the school and started idling. They took their data showing elevated CO2 and carbon monoxide levels in the kindergarten to the school board and they got a ban on school bus idling.

So now I’m going to show you the “Young Voices on Climate Change” films. Team Marine, Green Ambassadors, Anya:Citizen Science in Siberia, and Dreaming in Green. An expanded version of Dreaming in Green will show more of teacher Bertha Vazquez, who appears briefly in the movie short, and who won a NEEF (National Environmental Education Foundation) Award. She rewrote the school’s curriculum at George Washington Carver Middle School in Coral Gables Florida. Now everything is taught under the umbrella of energy and all the subjects — English, Math, German — all subjects incorporate lessons in energy. Bertha begins teaching about energy in the atom, then molecules, then cells, then in plants and then solar energy and energy in us, in dead plants underground, in oil and gas and energy in our lives today. Then she talks about what happens when you take this CO2 that was underground for millions of years and bring it up and burn it, releasing it back into the atmosphere, heating up the planet

Bertha was surprised that when she started teaching about energy in a way that personalized it for the students, and when they became truly engaged in learning, their test scores skyrocketed. They were learning for their lives — literally, for their lives–not just for a test. This is lifetime learning.

The longer version of the movie “Dreaming in Green” includes the story of Nicole’s father who owns several buildings in Miami and tells us about how going green saves energy and saves money. He learned from his daughter and started recycling in his buildings, reducing carbon emissions, and saving thousands of dollars.

The longer version also features a research project that Bertha Vazquez gave to her middle school students. She asked each student to find on the internet 10 scientific papers either supporting or refuting climate change. She asked them to research the scientists who did the study, what institutions they were affiliated with, whether the papers were peer-reviewed, if they were published in scientific journals -and she asked the students to find out who funded the studies. The students were flabbergasted when they found that the papers that supported climate change were published by respected scientists with many scientific papers under their belts, published in journals such as Science and Nature — whereas the papers refuting climate change were published by institutes, most often by non-scientists, not peer-reviewed and often funded by special interests. It was a powerful lesson for the students to come up with this themselves through their own research.

The “Young Voices on Climate Change” films are wonderful motivational tools for use in science centers, film festivals and conferences, schools, universities, and in after-school CO2-Reduction Clubs. CO2 Reduction projects can be integrated into Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girls and Boys Clubs of America, 4H– all kinds of after-School Programs and clubs–specifically focused on reducing CO2 emissions. The projects can gain their inspiration from the kids in the Young Voices on Climate Change films and their replicable projects: planting trees, saving rain forests, stopping bus idling, banning or discouraging the use of plastic bags, reducing the carbon emissions of their homes and schools, reaching out to businesses and community, getting everyone engaged in looking at data–at the numbers–and reducing their carbon footprints. I hope that you, too, will be inspired to use the films as a motivational tool.

In light of the dire threat that climate change presents to life on Earth, and the fear engendered in young people around this issue, I hope these positive success stories of young people fighting climate change — fighting for their future–can help you. There is no time to lose in educating youth about how their actions can lead to a reduction in CO2 for it is they who will inherit the Earth and bear the brunt of climate change. As an educator, you can give kids the skills they need to deal with the climate crisis. Please join us on the front lines of climate change. Together we can make a difference.

This speech is dedicated to the memory of Howard Zinn and Granny D who both worked for democracy and taught me that you’re never too old or young to make a difference.