Obstacles in raising awareness for climate change

Climate change’s pressing impacts and passive reactions

Squinting at the sky, freshman Dylan Jones recalled the fateful day he had already tried to purge from his memory: The day when his home, his belongings, and his life were at stake.

“It looked like a movie,” Jones said. “It was cloudy, and … there was no light.”

Extreme winds carried bits of ash into the air, and the sound of gushing water seemed to be present in every neighborhood  — an attempt in calming down the raging flames. The once tranquil hills of Oak Park, California, were now engulfed brilliant orange, feeding off the wind, increasing in size and expanding at frightening speeds.

Shrugging it off, Jones patiently waited for his parents to come home. It was only when Jones’s father ran into his room at 1 a.m. and shook him out of his deep sleep that he truly realized the danger he was in.

“We threw all of our stuff in laundry baskets,” Jones said. “I grabbed like ten things [and threw] them in a bag… and we were running between the car and back. It was all windy, and wet because the sprinklers were spraying us, but it was still hot because the fire was like a hundred yards away.”

Jones is among many that were affected by the Woolsey Fire, which sparked on Nov. 8, 2018, and raged 96,949 acres throughout the Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The results of the fire included 1,500 destroyed structures, three civilian fatalities, and mandatory evacuations in several locations.

Despite the tragedies endured, many students and residents of Oak Park stated that they were able to recover by coming together as a community. However, experts have questioned the future of areas such as southern California, where its dry climate, drought-prone conditions and fires seem to be increasing in frequency and strength. And in the broader perspective, there is pressing concern of the impacts of climate change for all of Earth.

As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, scientists are trying to understand its consequences regarding extreme weather conditions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), California reached its record high in July 2018, with an average temperature of 79.7 degrees Fahrenheit. The average temperature of the U.S. was 75.5 degrees, 1.9 degrees higher than the 20th-century average. 

At the same time, the NOAA states that global carbon dioxide levels in 2017 reached 405.0 parts per million, higher than any point in the past 800,000 years. Additionally, the NOAA reported that drought either expanded or intensified in the Southwest, California-Nevada and Pacific Northwest regions throughout 2018.

“A warmer atmosphere has more energy, and so from that you would expect to get more intense storms, more intense periods of precipitation, you know, really intense rainfall, and also potentially in some areas you get hotter and drier conditions,” University of California, Los Angeles, Professor Glen MacDonald said.

MacDonald has degrees in geography, ecology and evolutionary biology. Throughout his career, he has researched issues on climate change’s impact, including the theory that an increase in temperature is part of a global cycle.

“When I discuss that with people, I point out that I studied natural cycles and climate for my whole career. I do lots of studies about the climate a thousand years ago, or ten thousand years ago,” MacDonald said. “And [the magnitude of the warming and its persistence] isn’t like a normal cycle that you would see in the climate.”

MacDonald concluded that an increase in carbon dioxide levels matches humans’ industrial activity and burning of fossil fuels. He also explained that the impacts of climate change are not limited to droughts and fires such as those experienced in California.

“We’re seeing sea levels rising … the Greenland ice sheet is melting in places, parts of Antarctica, and the ocean is getting warmer in its thermal expand. We can see that places like parts of Miami are now flooding on a pretty regular basis,” MacDonald said. “We can see those things, and the longer we take to start taking action, the longer and more severe those impacts are going to be …  it’s costing us not to tackle it.”

Studies show that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing due to human activity, global temperatures are increasing, and extreme weather occurrences are intensifying … why do so many people remain unconvinced about climate change?

The answer may be in the nature of counterfactual thinking. In the episode Rewinding & Rewriting: The Alternate Universes In Our Heads from Shankar Vedantam’s podcast Hidden Brain, Vedantam discusses how the psychology of the human brain creates alternate scenarios in response to a traumatic event or imagining how things could have turned out differently.

However, this phenomenon, called counterfactual thinking, can be useful and has its purpose. By replaying scenarios in the mind where things go right, people can shape their future actions so that they don’t make the same mistakes again. Counterfactual thinking consists of four factors: a clearly bad outcome, something out of the ordinary, how one person played a central role in what happened and a direct connection between their action and the consequence.

And herein lies the problem. Many people are aware of the recent climate issues — the first factor of counterfactual thinking — of climate change. What many lack are the other three factors, according to Vedantam. Because climate change is gradual, even the increase in extreme weather events doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.

MacDonald expressed his frustration by explaining that despite the abundance of good scientists and good data, people view climate change as “seeing your car is heading towards a cliff and saying, well I don’t really want to believe what my eyes are showing me.”   

MacDonald said that he is also worried that some people will only change their minds about climate change and remove it from its political stigma when it is too late.

“Unfortunately, that’s the way it is,” MacDonald said.

Despite people being apathetic toward climate change, there is still hope for future generations. In fact, according to MacDonald, California’s greenhouse gas production has decreased while both the state’s population and economic income has increased.

“In Thousand Oaks now you can choose to have your electricity provided by 100 percent renewable. That’s a cool thing to do. It does cost maybe 5-10 percent more on your electric bill,” MacDonald said.

He also recommends citizens to install LED lighting due to their efficiency and to walk or bike when possible. MacDonald himself had even biked to the Thousand Oaks Library for his interview.

Although MacDonald admitted that eliminating fossil fuels or carbon production is unrealistic, he urged young people to make small steps and think about future opportunities regarding sustainability.

“There are going to be a lot of opportunities for really smart people — for inventing things, for new technology, for software, for strategies, for planning and for communicating still … I see that the youth today are not only more aware of this and I see a different way of approaching in and through the lens of sustainability,” MacDonald said. “I have such infinite faith in [future generations]  being able to tackle this.”

Fortunately, the Oak Park community is taking action. Oak Park High School was awarded multiple nationally-ranked sustainability awards, including the Best Green School System in 2018 and the Green Schools Award in 2011 and 2014 by the Green Schools National Network. This organization works with school districts across the U.S. to help transform how they operate the school and teach students.

“We believe that every school should operate in a way that increases the health and wellbeing of a student, decreases the ecological footprint of the operations in a school district and teaches young people the knowledge and skills needed to create a sustainable future,” Dr. Jennifer Seydel, executive director of Green Schools National Network, said.

Seydel has worked in education for nearly 40 years and has earned a PhD in environmental studies from Antioch University of New England.

“I have been a little bit of a rabble-rouser in education, trying to help people understand it’s not what happens in the classroom … but how they apply that in the real world,” Seydel said.

Seydel said she usually looks for school districts that prepare students to be civic leaders in environmental literacy and sustainability, decrease their carbon footprint, improve the health and well-being of its students and faculty and help young people develop the knowledge and skills needed to co-create a sustainable future. She found that Oak Park High School met and exceeded these standards.

When asked if she thinks students are applying their knowledge of climate change to aid future generations, Seydel nodded knowingly.

“[Students] are our future. Every child in this country should graduate from high school understanding that they are shaping not just their future but their children’s future, their children’s children’s future,” Seydel said. “I know that the young people that are in high school now are more tuned in to what their future is and the issues that they are facing than any other generation, especially when it comes to sustainability, climate change and all of the issues that we’re seeing related to climate change.”

Both MacDonald and Seydel believe that students today are more aware of climate change and are more proactive with their actions. They believe that as climate change continues to be a pressing issue for future generations, it is up to young people to see their responsibility in climate change and their role to change it.

“We need to get out of your way and support you in shaping the future that you desire,” Seydel said.