Earnest, with a runner’s build and a tiny nose piercing, Eileen Everett guides me through the New Mexico Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit, Degrees of Change: New Mexico’s Climate Forecast.
“It’s important when working with kids to leave a positive message at the end, to not leave it as a doom and gloom situation,” Everett, the museum’s climate change educator, says. It’s best, she says, to focus on the basics of climate, such as the difference between climate and weather and how the greenhouse effect works.
People also need to understand scientists are certain that human-caused climate change is occurring. “But there’s no place within our educational system that we talk about peer-reviewed research, what that is, how that is different from op-ed information,” she says. “I think people don’t realize that uncertainty within science is part of the process. Uncertainty is central to science because you’re always questioning things—that’s very different from what uncertainty means within other parts of our lives.”
Although Everett often focuses her efforts on children, she hasn’t given up on adults. “I do most of my environmental education outside of my work here through meaningful conversations with family, friends,” she laughs. “I do my best climate change education while riding the [New Mexico] Rail Runner [Express].”
Before leaving the exhibit, I approach two 17-year-olds. Everett has managed to buoy my faith in humanity. I ask the teenagers about climate change. Do they talk about it with their friends or at home with their families? “A little bit,” the girl answers. What do they know about climate change? The boy answers that it’s both good and bad—that the climate has been changing for a long time, but it’s slowing down now. “It doesn’t come into concern,” he adds. I turn to the girl. In a bland, “I’m talking to an adult” tone, she says, “It’s fascinating.”
Fighting the urge to smack my notebook over their heads, I talk myself out of feeling discouraged. At least they’re at the museum. And other, younger children are there with their mothers and fathers. At 5, my own daughter knows about climate change. She asks deeper and more complex questions all the time, and more and more often, she is calculating solutions. They may be unrealistic—cars that run on bubbles, for instance—but she’s thinking about the issue more deeply than most adults I know. By talking with her about climate change, I’m not trying to scare her. Rather, I want her to practice rational leadership in a way adults seemingly cannot. As adults, we are addicted not only to our way of life—and the wealth that has converted abundant cash and ready credit into the carbon dioxide that is causing worldwide temperatures to rise—but also to the myths of unlimited growth and wealth that have coaxed us through and beyond the Industrial Revolution.
Americans need to brush up on our science. According to a recent Yale University poll, only 64 percent of Americans thought global warming was happening, and 21 percent were “extremely sure” it wasn’t. But we also need new stories, new myths better suited to a new reality.
To fill that void, science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi riffs off environmental issues such as climate change, genetic engineering and endocrine disruptors. It’s pointless to write with optimism for adults, he says: “The implication is if you create myths—and I think about stories as myths, and specifically science fiction, myths of our future, things that we live into—that we create a myth that is unearned,” he says. “We create a myth that says ‘Oh, it does get solved,’ when in fact, the battle is not even engaged yet. We have not even begun to face the question of how we’re actually going to deal with climate change, let alone species destruction, let alone questions like population growth.”
Within the past couple of years, however, he has targeted a new audience. Writing for kids is different, he says, and he provides them with a new narrative—one that acknowledges adults are the enemy and proves a better world is possible for those brave enough to fight for it.
“Young adult literature is often a rebellious literature. The young adult story demands that parental figures be either dead, impotent, absent or antagonistic, so that kids can take the reins of the story,” he says. “And that actually works pretty well when you want to mirror to young people that we adults really are killing their future, that parents and other adults really are the enemy.”
Bacigalupi’s face breaks into a characteristically diabolical grin.
“It’s almost a perfect symmetry for environmental writing that young adult literature already demands a re-evaluation of the parent-child relationship,” he says, “and expects children to take over agency in the face of their parents’ failures.”