Can a Group of 7th Graders Save the World?

 

Blog post from Jason Carter, Evergreen Middle School Science Teacher

March 29, 2016

 

Last Thursday I led my first mock world climate summit based on the model created by the nonprofit Climate Interactive. The participants, instead of the usual groups of college students or business leaders who are involved in this workshop, were my 7th grade science students. For the past 12 weeks, each student has become an expert in a particular country. Through their social studies and language arts classes, they learned about the government, economy, culture, and rights of the people for these nations. In science, they have been focused on air quality issues and how climate change is affecting their countries and being addressed.

 

To culminate this large, interdisciplinary unit, I asked my co-teachers to try taking on this summit. They heartily agreed and took on roles to fully enhance the experience. We all became participants right along with the students rather than lecturers or experts dispensing information to them. All of the teachers met early Thursday morning to set up the room. The United States (represented by the social studies teacher and a parent of a 7th grader with a background in climate science), had the prime seats at the front of the room. Their table was decorated and full of drinks and snacks as well. The European Union also had a well-decorated table to sit at and cushions to make them more comfortable. The other developed nations had a table with chairs. China, India, and several of its neighbors were given chairs but no tables and seated behind the

 

tables. The developing nations (represented by 16 of the 52 students), were given one picnic blanket to sit at on the floor.

 

I asked six students to be ready to give a two minute opening address for their region of the world, highlighting issues and successes around climate change. They were given the floor to speak first and really set the tone for the rest of the summit. They were poised, prepared, and well-spoken. For a few minutes, I forgot that they were only 13 years old! Students were then instructed on the goal of the summit - to limit temperature change for the planet to less than two degrees Celsius by the the year 2100. They would be making the following pledges: the year their region would stop increasing the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, the year the region would begin reducing emissions, the percentage of decrease per year, commitments to reducing deforestation and increasing afforestation, and money that would go to a world fund to help countries in need to financially support these pledges. While negotiating was underway, three other teachers took on roles to help make the process more realistic. One was a fossil fuel lobbyist, bribing students with chips and candy to pledge low. Another was a climate activist whose bribes consisted of fresh fruits and vegetables. She appealed to the students’ hearts and sense of decency to “do the right thing” for the planet. A third was a journalist, asking students reflective questions through the lens of an interview.

 

 

I had much trepidation as a teacher going into this summit. Would 7th graders take it seriously? Would they represent their country in the process in a realistic and appropriate way? Would they get out of this process what their teachers hoped they would? Well, I had nothing to worry about. From the opening statements to the final debrief, these students demonstrated a strong balance of concern and realism in their approach to these issues. All of the students dressed up for the summit, and they each brought all of their research on their countries. I noticed them referencing it multiple times through the process of the day. They represented their countries very realistically, carefully considering how pledges on emissions or funds would affect their economies and quality of life for the people living in their regions. No one made lofty or unrealistic pledges just to try to meet the goal, but each gave careful consideration as to how best to represent her nation.

 

 

After the first round of negotiations, we broke for lunch. Students were not instructed to stay in character, but I observed many of them having private lunch meetings to continue to negotiate. We ultimately made it through three rounds of negotiations, and students managed to make pledges that brought the projects down to 2.25 degrees, very close to ultimate goal! The most powerful moment of the summit came at the end when we reflected and I could see what students truly got out of the summit. Here are some of the points these students brought up, letting me know that there is indeed hope for the next generation to continue to solve these complex issues:

 

  • Negotiation is hard. People can easily be corrupted by others.

  • Climate change can be mitigated, but it is going to take all of the world working together, the sooner the better.

  • Though much of the burden of greenhouse gas emissions lies with the US, China, and India now, the developing countries of the world are projected to far exceed them in the next fifty years.

  • Learning happens best when it is interactive and relevant.

  • Climate change is affecting every country in the world, and humans are the major driving force behind it.

Ultimately, I hope these students are inspired to make a difference, or at least think more critically about how interconnected all parts of the world are in causing but in also potentially mitigating the worst effects of climate change. I know that I have been inspired by them throughout this whole process and found a bright spot in the dark cloud of climate change.