Teens and young adult leaders are key to the climate change challenge - Part 1

Youth have an important role in the increasingly frequent and extreme weather events and climate change that presents a variety of potentially serious consequences for the United States and the global community.

On January 21, during his speech at the 57th presidential inauguration, President Barack Obama spoke about the need for American leadership on the issue of climate change.

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” said Obama. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure—our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

Obama’s remarks come following a year of extreme weather and climate events; 2012 was recorded as the hottest year on record for the contiguous United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the annual temperature in the contiguous United States was “55.3 degrees Fahrenheit, 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average and one degree Fahrenheit warmer than the previous record in 1998.” NOAA’s “Top Ten Annual Weather/Climate Events” for 2012 also included Hurricane/Post Tropical Storm Sandy, a major drought effecting large sections of the United States, record wildfire activity, near-record low Great Lakes levels and the third smallest amount of winter and spring snow cover in the United States.

The public response to the threat of climate change relies heavily on the ability of individual citizens to understand the scientific research that informs our collective understanding of the causes and the current and potential future effects of climate change. These are difficult tasks, considering the scope and complexity of climate change as a topic of inquiry. Concerning the connection between scientific literacy and citizenship, in the book Science and the Educated American, A Core Component of Liberal Education, Eugene H. Levy says, “The national interest calls for a citizenry that has a grasp of science sufficient to engender realistic confidence in the nature, efficacy, limits, and importance of science as a modality of understanding and engaging reality. Science provides the foundation of knowledge and understanding on which our technology, prosperity, and material well-being are built. Moreover, science provides the most penetrating framework for seeking answers to questions that have occupied human beings for longer than recorded history.”

The international scientific community is in nearly unanimous agreement that recent changes in the earth’s climate are likely a result of global warming due primarily to the increased concentration of greenhouse gasses in the earth’s atmosphere. These are the result of a variety of human activities, with the primary cause being the burning of fossil fuels. The National Academy of Sciences, along with other scientific bodies and environmental organizations, indicates that the results of a changing and variable earth climate system present enormous challenges for individuals, families, communities, nations and the world, including impacts on “water resources, coastlines, infrastructure, human health, food security, and land and ocean ecosystems.” Preparing the next generation of citizens to understand and address these enormous challenges requires the development of climate science literacy and the ability of individuals to engage in the decision making process through leadership and civic engagement efforts.

This article is the first in a series of articles by the author which will explore the role of youth leadership and civic engagement in the context of the issues associated with climate change, as well as the knowledge and competencies necessary for engaging in such a role. Prior to engaging in efforts to address the complex issues associated with global climate change through leadership roles and civic participation, youth would benefit greatly from having an understanding how Earth’s climate system works, how it has changed in the recent past and how scientists predict the planet’s climate may change in the coming years based on the impacts of a variety of potential societal responses to the issue. Society’s collective response to these challenges will have enormous influence on the quantity and quality of life that is supported on the planet in the future.

The Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development program offers a variety of research-based educational programs and learning opportunities that can assist youth in developing the character and competencies needed to engage in leadership roles in their community, country and the world.

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