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Climate Change Scenarios Scare, and Motivate, Kids

By Darragh Johnson (The Washington Post) - April 16, 2007

The boy has drawn, in his third-grade class, a global warming timeline that is his equivalent of the mushroom cloud.

“That’s the Earth now,” the 9-year-old says, pointing to a dark shape at the bottom. “And then,” he says, tracing the progressively lighter stripes across the page, “it’s just starting to fade away.”

Alex Hendel of Arlington County is talking about the end of life on our beleaguered planet. Looking up to make sure his mother is following along, he taps the final stripe, which is so sparsely dotted it is almost invisible. “In 20 years,” he pronounces, “there’s no oxygen.” Then, to dramatize the point, he collapses, “dead,” to the floor.

For many children and young adults, global warming is the atomic bomb of today. Fears of an environmental crisis are defining their generation in ways that the Depression, World War II, Vietnam and the Cold War’s lingering “War Games” etched souls in the 20th century.

Parents say they’re searching for “productive” outlets for their 8-year-olds’ obsessions with dying polar bears. Teachers say enrollment in high school and college environmental studies classes is doubling year after year. And psychologists say they’re seeing an increasing number of young patients preoccupied by a climactic Armageddon.

“Our parents had the civil rights and antiwar movements,” says Meredith Epstein, 20, who grew up in Rockville and is now a junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “But for us, this is what we need to take immediate action on.”

Young people might not be turning out at demonstrations against the war in Iraq in numbers rivaling Vietnam War protests. But the environment is becoming their galvanizing force: Thirty-seven years after the first Earth Day in the United States, the topic is more than an issue. It’s personal.

“For, like, the whole history of the environmental movement,” begins David Bronstein, 19, a freshman at St. John’s College in Annapolis, “we’ve been saying: ‘Do it for your children. We have to protect the Earth for them.’ But that argument has shifted. I’m fighting for my future.”

Over the weekend, thousands of students at more than 1,400 “Step It Up on Global Warming” events from Alaska to New Mexico to Maine asked Congress to place limits on carbon emissions. Earth Day returns Sunday, and as University of Maryland freshman Andrew Nazdin told 200 high school and college kids gathered Saturday on the Mall, “We’re proud of the students of the ’60s and ’70s, but now it’s our turn to rise to the challenge of our generation and end the climate crisis.”

Last month, Epstein crusaded for a referendum to raise St. Mary’s student fees by $25 — enough to collect more than $45,000 a year and pay for 100 percent green electricity. Epstein worried about campus apathy: Last year’s election for student government president drew only 100 voters. But for the environment, more than half of the student body turned out. “We had people lining up to vote,” Epstein says, “and no one’s ever seen that before.” The measure passed, 1,005 to 75.

It’s not as though every student in the United States is turning green. For many, the biggest anxieties are still status, class standing and SATs.

“But there’s a pretty significant minority of kids trying to convince their friends: ‘This is serious. You or your family is wasting gas, and you’re not recycling,’ ” says Mark Goldstein, a child psychologist and school-system consultant who has practiced in Chicago’s northern suburbs for 30 years.

“And they’re looking ahead and going, ‘Hey — when we have kids, our kids are going to be messed up because of this, and we need to start doing something now.’ ”

Goldstein adds: “In my practice, they bring this up. Some of the kids are scared, and it’s interesting, because I’ve seen an evolution. . . . Kids used to have fears of war and nuclear annihilation. That’s dissipated and been replaced by global warming.”

It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon: A United Kingdom survey, by the Somerfield supermarket chain, of 1,150 youngsters age 7 to 11 found that half felt anxious about global warming — and many were losing sleep over it, convinced that animal species will soon die out and that they, themselves, will be victims of global warming.

After 8-year-old Mollie Passacantando, daughter of Greenpeace USA’s executive director, read a story about polar bears in class this year, the Fairfax County youngster and her friends spent recess marching around the playground with signs reading, “Stop global warming. Save the polar bears.” A classmate taunted, “You can march all you want, but you’re not going to save a single polar bear.”

That riled Mollie up. With her father, John Passacantando, she started a blog to get the polar bear put on the endangered species list.

“I have heard from friends and work colleagues around the country,” says Mollie’s mother, Lisa Guide, “that global warming is a subject that can be stressful to children. Mollie was so concerned . . . we really felt it was important to help her do something constructive.”

The number of interested students, both elementary-age and older, keeps booming. In 2003, 65 U.S. and Canadian colleges joined the Energy Action Coalition’s drive to raise awareness about global warming. One year later, there were 280 campuses. By February, that number was 587.

“I think it’s been exponential in growth,” says Matt Stern, campus director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, describing the numbers of students fighting global warming’s dire predictions: massive sea-level risings, drought, famine, widespread disease.

“If you follow global warming, every prediction is scarier than the prior one. It’s really scary stuff. Global warming is this huge uncertainty, and we see it compromising our future.

“So much of going to school,” he says, “is getting an education and preparing yourself for the future. But . . . what’s the use of a college degree when Wall Street is under water?”

At Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Laura Dinerman’s AP environmental science class has grown by an entire classroom each year: She started with 22 students, is teaching two classes this year and next year expects to have 66 students — at least three classes, “if it doesn’t go up,” she says.

Dinerman has also seen a blossoming interest this year in the school’s environmental club (mission statement: “Change the World”). Just under 10 teenagers were active last year; 90 have signed up this year, an increase helped by an aggressive marketing campaign and Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Gore is this generation’s Bob Dylan; “Truth” is its “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

There was also last spring’s effort by David Bronstein — before he graduated and enrolled at St. John’s — to do 20-minute PowerPoint presentations on “the problem of global warming and how it’s the challenge of our generation and what we need to do about it” to about 20 of Sherwood’s government, English, social studies and philosophy classes.

“This message about global warming is so powerful,” Bronstein says. “It gives me hope for the human race because people are responsive to it.” He also encourages anxiety about the planet’s future, comparing enviro-fears to “any suffering in your life: The first step is denial, and then there’s a sense of doom, and then you have to get up and shake it off and change something.”

Which is exactly what happened when 9-year-old Alyssa Luz-Ricca’s mother returned from a business trip to Costa Rica with a T-shirt of a colorful frog and the words “Extinction is forever.” Alyssa looked at the T-shirt and, she says, “I cried.”

“She cried very hard,” clarifies her mother, Karen Luz of Arlington.

“I don’t like global warming,” Alyssa continues, her eyes huge and serious behind her glasses, a stardust of freckles across her nose, “because it kills animals, and I like animals.”

She dreams of solar-powered cars and has put a recycling basket for mail, office and school paper in the corner of her family’s dining room. She made another recycling box for her third-grade English teacher’s classroom at Key Elementary School and has persuaded her mother to start composting. At Key, she also organized an effort among her classmates to pick up playground trash at recess.

Marvel at any of her efforts, though, and she looks confused: Everyone should be doing all this — and more — to save the environment.

“I worry about it,” says this girl who has yet to lose all her baby teeth, “because I don’t want to die.”