Switching light bulbs, recycling and composting, biking to school—to high school seniors Alice Fan, Amelia Kane, and Simone Colburn, these sorts of sustainability solutions being taught in their classes just didn’t feel like enough.
“We were seeing a gap in climate education,” says Fan. “We would learn about the greenhouse gas effect, and about the polar bears, but the curriculum wouldn’t really touch on the human aspects of climate change, like environmental justice, redlining, and all the systemic issues that bring a different lens to climate change.”
Fan, Colburn, Kane, and some of their fellow students had come to understand the true scope of the issue through their individual interests and participation in activist and environmental groups outside of school. But the more involved they became, the wider the gap grew between them and their classmates. So they decided to take on the role of educators themselves, founding the Spring Forward Climate Education organization.
Spring Forward’s mission is to bring those larger conversations about climate justice into elementary and middle school classrooms, after-school programs, and summer camps. The organization’s high school members have developed lesson plans and activities that they lead for their younger peers. Mina Subramanian, Spring Forward’s Partnerships Coordinator, says climate education taught by students can be more impactful than receiving information from adults.
“I joined a climate organization before Spring Forward, but it was mostly adults. I felt like in that space, I didn’t have the voice that I wanted to,” Subramanian says. “But at Spring Forward, being youth led, it is such a different environment. We’re all on the same playing field and we all empower each other.”
Spring Forward has also begun branching out from classroom education, to develop additional materials that inform on broader climate topics. Collaborating with Woodwell, the team has created a policy brief around the issue of balancing solar panel installation with other land use considerations.
Solar panels require large clear tracts of land with good sun exposure. Some existing municipal development plans indicate their installation on land currently covered with forests or other vegetation. Forests are some of the best natural carbon sinks and sacrificing them in a rush to install renewable infrastructure is counterproductive. The Spring Forward team wanted to make the policy more accessible to the general public.
“We need both solar and forests working together—not in competition—if we are going to be successful in addressing the climate crisis,” says Woodwell Carbon Program Director, Wayne Walker, who worked with the Spring Forward team on the brief. “Educating on these complex topics is so important, and the collaboration with Spring Forward offered me the unique opportunity not only to share some of my knowledge with the students, but also to play a small part in helping the students educate others.”
As the group continues to grow and evolve with new members and partnerships, they hope to temper the sting of a sometimes scary topic by showing both kids and adults that they have a voice they can use to make a difference. Talking about the problem helps everyone develop a path forward.
“In our lessons we try to give information even if it’s scary, but then say ‘okay, well what can you do about it?’” says Colburn. “And one of our big beliefs is that if kids are getting weighed down by information, knowing that they can have power and that they can be influential is really helpful.”
A team of Woodwell researchers and Communications staff received a commendation in the inaugural Climate Creatives Challenge (CCC). The CCC is a series of design challenges created to encourage new ways of communicating the impacts of climate change and the benefits of adaptation. The first challenge engaged creators working across different media—from film to photography, sculpture, and graphic design— on the topic of extreme flooding.
The challenge asked: “How can we communicate the impacts of flooding (past, present or future) and the benefits of adaptation and resilience?”
The Woodwell team used the Center’s flood risk analyses to create an animated infographic demonstrating how extreme flooding could disrupt essential daily tasks for residents of Lawrence, MA. It compares two different neighborhoods to highlight that risk exposure can vary significantly within the same city, and that poorer residents often suffer the first and worst impacts.
Finding out-of-the-box ways to communicate the impacts of climate change is important, as solving the climate crisis will require us to engage audiences from diverse backgrounds and spur them to action.
“The beauty of climate communication is finding ways to overcome the challenge of informing people in a way that elicits empathy and inspires action, rather than overwhelming them into passivity,” says challenge participant and Woodwell Arctic communications specialist, Jessica Howard. “The Climate Creatives Challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity to not only take a more imaginative approach to communicating the impact of the climate crisis but to also further reveal how race and financial privilege make a difference in who bears the brunt of it.”
Contest judges awarded the graphic a commendation, stating that it was, “visually engaging” and “a clever depiction of disruption and inequality.” The final piece was featured in the compendium for Challenge One alongside other winners. Winners will also be displayed at Flood Expo in Birmingham, UK, September 14 and 15.
One point five—most readers will recognize that number as the generally accepted upper limit of permissible climate warming. With current temperatures already hovering at 1.1 degrees Celsius above the historical average, the race is on to hit that target, and the likelihood that we will surpass it is growing. Even if we do manage a 1.5 degree future, that’s still warmer than today’s world, which is already seeing devastating climate impacts.
So what will it actually feel like to live in a 1.5 degree world—or a 2 degree one, or even 3? The Probable Futures initiative has built a tool to help everyone imagine.
Probable Futures is a newly launched climate literacy initiative with the goal of reframing the way society thinks about climate change. The initiative was founded by Dr. Spencer Glendon, a senior fellow with Woodwell Climate who, after investigating climate change as Director of Research at Wellington Management, noticed a gap in need of bridging between climate scientists and, well… everyone else.
According to Dr. Glendon, although there was an abundance of available climate science, it wasn’t necessarily accessible to the people who needed to use it. The way scientists spoke about climate impacts didn’t connect with the way most businesses, governments, and communities thought about their operations. There was no easy way for individuals to pose questions of climate science and explore what the answers might mean for them.
In short, the public didn’t know what questions to ask and the technical world of climate modeling wasn’t really inviting audience participation. But it desperately needed to. Because tackling climate change requires everyone’s participation.
“The idea that climate change is somebody else’s job needs to go away,” Dr. Glendon says. “It isn’t anybody else’s job. It’s everybody’s job.”
So, working with scientists and communicators from Woodwell, Dr. Glendon devised Probable Futures—a website that would offer tools and resources to help the public understand climate change in a way that makes it meaningful to everybody. The site employs well-established models to map changing temperatures, precipitation levels, and drought through escalating potential warming scenarios. The data is coupled with accessible content on the fundamentals of climate science and examples of it playing out in today’s world.
According to the initiative’s Executive Director, Alison Smart, Probable Futures is designed to give individuals a gateway into climate science.
“No matter where one might be on their journey to understand climate change, we hope Probable Futures can serve as a trusted resource. This is where you can come to understand the big picture context and the physical limits of our planet, how those systems work, and how they will change as the planet warms,” Smart says.
As the world awakens to the issue of climate change, there is a growing group of individuals who will need to better understand its impacts. Supply chain managers, for example, who are now tasked with figuring out how to get their companies to zero emissions. Or parents, trying to understand how to prepare their kids for the future. Probable Futures provides the tools and encouragement to help anyone ask good questions about climate science.
To that end, the site leans on storytelling that encourages visitors to imagine their lives in the context of a changing world. The maps display forecasts for 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3 degrees of warming—our most probable futures, with nearly 3 degrees likely by the end of the century on our current trajectory. For the warming we have already surpassed, place-based stories of vulnerable human systems, threatened infrastructure, and disruptions to the natural world, give some sense of the impacts society is already feeling.
According to Isabelle Runde, a Research Assistant with Woodwell’s Risk Program who helped develop the maps and data visualizations for the Probable Futures site, encouraging imagination is what sets the initiative apart from other forms of climate communication.
“The imagination piece has been missing in communication between the scientific community and the broader public,” Runde says. “Probable Futures provides the framework for people to learn about climate change and enter that place [of imagination], while making it more personal.”
Glendon believes that good storytelling in science communication can have the same kind of impact as well-imagined speculative fiction, which has a history of providing glimpses of the future for society to react against. Glendon uses the example of George Orwell who, by imagining unsettling yet possible worlds, influenced debates around policy and culture for decades. The same could be true for climate communication.
“I’m not sure we need more science fiction about other worlds,” Glendon says. “We need fiction about the future of this world. We need an imaginative application of what we know.” Glendon hopes that the factual information on Probable Futures will spark speculative imaginings that could help push society away from a future we don’t want to see.
For Smart, imagining the future doesn’t mean only painting a picture of how the world could change for the worse. It can also mean sketching out the ways in which humans will react to and shape our new surroundings for the better.
“We acknowledge that there are constraints to how we can live on this planet, and imagining how we live within those constraints can be a really exciting thing,” Smart says. “We may find more community in those worlds. We may find less consumption but more satisfaction in those worlds. We may find more connection to human beings on the other side of the planet. And that’s what makes me the most hopeful.”