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Climate Educators Wanted

By Subhankar Banerjee

13 September, 2010

Soon I’ll tell you about climate educators, but first a story on solar–on–the–roof.

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and his fellow activists arrived last Friday from Maine to Washington, DC. They made an unusual road trip on a bio–diesel van carrying a solar panel that was on the roof of the White House during the Carter administration, but was taken down by Reagan. Bill had hoped that President Obama would accept the gift and put solar back on the White House roof to show his leadership for clean energy economy. Their mission failed, some mid–level staff met with the group and politely rejected the idea. I’ll return to this story, but before that let me share my first experience of solar–on–the–roof.

It was June 2001: I was invited by Sarah James, renowned Native American activist and current board chair of the Gwich’in Steering Committee to attend an emergency gathering at Arctic Village, a remote community of about 150 residents in arctic Alaska. Community members from the entire Gwich’in Nation that consists of fifteen villages in northeast Alaska in the U.S. and northwest Yukon in Canada had come to Arctic Village. They had gathered to oppose oil development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that George W. Bush had vowed to sell to the oil companies. Gwich’in Nation opposes oil development, because the coastal plain where the oil companies want to drill is exactly where the Porcupine River caribou herd gives birth to their calves. Gwich’in communities depend on this caribou herd for food as well as their cultural and spiritual identities. For them oil drilling in the caribou calving ground is a human rights issue.

Solar Panels on Arctic Village washateria roof. Photo Subhankar Banerjee

During the gathering, Arctic Village Council did something magical. They worked with a man named Dr. Brian Hirsch to install solar panels on the roof of the village washateria. Arctic Village does not have a running water and sewer system. The community washateria is where everyone goes to wash clothes. When I’m in the village that’s where I'd take a shower and wash my clothes. Brian and I were on the roof with community members to install the solar panels as well as several caribou antlers. The Gwich’in Nation was opposing oil development and supporting clean energy to protect the caribou. Sun bleached caribou antlers underneath the solar panels against a blue sky is something I’ll not forget. The solar panels would heat the water that everyone in the community will use. At that time, Brian had a small non–profit company and his dream was to put solar all across rural Alaska. Due to lack of funding his dream did not materialize. Nearly nine years later, I got an email from him, out of the blue this summer. He writes, “I’m working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory these days, part of the U.S. Dept of Energy, still pushing clean green energy for Alaska.” His dream it seems did not die.

Back to the Bill McKibben story: the White House rejection is a small bump on the road for someone like Bill, who is a tireless crusader to make the world a little more habitable for everyone. Many of you may already know, but if not, check out 10-10-10 Global Work Party when Bill and his colleagues will be putting solar–on–the–roof all over the world.

This summer climate has been on the mind of so many people around world (hottest first six months ever, Pakistan flood, Russian fires, ...). Even though we cannot expect Obama to put Carter’s old panels, but he should and must put new solar panels on the White House roof. If he does so we’ll remember Bill McKibben’s road trip wasn’t exactly a failure. And I for one would also strongly urge President Obama to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

We’ll look back at 2010 as a critical crossroad for climate campaign. The new U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres has made it clear that an International Climate Treaty is basically dead while at the same time she is urging the world leaders to take some practical steps to deal with climate change. And national approaches? It has failed this year both in Australia and the U.S. It is clear now that serious action on climate change is not possible through Government actions, at least not anytime soon. In the U.S. we know far too well that Big Oil and Big Coal will kill whatever threatens their astronomical profits.

We also must acknowledge that climate campaign is far more complex and far more difficult than any campaign for social justice humanity ever had to deal with. All justice movements of the past dealt with issues within a single nation. Climate campaign is a planetary crisis for every inch of our earth, every human being regardless of race or class, every animals and birds, ... for all life. Previous justice campaigns primarily fought people's prejudices and passion. The climate campaign on the other hand needs to tackle the largest corporations with very serious amount of money at stake. But its us too – why would any American give up the quality of their life (even though this level of consumption is not sustainable no matter what clean technology one invents) and why would anyone in China or India give up their dream to have the American way of life? Go figure – we’re totally screwed!

So I’ve been thinking. While we continue and intensify our climate action of today, we have to think about the future. I mean the next generation, and the one after that... I strongly believe we need major overhaul of our education system. We must make Climate Education a top priority for all Universities, Colleges, Community Colleges, and K–12 schools. While there are pockets of climate centers at various U.S. universities (some of them even get funding from Big Oil and Big Coal to produce climate deniers), but they focus primarily on climate science. I found no humanities based climate institute. We need to name these centers with climate at the banner, say, Institute for Climate Studies. There, students will learn all aspects of climate change – climate science, climate humanities, climate economics, and climate engineering. Climate Science will give us the information and it is necessary, Climate Humanities will articulate for us the suffering that we’ll have to endure and what we must do to help each other out, and also teach us how to communicate climate stories, and the Climate Economics and Climate Engineering will help us chart a course for clean energy economy. There has never been in the past and there may never be in future a planetary crisis like climate change and our educational institutions must step up to the plate now.

To build such climate institutes we can’t rely on Government funding (our Government is broke and Big Oil and Big Coal will have Big Say on that too), but private financing from foundations who have education on their minds.

We must acknowledge that our youth will have to deal with climate crimes (I’ve been framing the climate events as crimes and will write more on that topic in future stories) much more than what we're dealing with today. We must put in place the educational system now, so that today’s youth will be better equipped to fight for a liveable planet for themselves and for all other species with whom they’ll share this earth.

Since 2006 I’ve been a visiting scholar at the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. This is the first graduate program in the country to teach environmental studies from humanities perspective. You can imagine whatever I’m writing here in part has been influenced by the vision of that program that Dean Robert Newman founded and where Terry Tempest Wiliams teaches.

You may laugh at me for proposing such a far–fetched idea of reform through education for an urgent topic like climate change. But I’m convinced that we need hundreds of Howard Zinns and Edward Saids to teach and prepare our youth for the climate–to–come.

I hope you’ll join me in taking a slightly longer vision for our climate campaign.

Copyright 2010 Subhankar Banerjee