“Just Look Outside” — Teaching Climate Change in Alaska

By Soren Wuerth

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

The first week of school in Anchorage, Alaska, was held amid an amber haze of smoke from forest fires south and north of the city.

School buildings, choked with lung-tingling micro-particles of ash, had inhabitants consigned to air quality deemed to be a health risk. Teachers and students complained of headaches.

Anchorage, meanwhile, has seen a mere trickle of rain all summer, less than an inch total. This summer will be southcentral Alaska’s driest ever. The federal Drought Monitor classified the area as being in “extreme drought.”

“This is rare event,” an Alaska climate scientist told the Anchorage Daily News. “It will be less rare in the future.”

The school curriculum hardly mentions the gloomy, suffocating conditions outside, just more evidence of a climate catastrophe. That topic, the big one visible outside our windows and the underlying cause for the sooty air everyone was breathing, is relegated to a few pages in dated science textbooks.

How our educational system has ignored the climate crisis for so long says more about its fixture in antiquity than even that row of “classics,” force-fed to students, in the English Department’s book room.

In our narrative of schooling, teaching about climate, especially outside of one’s so-called “content area,” is subversive for anyone but a science teacher.

Years ago, shortly upon returning from a pivotal climate summit in Paris, I received a call from the principal’s office.

“Apparently, you’ve been teaching about global warming in your classroom and we are getting complaints from parents.”

Despite the fact that Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the Lower 48, that Barack Obama visited the state to dramatize the issue, that I had recently returned from the Paris Climate Summit, the topic was still sacrilege in Anchorage’s school-industrial-complex.

Besides, Heaven forbid, I was an English teacher!

“Thanks for taking time to meet with this parent,” the administrator told me after our meeting, “but you need to stick with the curriculum.”

The message was clear:  I had to be as careful as one might be with a political controversy.

This summer’s record-smashing heat and drought, abrupt to our collective senses, dissipated the cloud of ambivalence I had over whether to prioritize climate study in my classes.

I distributed a copy of an article from the local paper connecting this summer’s heat wave, drought, and fires to climate change. I treated the story as an object of interest and did not present my own perspective. I invited students to discuss. Current events has little place in our academic plans (even social studies does not make room in its crowded curricula), but I wanted nonfiction texts that are both relevant and engaging. Let’s talk about what’s out the window.

The mood in the room was somber, and I feared unease about these seniors’ future would result in apathy. So I brought up Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who sat with a sign outside the Swedish parliament, becoming a global celebrity for action on the climate crisis. “What stands in the way of more people taking this action?” I asked the class.

Of four discussions we held in the first two weeks of school, more in the class directed their reflection toward this topic. They wanted more information. They wanted to know what they can do.

Throughout the remainder of the school year, I’ll mix topical ecological issues with a climate unit. I will teleconference with Alaska Natives, with a friend who lives in the disappearing Solomon Islands, with a past foreign exchange student from Tunisia, and, importantly, bring in students their own age who are organizing events. I call the unit “My Climate Story.” It’s a unit for teaching climate chaos I’ve worked on, with the help of colleagues across the globe, since the Paris summit.

I hope to inspire action, because regardless of our penchant to closet the environment and to hold an antiquated education system sacrosanct, something has got to change.

Soren Wuerth is a writer, activist and secondary language arts teacher working in Anchorage, Alaska.