Climate Change Scenarios Scare, and Motivate, Kids

Third graders, including Isabella Narvaez, put on a puppet show to play out their  concerns about their future and the environment in Rosa Berrocal's Spanish class at Key School in Arlington, VA.
Third graders, including Isabella Narvaez, 8, left, put on a puppet show to play out their concerns about their future and the environment in Rosa Berrocal's Spanish class at Key School in Arlington, VA. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post )
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, 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.

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