I’m in a different country, but sometimes it feels like I’m on a different planet.
I realize that’s a cliché, but in a way it’s true. The planet comes up in Germany a lot, and it doesn’t sound anything like the one I live on in the United States.
At home, our planet is doing more or less okay. And if it’s not — if, instead, the climate is slowly changing — there’s not much we can do about it. A third of Americans say that climate change is not a serious problem or not a problem at all, according to a recent YouGov survey. Just one in 10 Germans feel the same way.
It’s little wonder why.
In the United States, where Republican politicians compete to out-doubt each other on the issue, we’re still fighting over whether schoolchildren can be taught that climate change is real. In Germany, children have been learning about sustainability and climate change for years.
And the efforts are only intensifying.
Take Emmy-Noether-Schule, an 800-student secondary school in east Berlin I visited recently. Educators there consider climate change so pressing that they integrate it into just about every class you can think of (including, when the instructor is so inclined, Latin). About a quarter of the content in the 10th-grade English textbook, for example, is about threats to planet Earth. That means when kids learn to use the conditional mood in English, their grammar exercises rely on sentences like this: “If we don’t do something about global warming, more polar ice will start to melt.”
Likewise, in an 11th-grade geography class dedicated entirely to sustainability, students write poetry about klimawandel (climate change). My favorite couplet, from an ode by student Hannah Carsted: “The water level rises/ The fish are in a crisis.”
During my visit, Hannah and her classmates asked me about U.S. skepticism on an issue that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, seems fairly settled. Why haven’t Americans been chastened by extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy or the California drought (yes, they knew about both), that are predicted to proliferate if we do nothing to curb carbon emissions? Why don’t we believe what scientists tell us? I tried to explain the vast, vocal network of conspiracy theorists who believe that 97 percent of climate scientists have been hoaxing the world — and who have created a parallel universe of pseudoscience to prove it.
“That just seems unimaginable,” another student declared.
It’s easy to write off this reaction as unique to crunchy-granola east Berlin, which is kind of the Berkeley of Germany. But the textbook I mentioned is used throughout the country, and this summer German education ministers will issue guidelines for teaching sustainability in English, French, Spanish, the visual arts, music, history, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics and even phys-ed. And similar efforts are underway in developing economies such as the Dominican Republic, South Africa, Vietnam, Kenya and Mauritius, according to Alexander Leicht, UNESCO’S chief of the Education for Sustainable Development section.
In France, as in Germany, course work on sustainability and climate change has been part of most schools’ curricula for a while (partly the result of a 1992 U.N. treaty that the United States also signed, then ignored). And as France gears up to host a major U.N. climate conference in December, education officials are exploring whether to require every French school to conduct its own model-U.N.-style simulated negotiation in which students play-act international negotiations on emissions targets, then learn what happens to our (shared) planet as their efforts succeed. Or, perhaps more likely, stall.
The American public seems a bit less interested in those U.N. proceedings, let alone in simulating them in schools nationwide. The French foreign minister warned recently that the talks will be hamstrung by the toxicity of the issue in the United States. Which seems true enough; in that YouGov survey, which was conducted in 15 countries across four continents, Americans were not only most likely to express indifference about climate change; we were also most likely to say our own government was already “doing too much” to stop it.
What intrusive government interventions could these Americans possibly be referring to? That, dear friends, remains unimaginable.