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Sierra Magazine
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Climate Exchange
Cool heads tackle our hottest issue
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
May/June 2007

Kid's-Eye View
A junior high school student's observations of the roundtable

Many things about me have changed. When I was three, my parents asked what color I wanted my new room. I said pink. It was a stage that lasted about one more month, and now I wonder if I was insane. There are also things about me that have never changed in all of my now-13 years of existence (not very impressive, I admit). I was born into an environmental family and have been, for as long as I can remember, very environmentally aware. Sure, other people were environmentally aware too, but my family actually did things. We use fluorescent bulbs, we virtually never turn on the heater, and I didn't know what a paper towel was until I spilled my orange juice at a friend's house.

Although I participated in these steps, I didn't always understand why. For instance, I learned quickly not to waste my breath asking for the little chocolate puddings at the grocery store. It took me years of asking for other things to learn that it was not because my parents were cruel but because of all of the packaging. (My lack of certain treats was made easier to bear by the knowledge that I was helping to save the planet.)

It's one thing to know to avoid unnecessary packaging, but it's a lot harder to know what to do about global warming. One thing I do believe, though, is that fear isn't the right reaction; it certainly isn't going to do anyone any good. My main feeling about the issue is sadness. The images of starving polar bears and families who have lost their homes in strong hurricanes are so much more sad than scary.

My fear is that my generation isn't paying attention and that we will not be willing to make the changes that will stop global warming. I believe this is a legitimate fear, based on observations I've made at school. A few days ago, I was eating lunch with my eighth-grade friends. We were chatting about this and that when one student commented that she didn't believe humans were causing global warming or even that the planet was warming at all.

She supported her view by saying that although one pole was melting, the other was freezing even more rapidly. There is no evidence of this phenomenon, but because she had found it on the Internet, she firmly believed it was true. After more discussion, I realized that out of the five people sitting at the table, only one of my friends believed global warming existed. This would have been disappointing at any school, but it was especially shocking at mine because one of the parents had presented Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" slide show to every science class, so the students could not just be uninformed.

When I looked more closely, I realized that there were four distinct groups of students at my school. The first group I've already described: They completely deny the existence of global warming. The second group believes that it's happening but that it will not affect them and therefore is not their concern. They love to tell me to "act like a kid; the adults will deal with it." The third group believes that global warming exists and is a problem but that they are doing their share by recycling or turning off the water while they brush their teeth.

Although these acts are important, when they are the only environmentally friendly behavior in a house, they are not enough to truly make a difference. The final group consists of a very small number of children who have grown up in families where the environmental aspect of every behavior is discussed daily. From turning off the lights when we leave a room to "hyper-miling" in our new Prius to watering our garden with gray water, we try to do everything with the environment in mind. What I find frightening is how different the sizes of the group are. The first two vastly outnumber the second two, and the third vastly outnumbers the fourth.

This realization made me appreciate Sierra's climate-change roundtable even more. I had the chance to listen to people who not only understand the danger and want to make a difference in their own lives, they also want to make a difference in the world and are actually working to achieve that goal.

My aunt invited me because she knew I cared about global warming and thought it would be a great opportunity for me to see intelligent, responsible adults trying to make a difference instead of denying that these environmental problems exist. I was immediately interested, and I was even more enthusiastic when I learned that Al Gore would be there. My parents quickly decided I should go, even though I would miss school. I chose an outfit from my somewhat limited wardrobe and set off on my first flight without my family.

When I arrived at the Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco on the morning of the event, everyone was scurrying about, and no one had time for the child who had appeared in their midst. I was stowed safely in a corner, but I didn't mind because it was very early and I had a terrible cold and runny nose. Paul Anderson, who was the chair of Duke Energy, was the first roundtable participant to arrive. He looked slightly out of his element standing by the bagels and orange juice, and he seemed relieved to learn that my grandfather had also been in the utility business.

Vinod Khosla arrived next. When I met him, he mentioned his own four children and said he was working on energy issues for them, for their future. He struck me as a genuine person who truly cared about the future of my generation. After Dan Reicher, Stephen Schneider, and Bettina Poirier arrived, the group got right to work. It was a strange collection of individuals, and I was surprised that people who seemed to have so little in common could find so much to agree on.

The discussion moved quickly, and between loudly blowing my nose and franticly taking notes, I had trouble keeping up. But one idea--a carbon tax--was put on the table early, and everyone seemed to like it. It made sense to me, too, since it would make alternative energy such as wind and solar comparatively less expensive.

As the morning progressed, the mood lightened perceptibly. The participants began joking and laughing as though they had known each other for a long time.

Toward lunchtime, Carl Pope brought urgency to the meeting by pointing out that they had only an hour to come up with a final result that they could present at the afternoon public session. I didn't know how they were going to manage to put their ideas into a cohesive format, but, amazingly, they succeeded. All of the participants, plus Senator Barbara Boxer and Gore (both had been briefed on the morning's conversation), made short presentations of what they felt to be the most important ideas. Because I'd heard the morning session, I didn't find the afternoon presentation as interesting, but I understood the importance of presenting it to the press so it could take the ideas to the public.

As I sat in the back of the auditorium listening to the speeches, I realized that the people I had spent the day with were doing their part to help the planet. I also realized that the problem is not theirs to solve alone. If this is going to work, it will have to be a long-term battle, and my generation is going to have to take over in time. I thought back to the students sitting with me at the lunch table and hoped that we would be up to the challenge.

Are you a young person? Do you have comments on climate change or Sophie's blog? E-mail

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