Teachers in California have taken it upon themselves to help young people transform their climate anxiety into solutions.
In the U.S., people are feeling the day-to-day effects of climate change — milder winters are paired with severe storms; wildfires scorch the American West; summers arrive earlier and last longer, leaving land sun-soaked. And, while the burden of mitigating the climate crisis’ effects fall on all of us, the brunt of the work falls on Generation Z, or those born between 1997 and 2012.
In a 2021 study — which was the largest-ever survey of climate anxiety in teenagers and young adults — published by The Lancet, it was found that more than half of 16 to 25-year-olds said that they believe humanity is doomed. Almost 40 percent said that fears about the future have made them weary to have children, for example.
Gen-Z, in their less-than-a-quarter lifetime, have already endured government inaction towards the climate crisis, while simultaneously being forced to witness the deterioration of the environment via their social media feeds.
Teachers in California have taken it upon themselves to help young people transform their climate anxiety and fear into solutions and other productive ways of thinking.
Yassi Khairolomour is a 10th grade biology teacher at Lakewood High School and the lead of the school’s Odyssey Pathway, a small learning community specializing in environmental resource education.
Before she transitioned to her current role, Khairolomour worked in informal outdoor education for about 15 years, at a nonprofit marine science organization where they took school groups out on research vessels to Catalina Island.
Throughout her career, she saw the way that the environment degraded over time and was prompted to focus on conservation as a potential antidote to climate change.
“We were literally watching [climate change] happen before our eyes each and every season,” she told Currently.
While on these trips to Catalina, Khairolomour noticed there was less kelp in the water. Over the years, she saw different species of fish and other sea life coming up from warmer areas, too. The teacher’s observations align with science. More than 80 percent of Earth’s marine life is moving to different places, away from warming waters, according to an article by the National Environmental Education Program.
These observations revealed to Khairolomour the importance of exposing young people to the realities of a changing climate, outside of just a three to five day field trip.
She’s been in the classroom ever since. Amid the growing climate crisis, she has balanced arming her students with knowledge about climate change, while still working to instill hope in them.
“There are a lot of policies and laws being made that have to do with science and the environment,” Khairolomour said. “They have to be informed citizens and have a base knowledge to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.”
Rojan Javaheri, a senior neuroscience major at the University of Southern California and program director of STEM Perspectives, a USC student-led program that gets high school students to explore areas of STEM that aren’t usually taught in their classrooms, has made a similar effort in helping students gain knowledge through a robust public health curriculum.
Students are encouraged to think about the connection between lack of green space, in cities like Los Angeles, and health disorders and diseases. And how things like pollution and climate change, intersect with race, gender and class.
“It’s important for my students to know what kinds of things are going to affect their well being and their family’s well being,” Javaheri told Currently. “Unfortunately, the kids really need to know about these topics. It’s personal to them as residents and the future generation.”
Above all, she makes sure to give her students hope by explaining the power of policy and providing them with different ways they can take action in their own communities.
“You can’t just express problems to students,” Javaheri said. “They have to put their energy into change.”
Education as a climate solution
Recent research shows that if only 16 percent of high school students in high and middle-income countries received climate change education, we could see an almost 19 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide by 2050. Education helps students develop more personal connections to climate solutions and mobilizes them to turn their grief into something more productive.
Like Javaheri, Khairolomour teaches to empower.
During Khairolomour’s five years of teaching, teachers at Lakewood pushed to have their curriculum focus on the lasting impacts of climate change.
History classes, for example, center climate change by connecting historical events to the advent of fossil fuels and the industrial revolution. In math classes, students do math problems, while learning about their real-world applications as climate solutions.
Khairolomour also orients her class’ curriculum around the ways that several concepts, such as climate change, pollution and the health of the ocean affect the students’ specific communities, families and neighborhoods.
One of the projects that she does with her students, focuses on comparing the impacts of climate change in rural areas and in urban centers, like Long Beach where most of the students reside. They compare air and water quality as well as research possible solutions to climate inequities.
Khairolomour also has her students look at what other city centers are doing well, speaking with local organizations and policymakers to learn about what green initiatives already exist and what they can do to raise awareness and get involved.
But educators say the “doom and gloom” of environmental justice and climate change can weigh on the students.
“At some point, students just kind of shut down because it seems so overwhelming,” Khairolomour said. “We have dug ourselves into this hole. But the only way to make it resonate is to show them that while [the climate crisis] is happening, they can do something about it. It’s important to not only focus on solutions, but let them come up with them. And they really do come up with some brilliant things.”
The 10th grade teacher praised her students’ creativity and resilience — traits that she claims her own generation didn’t possess when combatting climate change.
“They think outside the box and I think a lot of that has to do with them not necessarily knowing all the background and all the things that that bogged my generation down. They don’t see [climate change] as ‘too big’ or nonexistent, so they come up with solutions that maybe my generation would’ve scoffed at, but if we did these things, they’d really have an impact,” said Khairolomour.
Both Khairolomour and Javaheri agree that giving these students hope and the right resources might be exactly what this influential demographic needs to make the lasting change that our climate, and world, most desperately require.
“That’s the only way any of this is going to be solved,” Khairolomour said. “It brings me hope to see how excited my students are about making a difference. We really are in good hands.”