A Theory of Climate Change for the Classroom

Teachers are using "Project Drawdown" climate solutions in course curricula

By Jonathan Hahn

August 27, 2018


Photos courtesy of Beth Osnes

Last October, Katharine Wilkinson, the vice president of communication and engagement for Project Drawdown, addressed an auditorium full of eighth graders in Jackson, Mississippi. She was there to deliver a message that global warming is real, and that it can be solved.

Wilkinson presented slides that included a graphic illustration of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere for the last 400,000 years; the sudden upward trend of emissions in the last century was alarmingly undeniable. But she also ticked off the dozens of readily available solutions to reversing that trend. A path, she argued, is right in front of us. We only have to be willing to walk it.

At the end of her talk, the students handed in questions on index cards. Sorting through them, Wilkinson came across one she gets asked all too often at talks like these.

Is the planet doomed?

It’s exactly the kind of question she wants teachers around the country to take on with their students—in a way that gets them to ask a different question instead:

How do we solve it?

Wilkinson is part of a team of scholars, researchers, entrepreneurs, and environmental advocates who make up Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing realizable solutions to reversing, or “drawing down,” global warming and improving the national discourse around climate change science in general.

Last year, the organization released the best-selling book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Penguin, 2017). Edited by environmentalist Paul Hawken, the book is easily one of the most ambitious compendiums of climate science ever published. Using peer-reviewed research gathered from climate experts, scientists, PhD researchers, and graduate students, Drawdown prescribes 100 decisive (and readily available) solutions to solving global warming—from refrigerant management (topping the list at #1) to everything from educating girls (#6) and afforestation (#15) to indigenous peoples’ land management (#39) and walkable cities (#54)—with a goal of reversing the trend line of carbon build-up in the atmosphere within 30 years.

Part of Drawdown’s theory of change is to demarcate the difference of priorities between climate mitigation and reversing global warming. Beyond presenting solutions for simply mitigating and adapting to climate impacts, the book offers solutions that “draw down” the causal factors that are leading to global warming in the first place.

Drawdown has become an inspiration to teachers and pedagogues looking to incorporate a solutions-based model of systems thinking to global warming in classroom curricula—an approach that moves past the problem-oriented thinking of Are we doomed?

“These are the questions students are asking as they hear media coverage, they hear conversations, they engage with these topics in the classroom,” Wilkinson said in a recent interview. “I think they intuitively get that articulating the problem statement over and over and over again is not a solution. It’s important that we understand it, but it doesn’t necessarily move us forward on its own.

“You also come to realize that students’ understanding of solutions, like most of us, is very limited,” Wilkinson said. “They usually think lightbulbs, solar panels, bicycles, recycling. What is really cool is to see them light up when they get how broad and diverse the landscapes of solutions is, and to have a sense of things that they can impact immediately, even as young people—things like food waste and a plant-rich diet.”

“What is emphasized in conversations about global warming is often the threat, the problem,” Paul Hawken told Sierra. “Inasmuch as that conversation often describes the mechanism of global warming—how the atmosphere works, how the atmosphere is created, the interaction between the atmosphere and living systems—that’s great, but it always devolves back on problem: threat, future, doom. Children need and deserve to be educated in a way that allows them to fall in love with the living world, with life—to discover it through the lens of awe and wonder, including the miracle of climate, as opposed to the disaster of climate.”

"Children need and deserve to be educated in a way that allows them to fall in love with the living world, with life—to discover it through the lens of awe and wonder, including the miracle of climate, as opposed to the disaster of climate.”

At the college and university level, teachers are engaging Drawdown with their students in different contexts and disciplines: in some cases, using it to address specific topics; in others, utilizing the book as an inspiration for students to creatively express themselves, with climate science as their muse.

Beth Osnes is an associate professor of theater at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and cofounder and codirector of Inside the Greenhouse, an endowed initiative dedicated to creative storytelling projects around climate change. She and cofounders Max Boykoff and Rebecca Safran wanted to find new ways to tell stories about climate science in a way that would make sense to their students, and help them evolve beyond simplistic ways of thinking about global warming solutions—such as recycling water bottles or changing your lightbulb.

“I decided to try to visualize Drawdown and these actions we can take in the context of a story and a location, and there are certain characters taking these actions,” Osnes says.

Osnes used Drawdown as a basis for creating a program she calls “Drawdown Act Up,” which tasks students with embodying Drawdown climate solutions through games, activities, and role-playing. The gambit of the program is to enact such notions as “refrigerant management” or “girls’ education” in a way that can catalyze one’s sense of possibility and problem-solving, and ward off climate despair.

Osnes designed “Drawdown Act Up” with an eye toward inspiring her students to break through some archaic ways of thinking about global warming.

“The thing that we encountered, even with seniors and environmental majors, is we would have them producing these creative compositions about climate, and they would be doing them about plastic water bottles,” she says. “We would tell them, 'You guys, that’s not going to move the needle. Let’s really focus our efforts. You’re looking at the clock go tick tick tick.' The work is more exciting if you’re working on top solutions.”

Students also produced comedy skits playing different characters in different locations, portraying characters such as refrigerator shoppers in the post–World War II 1940s, as a way of bringing Drawdown’s refrigerant management solutions to life.

“So everybody is having fun, but also they get it,” Osnes says. “The fact that it is youth-performed brings a whole other level.”

Osnes partnered with the National Park Service in July to lead a version of “Drawdown Act Up” at Rocky Mountain National Park for Discovery Day, focusing activities on the intersection between climate science and environmental stewardship.

College administrators are also increasingly relying on Drawdown as a guide. The Office of Sustainability at the University of Virginia used Drawdown to structure theories of student engagement around Earth Week. Similarly, the Office of Sustainability at Illinois’s Lake Forest College used Drawdown as a metric to audit what students are doing inside and outside the classroom to reverse global warming, and to examine the solutions they are advancing both academically and operationally.

“I think that there’s this weird silence around climate change,” Wilkinson said.” There’s polling that suggests the level of concern about climate is much higher than the frequency of discussion. A lot more people are worried than talk about it. So I think students and young people are really powerful voices for breaking that silence.”

To further expand Drawdown’s reach into the classroom, the organization is hosting Drawdown Learn this October with the Omega Center for Sustainable Living at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The three-day summit will feature educators, students, administrators, and community groups. Participants will workshop ways to implement Drawdown to advance learning and action beyond the classroom in order to advance an understanding of the solutions and also to begin to integrate them more fully, whether within school or a neighborhood.

To get students to engage with the solutions around global warming, Hawken emphasizes that they first need to come into their awe and astonishment of climate.

“We want to help students see climate science through a holistic framework,” he says. “That holistic framework involves emphasizing first what an extraordinary thing weather, climate, and atmosphere are—I mean, they are just extraordinary—and to get them to understand the mechanism of how the atmosphere is created to begin with. I think there is so much interest in Drawdown curricula from teachers all over because they need a way to teach about global warming that does not involve polemics."

"The Drawdown solutions are no-regret solutions," Hawken says. "They make for a better world. You are taking something that is not desirable, which is emissions, and you are reversing it and coming out with a better outcome for whatever you care about—whether you are a fisherman or a hunter, or a farmer, a business person, a teacher, a taxpayer, employed or unemployed.”

Wilkinson hopes students start changing their line of inquiry around global warming from Are we doomed? to How do we solve it? She wants them to move beyond the typical messages of threat and fear and us versus them that can often frame conversations around global warming and climate change science.

“If all we do is keep repeating the problem statement, then we may well be doomed,” Wilkinson said. “Humanity has been up to some amazing things in terms of solutions. We have a really incredible toolbox. The question is whether we will be the ones to make what is possible a reality. We have a path forward; we have to be the ones to walk it.”