On the Dec. 8, 2009 broadcast of Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman asked her guest, 15-year-old Mohamed Axam Maumoon, youth ambassador from the Maldives Islands to the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, for a message to young people everywhere about what climate change meant to him. Without hesitation, Axam turned to the camera and asked, “Would you commit murder . . . even while we are begging for mercy and begging for you to stop what you’re doing, change your ways, and let our children see the future that we want to build for them?”
What does it mean to take Axam’s question seriously? For many of us in the wealthy and so-called “developed” countries of the world, it means learning about the very real and life-threatening ways that climate change is affecting some of the world’s poorest populations. From the rapidly submerging islands of the Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu, to the melting permafrost in native lands across the Arctic, indigenous peoples around the world are confronting some of the worst effects of the climate crisis, despite having done so little to cause it. Axam’s question prompts us to confront the injustice of a situation in which the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population has been responsible for more than 60 percent of global warming emissions.
There are few lessons that I enjoy teaching more than ‘Don’t Take Our Voices Away’: A Role Play on the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change in my science classroom. In part, because it gives tangible details and a human face to the issue, not just a story of polar bears or talk about temperature. This is missing in a lot of the science curriculum we are provided. Likewise, the voice of indigenous people in the world is something quite absent in our westernized science curriculum, which is maybe not surprising because these voices are also being left out of world decisions. Those points are what drew me to teaching the lesson. I keep teaching it because of how my students respond. They enjoy the structure of the activity, that they have some agency and control in what happens, as they get to take on the roles and make proposals.
And though I've told them it is based on a real event, they don't actually believe it until we watch a few YouTube clips that show coverage of the events and outcome as well, where they become shocked and outraged especially as we go over the proposals that were actually made (often very similar to their own) and then learn that these proposals were not accepted or listened too. I think this outrage is in part linked to the fact that they, after taking on those roles, see the proposals of the indigenous communities as the only possible solutions that would make sense for both climate change and humanity, and for those proposals not to be listened too feels personal.
A few days after using this lesson one year, I decided also to utilize Naomi Klein’s article “Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate” with my students. During this particular school year, as attacks on Black people and other communities of color increased in the news, my 7th and 8th graders wrestled with the response of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though not completely, it was very much along racial lines, with many of my students of color fervently and openly supporting Black Lives Matter, while more of my white 7th grade students arguing for all lives to be centered when the topic came up in our daily student news, project work, or seminars. As we dug into the article in a Socratic seminar about this article, I posed the question: “Whose lives in the room were affected directly daily by climate change? Did anyone in the room have to think about climate change all the time?”
Once they were over the shock that even their science teacher didn’t think about the topic all the time, we were able to have an honest conversation that none of us in this particular classroom did. The students agreed that they did not, but began referencing the Indigenous Peoples Climate Summit role play and Klein’s film This Changes Everything. It was here that my students began to identify how people of color throughout the world were much more heavily affected, even though it was the decisions of largely wealthy and white corporations that needed to shift to bring about this change.
“Climate and black lives both are neglected. People who have money and are white don’t think they have to care, don’t think they are affected. We shouldn’t underestimate black lives or climate change in our lives.” —Aminah
“Remember the climate summit. Those people are affected by climate today, everyday. They were Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, and Africans. They weren’t most of us. And they aren’t the ones causing the climate to change with big factories or cars or energy.” —Karina
“If Black lives mattered, then we would know 2 percent was too high. We would do something about it. It is a really good comparison, I think. Many don’t care about African Americans, many don’t care about the Earth.” —Grace
“Well, if people had listened to the demands of the people at the indigenous climate summit, then the indigenous people who aren’t able to farm or fish anymore or live on their islands, we’d help them a lot and stop climate change. Which would really help all of us too.” —Naomi
“How is climate change related to Black Lives Matter? Because black lives matter wants people to notice that black lives are important and that black people are here and that they should be respected. And climate change, well, those in power don’t notice it either but we must. If we do what is best for black people then we do what is best for all. If we do what is best for climate change, we do what is best for all people too.” —David
“Do white people have to think about being white most of the time? It’s kinda like how most of us don’t have to think about being affected by climate change all the time.” —Olivia
Slowly, student after student began making connections of how “Black Lives Matter” is similar, that centering those oppressed does not diminish others’ lives, it instead focuses and strengthens the conversation towards a shared liberation.
It was through this concrete science lesson that these 12-14 year old students were finally able to grasp this abstract concept and shift their understanding—a shift my teaching partner and I felt throughout the community the remainder of that year.
Paradise Lost. PBS NOW traveled to the nation of Kiribati to see up close how climate change affects residents’ daily lives and how they are dealing with the reality that both their land and culture could disappear from the Earth. NOW also traveled to New Zealand to visit an I-Kiribati community that has already left its home, and to the Pacific Island Forum in Niue to see how the rest of the region is coping with the immediate crisis of climate change. [Producer’s description.] This film can be viewed for free online. It was used in the classroom and is recommended by the teachers who wrote “‘Don’t Take Our Voices Away’: A Role Play on the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change.”
The Island President tells the story of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives. After leading a 20-year pro-democracy movement, surviving repeated imprisonments and torture, Nasheed becomes president at 41, only to encounter the crisis of climate change. Considered the lowest lying country in the world, a rise of a mere three meters in sea level would inundate the 1,200 islands of the Maldives, rendering the country practically unlivable. [Producer’s description.]
Democracy Now! interview with Mohamed Axam Maumoon, the 15-year-old environmental ambassador from the Maldives, challenging Western viewers by asking, “Would you commit murder?”
Democracy Now! clip featuring youth activist Kari Fulton speaking at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico: “We want people to know that whether you live in the forest, whether you live in the hood, you will be impacted by false solutions.”
Coup in Maldives: Adviser to Ousted Pres. Mohamed Nasheed Speaks Out from Hiding as Arrest Sought. Democracy Now! broadcast, 2/9/2012.
|Lessons, books, films, and websites for teaching about climate change in K-12 classrooms.|
This teaching activity was originally published by Rethinking Schools and is included in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth.