January 1, 2019

A New Year’s resolution: help students (and Chuck Todd) feel hope towards climate action

Posted by Laura Guertin

Each year, in my end-of-semester course evaluations, I’ll always have a handful of students that comment they would like less “doom and gloom” in the course and more ideas for how they can help Planet Earth in the future. When teaching introductory-level Earth science courses filled with current events, it can be challenging as an instructor to find that balance between getting the students engaged in the content, showing its relevance to them and society, and then highlighting positive and effective progress towards addressing our discipline’s grand challenges.

But this semester, the student feedback was different. The language was stronger and more clear than I have ever seen.

Part of the final exam for my courses involves having students write a reflection about their learning. Immediately, I was reading comments like these:

The biggest gut punch to me came while watching “The Human Element”. It is one thing to read tables or hear a professor talk, it’s another to see footage of the suffering that is happening in our back yard. This documentary hit me hard. I found myself wiping tears away during the majority of the film.

If I am going to be honest, after watching the 24 Hours of Reality in class regarding climate change, I am disgusted as to how people still do not see the harm in global warming. I left the class and teared up. Even if people are not concerned with the well-being of the planet itself, they should be concerned about the well-being and health risks being brought to human populations do to our own activities. We are killing ourselves!

Within reading just ten final exams, two students expressed these strong feelings of sadness, disappointment, and frustration. And how many more students were experiencing these emotions and never voiced their concerns to me? This is my New Year’s resolution – I have to increase the themes of hope, optimism, action, and advocacy in my courses. I need every student to leave my courses feeling like they can do something that matters and makes a difference.

From some brief internet searching, it appears that 2018 was a year that saw a number of publications in everything from editorials to journal articles that discuss the emotional/mental impact of climate change. Here are a few:


Even Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet The Press, is looking for advice on what to do! On December 30, 2018, the entire episode of Meet The Press was dedicated to discussing the Climate Crisis (If you missed the episode, it is worth watching. View the full episode, read the transcript). The opening was very strong (the bold is my emphasis):

Good Sunday morning, and a happy New Year’s weekend to everyone. This morning, we’re going to do something that we don’t often get to do, dive in on one topic…. we’re going to take an in-depth look, regardless of that, at a literally Earth-changing subject that doesn’t get talked about this thoroughly on television news, at least, climate change. But just as important as what we are going to do this hour is what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it. The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period. We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not. And we’re not going to confuse weather with climate. A heat wave is no more evidence that climate change exists than a blizzard means that it doesn’t, unless the blizzard hits Miami. We do have a panel of experts with us today to help us understand the science and consequences of climate change and, yes, ideas to break the political paralysis over it. 

Viewing the episode was a very helpful reminder that everyone can get confused with what is happening in terms of the spatial and temporal scales of climate change and actions that can be taken. Chuck was clearly looking for these “action items” – here are a few of his quotes from the episode:

The science feels overwhelming. I’ll be honest. It just does. Is there a way of figuring out how to prioritize the challenge? (timestamp 17:44)

Okay, do you see how overwhelming this feels? And that’s why, I guess, Dr. Marvel, let me ask, what’s the one thing we can do right now? I mean, I think everybody wants to say, “Give me one thing.” (timestamp 26:12)

What, what, I guess, are there, I mean, is there any individual actions anymore? Or is this just so large that individual, I mean, is this one of these, you know, I remember going back to Jimmy Carter. Hey, you know, it was this collective action. If everybody could do their little part. It feels like, with climate change, it doesn’t. It feels like it’s all stuck. (timestamp 46:12)

Chuck, like my students, is clearly looking for options of what he could do – alas, the episode wasn’t long enough to cover all things “climate crisis” including the critical piece of how to move forward. Perhaps Meet The Press could do another episode to help all audiences understand that there are those making a difference right now, and to feel that their actions matter.

To end with a post from Dr. Kate Marvel, who was part of the round table discussion on this Meet the Press episode:


Let’s keep talking about not just climate science, but climate optimism, action, and advocacy.

[Look for a blog post later this month for a discussion of climate action and success for students – and for Chuck!]


The Meet The Press episode is also available in segments on YouTube: