By Bonnie Reed
This is how climate change became real for me: I spent two months in southern Oregon last fall. When I arrived from the East Coast I had to quarantine in my Airbnb because of COVID. Within days, terrible wildfires burnt down two entire towns only a few miles from me. I was alone with my bag by the door in case I was ordered to evacuate. There was no way I could go out because the air outside was rapidly becoming dark and toxic. Then it began seeping through the doors and windows. That’s also when reports began coming in of widespread power outages that would make my air purifier useless. It was horrible.
The climate crisis—which has already increased the frequency of transmission of animal to human viral diseases such as COVID, that has also increased the strength and frequency of wildfires, storms and floods, and that has exposed the limited extent to which our housing, electrical grid, health care institutions and other societal infrastructure can protect us—was no longer an abstract idea to me. I might easily have died in that climate-accelerated conflagration in Oregon if by chance the winds had been blowing in a different direction.
Still, what I experienced was nothing compared to the truly catastrophic consequences to human life and well-being that, according to the best scientific minds, will occur within the lifetime of my daughter and my two young grandchildren if the current trajectory of global warming remains unchanged.
I should have known what was coming long ago. I was a teacher and a union rep, and before I retired there were already spring days when my top floor classroom was so hot that we had to evacuate. The littlest children cried it was so bad. I had also listened to Greta Thunberg, the young student activist who launched the worldwide school strike movement for climate action. She was the same age as some of my students who were as concerned as she was about whether they would ever be able to realize their life’s dreams because of climate disruption.
But it’s not too late. This is a universal teachable moment for all of us, young and old, especially with President Joe Biden preparing to address the climate crisis as central to the security, health and economic well-being of the country. His administration has already rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, established a Civilian Climate Corps, frozen all new oil and gas drilling on public lands, and announced that the federal government will convert its entire fleet to electric vehicles and double offshore wind energy capacity by 2030.
These are important first steps, but oil and gas interest groups are already organizing to oppose the more substantial legislative, regulatory and diplomatic initiatives that will be necessary within Biden’s first term. We need to come together now to make sure that the climate debate remains rooted in science and not partisan politics.
How can we do that? One way is to join hands across the political divide around our common health and economic concerns, as well as our concerns as parents and grandparents for the future health and well-being of our children and grandchildren. This is why NJEA members like me, who are also members of AARP, are working to bring the nonpartisan AARP and its 38 million members—that’s more than 10% of the U.S. population—into the climate fight.
The climate emergency is an intergenerational crisis that requires an intergenerational response. Young people are leading the way because their future is on the line. But think of the impact it would have if AARP members from NJREA showed up in every school district in the state, or the state to which they retired, to hold teach-ins on the climate crisis in support the student climate strikers? Think of the impact we could have on our elected representatives in every state of the union.
If you are a member of AARP and would like to help make this happen, please consider signing our petition—Petition2AARP.org/open. Our students, our children and our grandchildren are depending on us. This is The Teachable Moment, and it may be one of the most important lessons we will ever present.
As teachers, we can help our students and our communities ground their response to the climate crisis in science. As parents and grandparents, we can take action to leave a legacy for those we love that we can be truly proud of—a livable world.
Bonnie Reed is an NJREA member. Prior to her retirement, Reed was a member of the Bloomfield Education Association and, over the course of her long and varied career, taught at all levels in the Bloomfield School District. She can be reached at email@example.com.