Lindsey Kirkland was raised in a farming community in Iowa and "always felt a connection to the land and animals." She pursued a degree in ecology, planning to navigate the world through a lens of plants and animals. That lens widened when she became climate change education manager for Minneapolis-based Climate Generation (climategen.org). The nonprofit, founded in 2006 by polar explorer Will Steger, educates youth, champions systemic equity and fights disinformation in the classroom and beyond. Kirkland, of St. Cloud, shares more below about her organization and why, despite so much grim news, she remains optimistic about Mother Earth, and about us.
Q: Let's start on a sunny note. Despite raging fires, flooding, drought and storms, your organization maintains a message of optimism. Please say more.
A: It is hard to stay positive in our line of work, but we can see positive action happening all around us. People working in the green economy are creating climate change solutions; city planners are crafting sustainable and walkable cities; farmers are changing their agricultural practices; voters are supporting policymakers who are championing the issue. A lot of people are doing a lot of great things. Climate change action is collective; it takes a lot of people doing a lot of different things to make a difference.
Q: How much denial about climate change do you still witness in 2021?
A: Deniers are actually a small number of people, but they're loud. A recent analysis from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that the "alarmed" segment of Americans has grown by more than 50% (from 17% to 26% of the U.S. adult population) between 2015 and 2020, while the "dismissive" segment has trended downward (from 10% to 8%). Overall, Americans are becoming more worried about global warming, more engaged with the issue, and more supportive of climate solutions.
Q: Your organization's founder is a household name. How involved is Will Steger in daily operations?
A: Climate change is still his No. 1 issue. He continues to champion our work through speaking engagements and meeting with high level decisionmakers, as well as through his new documentary, "After Antarctica," which features never-before-seen archival footage of his historic expedition across the coldest continent on Earth.
Q: The film's synopsis notes that Steger is keenly aware of the Earth's mortality — and his own. Is this why you're eager to raise up a new generation of climate activists?
A: Youth hear about climate change all the time. Across the world, young people are calling for a just transition to a resilient climate future that is equitable for everyone. Greta Thunberg is one young leader who inspires and connects, but there are a lot of other great youths doing similar work in their schools, sharing stories, attending trainings and conferences, and writing climate action bills. It's especially important for us to mentor young leaders of color because they're rooted in the communities most impacted by climate change.
Q: Explain that, if you will.
A: Some scientists are now saying that we might have underestimated the impact of climate change. It's not just fires, but fires displacing people, causing migration. Now we're starting to see death and destruction on a larger scale. But a lot of this has been happening in front-line communities, marginalized communities, for much longer.
Q: What age are the students you serve?
A: Kindergarten to high school. Our program works with educators across the country who are trained to talk with their students in age-appropriate ways. In elementary school, for example, they'll discuss the relationship between kids' bodies and nature, and to be respectful of the resources they get from nature. In sixth grade, they talk about the science behind the warming of the atmosphere.
Q: How do you talk about climate change without scaring them?
A: We bring in resources that are developmentally appropriate and grounded in research. We suggest to educators that they focus on solutions rather than the impact of climate change, that they show the resilience of communities and provide ways for students to act.
Q: How about an example?
A: You always want to connect it to their personal experience. With a really young kid, you might ask about food waste, with questions such as, "Should we save that or throw it away? When you put it in the trash, where do you think it goes?" With middle and high schoolers, we offer Youth Environmental Activists, a program in Minnesota where they choose a project, launch a school club or plan campaigns. This past year, some of our students authored a climate justice bill and submitted it to the Minnesota Legislature. It didn't pass, but they're revising it and will resubmit it next year.
Q: Readers might be surprised by the singular action you consider most impactful in turning around climate change. It's not giving up straws, as important as that is.
A: It's talking about it! Talk about climate change with your family, friends and neighbors. When people talk about the climate crisis, they're more likely to research and learn and they become more concerned and that encourages more action.