As I write this post, I watch the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Ian. It smashed into the southwestern region of Florida as a category four storm and left an unbelievable amount of destruction in its wake.
I’ve lived through every size storm, one through five. Believe me, if you’ve never been through one, you don’t wanna.
A CNN report brought back the question of how much climate change plays in the intensification of storms. Yes, there are still a lot of questions, but as the water and air warm up, that’s just more fuel for storms.
For this episode of Planet Earth 2072, we spoke with two women on the front lines of climate education. First, we hear from Caroline Lewis, founder, and Senior Climate Advisor at the CLEO Institute. We also spoke with GenZer, Gabriela Rodriguez, a coordinator at the CLEO and a Yale graduate student.
PE2072: Do you think this is a generational issue?
Caroline Lewis: I think it’s an intergenerational issue, but each generation sees themselves as a different cohort. The young people, the Gen Xers, millennials, the gen Z are starting to get really pissed off; excuse my language, but they are really starting to feel like, what the hell, people? You left us with this. So they’re becoming informed and unapologetic in their demand for change. The baby boomers and the older generations are kind of in two camps. Not my problem. I can’t worry about it now, or what have we done? And I have got to be a part of some important legacy. So I see us approaching it differently. And I see the younger generation having one voice about not being in our backyard, not our time. We’re figuring this out, and we’re not going to accept it. And that’s what I’m trying to feed right now. So my energy is going into being the wind beneath the wings of the younger generation to try and help them find and share their voices because they’re absolutely right to demand more from all of us.
PE2072: I think there’s a perception that this is a future problem. What have you seen in your life that you could point to and say climate change isn’t coming; it’s been happening?
Caroline Lewis: There are many because I sold my house. I am risk averse. The only equity we had as a couple, my husband and I, and we have two grown children, is the equity we had in our little house in Pinecrest. I could not put money into it. I had to get my equity out. So climate change is already affecting me in making a decision that I want to rent. I want to be able, on a dime, to get out of here and not have to lose the equity in my home. So how’s that for having climate change affect me? I have seen septic tanks fail. That’s climate change happening as the seas rise, the saltwater intrudes, the water table rises, and things we take for granted, our hydrology in general and septic tank failure. The people I work with in Little Haiti and Liberty City tell me that there are predatorial knocks on the door of people wanting to buy their property because they’re on the ridge. The heat; I was part of an initiative about 15, 20 years ago called No Child Left Inside with public gardens. And non-profits were trying to make sure every kid got a chance to be outside. No Child Left Inside. And look at us now. We’re turning into a world where no child is allowed outside. As the heat goes up, we’re not going to be able to have the summer sports and the summer camps the way we know them.
PE2072: How do you educate people on the threat when they’re just thinking about tomorrow; they’re not thinking about 50 years from now?
Caroline Lewis: Well, that’s the million-dollar question. I think what we’re trying to do with the Cleo Institute, what I do as an educator, and I don’t know if you know. Still, I am long associated with the definition of education from William Butler Yeats, that says education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. So what we do is we don’t just try to fill pails with information. We try to light a fire within them so that they see this climate literacy in this climate action as a journey that they have got to be a part of and that they got to figure out what their next step is. To empower them – they know they have tremendous power to influence change just within their circles of influence. We give them advocacy opportunities to rally cities and counties to declare climate emergencies. We give them opportunities to say this bill in Congress is not looking at the future of the young people. We want change. It’s about allowing them to train with us to become part of our speaker’s network, so they get familiar with the language. What we really want to do is say to everybody, there are two scales, your climate knowledge and your climate action, and what is your number from one to 10 on climate knowledge? How much do you know? One. I know nothing. 10. I’m a published climate scientist. I’m about a six-point five because I know how much I don’t know. On the climate action scale, where are you? One is I don’t talk to anybody. I’m an island. You leave me alone, and ten is, I don’t want to shut up about it. Where are you? I’m at twelve. So really kind of making it funny but inclusive so that people see themselves as part of the change and not get bogged down on their little rule about changing light bulbs. All of that is needed. Eating less meat is very much needed, and educating people is essential. What about getting businesses and governments to own their role in this. They need to put a price on carbon to do the right thing.
PE2072: Do you think it’s necessary to convince deniers of the science, or is it just about convincing them to live a green life?
Caroline Lewis: Are you familiar with the Six America study? So Yale University and George Mason have been studying the attitudes of Americans and the people around the world toward climate change. And they broke us up into six Americas, where they say we fall into categories from outright denial or disengagement or just slight concern to crazy alarmed. So we’re in one of six Americas. And if you look at the percentage of us, when they do the surveys, the two deniers and disengage, that group, has been consistently between 18 and 22 percent. The rest of us about 80 percent of us know something is going on, care about it, or are outright alarmed. So there’s plenty of work to do with that 80 percent. So going after the deniers doesn’t make sense, but ostracizing them is unhealthy. So bring them along, and I’ll tell you what works is the economic argument that solar panels will save them money in the long run. Eating less meat. It’s good for the planet, but it’s good for your health as well. The same Yale University just did a study that said at least 70 percent of us care about climate and know that something is going on, but only 40 percent think it will impact them. And only 30 percent are talking about it. So those are the numbers I want to change. I want to make people understand when you asked me earlier, is it impacting us right now? And how so? And it’s not just coastal communities; people are inland and on high ground. Heat affects all of us. Health concerns affect all of us, migration and displacement. Where do they think we’re going? We’re going there you are. If you feel safe, we’re coming.
PE2072: As we finish talking about this younger generation because this is the podcast’s focus, you get to work with these young people, this Gen Z. What do you see in this generation?
Caroline Lewis: I think this younger generation, this GenZ, is afraid. I think there is climate grief, thanks to Greta (Thunberg). There are a lot of young people suing the state, suing the country, and really trying to mobilize action. And I think that climate grief begs for hope. They want hope. The only thing that seems to give them hope is action. So if we can give them platforms to share their voices to appeal to elected officials and businesses to even run for office themselves, those steps are what keep their hope alive and the momentum going. If you’re following climate science every day, it’s more disturbing. They’re talking about methane and how much methane leaks amplify this planet. So we must find ways to combat the disinformation campaign that natural gas is clean. Natural gas is methane. And yes, natural gas is cleaner if you burn coal and natural gas. But the extraction of natural gas with coal makes natural gas 10 to 20 times dirtier than coal. So the lives we’re living to keep some of the economy going in oil, coal, and gas is infuriating. And I think the young people see that as a target, pushing the government. OK, we want to stop coal plants. We want to stop natural gas, but we’ve got to retrain the population. We don’t want people without jobs. Having young people connecting the dots and making sure that the government is listening, and thankfully now we have an administration that is listening, makes these young people feel hopeful. We’re all in the same storm of the climate crisis. Some of us are on yachts, some of us are on motorboats and dinghies and canoes, and some of us are just floating in the water. And so the idea of that kind of justice, how is that? For the next topic? I want you to take on private justice and fairness with which climate impacts affect the most vulnerable.
PE2072: Imagine what Miami and South Florida will look like in 50 years. What do you foresee?
Caroline Lewis: Miami is compromised. There’s a small population still living here on the high ground, on the ridges; I think the smell is repulsive. I don’t know why, but when we had the fish killed in Biscayne Bay, I lived in an apartment overlooking Biscayne Bay. And one morning, when I went out on the balcony, I could smell the dead fish, and all I could think about was smelling the future. When you ask me what I picture in 2072, it’s very sad because I don’t think the Miami that you and I know and love will be severely compromised. I think a lot of it will be abandoned because the people can no longer live or afford to live here. I think we’re in for a rough time. I see the county and the cities studying these adaptation action areas like Little River and trying to see if we can move properties at the lowest level. Can we raise the homes in this area? They’re trying to envision 2072 with a lot of adaptation, raising roads and elevating them. So if we had a lot of money to invest in that, we could buy time. However, the heat, the Bay, the debt, and the lack of oxygen in the water are things that we can’t adapt to with any kind of success. So it’s not a pretty picture for me. But if I want to remain optimistic, I will say Miami needs to adapt as much as possible. So we could stay here safely as long as possible.
PE2072 Do you remember the moment when the issue of climate change became part of your life?
Gabriela Rodriguez, I definitely had an aha moment. I think it was in a classroom at FIU during my freshman or sophomore year of college. I was studying environmental studies, so I took a lot of classes about the environment, science, human interactions, and whatnot. But climate change was something that was always kind of touched upon at the end of my classes. I hadn’t taken an actual course on it yet. One day I’m sitting in this classroom, one of my environmental classes, and in the last few minutes of a lecture, my professor brings up sea level rise, and he puts on the board a map of Miami-Dade County, and it looks completely normal. But on this board, he hits the next slide, showing that same map with two feet of sea level rise. So I start to see pockets of blue starting to cover the land slowly and slowly. And then the next slide has four feet of sea-level rise, bluer, then six feet, bluer, eight feet more blue, 10 feet more blue, 12 feet. And at that point, my city was underwater, and my class ran out of time. I was struck with so much anxiety sitting in my chair in that classroom. I felt like the water was like filling my lungs. It was so it was so frightening. But when I walked out of that classroom and started driving back home, I realized that I needed to turn that anxiety into action. And I shouldn’t let that doom and gloom of climate change keep me from doing nothing. At that moment, I realized that climate was the issue I wanted to work on as an environmental student and as a professional in this field. And so, from there on out, I joined the climate movement and worked with local organizations. Yeah, that was definitely my moment.
PE2072 I’ve read that your generation is feeling a lot of anxiety. You’re really stressed about the future. Is your generation feeling really stressed about what’s coming?
Gabriela Rodriguez One hundred percent. I mean, when the story I just told you was just one of the millions of examples, feelings, and moments I felt throughout my youth. And so that can be felt across my entire generation, Generation Z. And it’s this existential anxiety. What will happen to the places we love, our hometowns, and the people we love? Will we be able to raise our children the same way our parents did? Will we have the same access to the same job opportunities, housing opportunities, and health care as our parents did? Or will we be bombarded by natural disasters and other impending crises if we don’t take action on this issue? So definitely, there is common existential anxiety felt across this generation right now about this issue.
PE2072 You’ve had the opportunity, because of the work that you’ve done with Cleo, to gain experience dealing with politicians and our political system. What’s that been like for you?
Gabriela Rodriguez I have had experience interacting with politicians and elected officials, but not as much as others my age working in this movement because a lot of my work has been about climate education. Regardless, I’ve definitely had conversations, and I’ve had meetings. I’ve met with Mayor Levine-Cava, and I’ve met Mayor Suarez. My experiences with all of them haven’t been bad or nasty. They’ve all been really receptive and really great. But I think what’s important for everybody to recognize your local government must remember they work for you. And I think when I learned that through my work in the climate movement when I learned that elected officials worked for me, I had absolutely no fear, nervousness, or hesitancy about interacting with them. Right, like the money we pay represents my voice and my needs and concerns. I think that when you realize what their position actually is and it’s for you, it becomes so easy to have that confidence to become civically engaged and meet with them.
PE2072 How much does the public school system teach on climate change? Is that part of the curriculum?
Gabriela Rodriguez, It’s definitely part of the curriculum, but that doesn’t mean it’s robust enough. There are science standards under the state of Florida, obviously, where teachers and administrators have to follow them and talk about climate change in some capacity. But the truth is that it’s not being talked about enough. And when it is talked about, often, it’s not being taught enough. It’s like all you learn is that CO2 is wrong, and the planet’s getting warm. OK, but how does it lead to these impacts, and what are the solutions? And how can students find job and career opportunities to help with this issue? Right. So it’s being taught, and I definitely got a taste of it in my high and middle schools. But it needs to be taught so much better because the truth is that it will impact every young person’s life right now. Through the Cleo Institute, we’re working hard to bring it to the classrooms through our programs. Still, we’re also working hard to make a systemic change so that one day we don’t have to do this work and teachers have the resources and tools they need to teach about climate change well in their classrooms across subjects and grade levels.
PE2072 So you’re heading off to Yale. What do you want to do? What are your goals?
Gabriela Rodriguez, I have some goals, but the main goal and the entire reason I’m pursuing graduate school is that I know that Miami lacks a climate justice focus. It’s not something that people are debating the existence of anymore, but something that always kind of unsettled me while working in the climate movement here for the past few years is a lack of focus on social justice. When I started learning about climate justice, the intersection of climate change and social issues, racism, and classism, I realized that Miami could be a poster child for climate injustice. We have an affordable housing crisis and systemic racism. We have many issues that will be compounded and perpetuated under a warming planet. And so, my goal is to go to grad school to get some knowledge and skills and learn a little bit more about that. I intend to come back to Miami to help center social justice in our solutions to climate change and ensure an equitable, sustainable Miami, not just where people survive the next hurricane or extreme heat but where people, like, really thrive. And we lift up our vulnerable communities as we invest in clean energy and good-paying jobs.
PE2072 What do you think Miami’s going to look like in fifty years? I want you to picture it and tell me what you see.
Gabriela Rodriguez, I am young, so I have that youthful optimism, but that optimism, I definitely don’t credit it to the fact that I’m young. Right. I learned that optimism in this work is actually like a survival tool. And it’s essential because this work is really emotionally and mentally draining. And so I like to use optimism to keep myself going and keep the people around me wanting to join this movement and help with what we should discuss and do. And so, to answer your question, my vision of Miami is very hopeful, really, and it’s very optimistic because I don’t see the point in envisioning it in any other way. After all, if we paint a nice picture, we paint this great future, people will want it, and people will want to join the movement and help reach it. It’s totally possible. And I think a lot of times, what we regard as radical is not that radical. It’s just that people have been limited and don’t want to let their imagination run wild. Right. And so because of that, the vision that I have of Miami is a Miami that’s equitable and just and sustainable, a Miami where we have a working democracy, where everybody’s voice is heard, and everybody participates as they should. I see a Miami that runs on one hundred percent renewable energy, no more burning of fossil fuels. And Miami ensures clean water, clean air, good health, and a livable future for all its residents. This is possible because people are on the ground, working to achieve this future.
Miami will not be without some problems. Science tells us that we will feel something in the next few decades. We’re going to have issues with sea-level rise. We’re going to have issues with saltwater intrusion. But is it necessarily going to be the doom and gloom I saw in my classroom that once? Maybe not, right? If we can pull together and put science at the forefront and use this as an opportunity to create good-paying jobs and renewable energy and infrastructure, we can avoid those impacts. And Miami will look a little bit different. I couldn’t tell you precisely what the projections would show, but I know that Miami will be better, will be representative, and will be dignified and a place where we thrive.
“The climate change generation is a generation of young people born into a warming world, who will be alive to see which climate model scenario plays out, and who have spent—and will spend—essentially our entire adult lives fighting for a just and stable future,” says Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. He goes on to point out that many of the younger members of the “climate change generation” will outlive the climate projections that scientists have created through 2100.
According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 70% of Americans 18-34 worry about global warming, compared to 56% of those over 55.
Many self-report feeling eco-anxiety, or “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” according to the American Psychological Association.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani and state Sen. Lori Berman have filed a bill that would require Florida to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2040.
By 2040, more than $3 billion worth of property could be lost to daily tidal flooding without action to reduce the threat, according to a report last fall by the Urban Land Institute. By 2070, that figure is projected to increase to $23.5 billion.