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An illustration of the Earth on fire.

Fernando Cortes

The first year I taught Introduction to Environmental Science was 2007, the year after the release of An Inconvenient Truth. The class was full of eager students, most of whom would have described themselves as environmentalists. They were worried—about climate change, industrial agriculture, deforestation and a long list of other environmental ills. I was there to teach them the science—basically how to use hypothesis testing, data and analysis to convince them the world is going to hell. They didn’t need much convincing.

The endless description of problems, with little emphasis on solutions, is a hallmark of almost all environmental science and studies textbooks. After 20-plus years teaching in this field, I’ve come to think that our relentless focusing on the negative is, at best, missing an opportunity. At worst, it may be doing more harm than good. Fortunately, there is good news to share. My more recent experiences teaching about solutions, rather than problems, suggests that a healthy dose of positivity even in the face of profound environmental challenges will reach a broader audience, gain more traction and diversify the people working on the admittedly wicked environmental challenges of the 21st century.

Back in 2007, I walked into the classroom, fresh out of my Ph.D. and postdoc, eager to share the wonders of environmental science. I marveled at the data from the group run by Charles Keeling, who measured rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the observatory on Mauna Loa in Hawai‘i. I linked these measurements to our impending climate catastrophe, having been told by a very famous ecologist (in 2001) that if we didn’t get carbon dioxide under control by the end of the decade, we were cooked. I dove into the details of carbon isotopes to demonstrate just how we knew that the rise in carbon dioxide was a result of fossil fuel combustion, as opposed to natural sources. The course was definitely a science course—but looking back I realize each bit of data and analysis was perfused with pessimism. That pessimism was warranted by the data, but it didn’t offer much in terms of a path to making the world a better place.

Still, my course evaluations were good and got better as I practiced teaching. My university doesn’t have distribution requirements, so these good evaluations came from students who were mostly self-selected environmentalists—passionate about “saving the planet.” They were bright, motivated and talented—amazingly so. But they were a tiny subset of the students on campus. Other equally bright, motivated and talented students didn’t take the course. I wondered why.

Having talked to many such students since, I’ve learned many felt a bit excluded. The environment was a worry for them, as it is for most of us, but it wasn’t their primary worry. They also felt like environmental studies or sciences was not a place where they could explore solutions. They felt that there was a relentless focus on what was wrong, rather than how to put it right. Finally, they felt like the problems we were describing were going to be fixed by people beyond the environmental field.

I’ve come to agree with them. I, at least, was not doing enough to train problem-solvers. I’d been training people to cleverly document problems. I don’t think I’m the only one in the field who’s fallen into that trap.

Fast-forward to 2023. We live in an era of unprecedented environmental anxiety. The first-year students we teach today were toddlers in 2007. They have been inundated with the problems their whole lives. They grew up hearing we have only a few years left to avert global warming–induced Armageddon, that our food production is killing the birds and the bees, and that deforestation of the Amazon will soon reach a tipping point, destroying “the lungs of our planet.” Most understand there are big problems, but they are so scared it doesn’t do much good to tell them only about all that is wrong. They want solutions.

I handed off Introduction to Environmental Science to a younger professor a few years ago, and from here on out I’m focusing on solutions, not problems. Climate solutions. Agricultural solutions. Deforestation solutions. They exist. They are not perfect and involve hard trade-offs. But their existence should be front and center in our teaching.

Just putting “Climate Solutions” in a course name dramatically changed my student enrollment. Surprisingly, very few environmental studies and sciences students signed up. Instead, students majoring in economics, political science, engineering, applied math and a variety of humanities fields appeared in my classroom. I don’t have data to prove it, but I think they came from more diverse backgrounds as well. Like all my students, they were united by their climate anxiety. But they came for, and responded to, the idea of solutions.

This eclectic group brought a wealth of different interests, skills and weaknesses to the class and was eager to learn from each other about different approaches to overcoming the 21st century’s biggest environmental (I would argue societal) challenge. They were thrilled at the opportunity to contribute to a better future, even if the environment was not their top priority (for some it became a top priority when they learned there were things they could actually do to make a difference). Many had felt unwelcome in environmental studies/sciences, which often demands a political and philosophical homogeneity of its participants.

As an example of this, a senior applied math major told me he had been searching for a field where his math could have impact. He had never taken an environmental class before (despite plenty of environmental angst) in part because he didn’t feel welcome or like he fit in with environmentalists. He now works doing data analytics for a solar power company. His story is not unusual. My colleague started a “carbon reduction challenge” and saw similar results—students not traditionally in the environmental studies/sciences flocked to the opportunity to solve problems rather than just describe them.

All this suggests it is time to rework our environmental curricula, particularly our climate curricula, to focus on solutions. Fortunately, solutions are picking up speed. Technological advances in transportation (electric vehicles), space heating (heat pumps) and electricity production (renewables) have made extraordinary leaps since I started teaching. Given that transportation, space heating and electricity generation make up more than 70 percent of all fossil fuel emissions, this is huge news! We should be teaching about it at every level and helping our students gain the skills to push these revolutions forward as engineers, community organizers, investors and so on.

Already these advances have cooled our future. A decade ago, we were headed for four to five degrees Celsius warming by century’s end. Now three degrees Celsius is more likely. Anyone who studies climate knows that’s still way too much warming to be safe, but it’s also a huge step in the right direction. You may not hear that in most environmental science classes, or in the news, but you should. Even better news is that most of what precludes keeping that number to two degrees Celsius is political, not technological. That wasn’t true when I started teaching, so we need to update our curricula to reflect this remarkable progress.

I don’t mean to be overly optimistic. The challenges to a stable climate future are enormous. We need to give students the skills they need to understand the problem, to reason about probabilities and assess the dangers of business as usual. But by relentlessly beating a drum of negativity in the absence of hope, we’re driving away brilliant young minds that could help make the world a better place. Yes, we need to teach them what’s wrong. But that should be where we start, not where we end.

Stephen Porder is the Acacia Professor of Ecology, Evolutionary and Organismal Biology and Environment and Society at Brown University, where he serves as associate provost for sustainability. His book, Elemental: How Five Elements Changed Earth’s Past and Will Shape Our Future, was just released by Princeton University Press.

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