Facing the Climate Crisis

Facing the Climate Crisis

Facing the Climate Crisis with Oren Pizmony-Levy guest image on a navy background. How's School podcast logo

“If we want to create citizens that go and protest and fight for this, we have to have a balance of emotions. They can't come only upset and knowledgeable, they have to have also hope and a sense of optimism.”

Oren Pizmony-Levy

How do we face the Climate Crisis and not freak out and give up? That’s the question we had for Oren Pizmony-Levy, the Director of the Center for Sustainable Futures. A researcher and parent, Oren shares what events and developments caused him to take more action on climate issues (4:15), and how he holds his concern alongside hope (5:39).

We ask him to go deep on what keeps him going (8:59). He leads us in an exercise to see what the climate crisis brings up for Jen and Joe, and then shares the results from young activists whose answers deliver a powerful message. He addresses structural barriers to sustainability education (17:42) and a new vision for environmental education (19:07). He and Jen talk about lying down and watching TV as a coping strategy (23:10) and then he shares about elevating the climate concerns and voices of young people in New York’s City Department of Education (24:00). 

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This series is created, hosted and produced by Joe Riina-Ferrie and Jen Lee, with audio production and original music by Billy Collins. "How's School?" is a production of The Digital Futures Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. 


The views expressed in this episode are solely those of the speaker to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, staff or Trustees either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

Meet our guest

Watercolor picture of Professor Oren Pizmony-Levy in black framed glasses and smiling

Oren Pizmony-Levy

Oren Pizmony-Levy is an Associate Professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. He holds a PhD in sociology and comparative and international education. His research and teaching focus on the intersection between education and social movements, such as the accountability movement and its role in the emergence of international assessments of student achievement (e.g., TIMSS and PISA), environmental and sustainability education, and LGBTQ+ education. Pizmony-Levy is the Founding Director of the Center for Sustainable Futures and is an affiliated faculty at the Columbia Climate School.

Episode 2 Transcript

[intro music]

Oren Pizmony-Levy: If we want to create citizens that go and protest and fight for this, we have to have a balance of emotions. They can't come only upset and knowledgeable, they have to have also hope and sense of optimism.

Jen Lee: Hey everyone, welcome to How's School?, a new podcast from the Digital Futures Institute, hosted by myself, Jen Lee, and my co-host Joe Riina-Ferrie. Hey, Joe.

Joe Riina-Ferrie: Hey, Jen. Hey, everyone. How's School? is a podcast about the issues that impact young people for the people who care about them, and want to be able to ask better questions to connect than the age old eye roll inducing, "How's school?"

Jen: And in these conversations, another question we're asking is how do we allow ourselves to care about issues that impact our young people without losing heart? And I have to say, Joe, when it comes to that second question, few issues feel as daunting to me as the climate crisis.

Joe: Yeah, me too. And we should just say at the top, we know this is a really difficult topic to engage with, but our intention here is to look at what our experiences are and to find ideas about how we can keep informed, take action that feels meaningful and doable, and hold onto a sense of resilience or hope in the process.

Jen: So to sit with us, and to sift through our thoughts and feelings, we wanted to bring in Professor Oren Pizmony-Levy. Am I saying that right?

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Perfect.

Jen: Okay, great. Oren is the director of the Center for Sustainable Futures at Teachers College, Columbia University. Through his work, he has a really good idea of what's at stake here, and as a parent, I imagine his heart is in the game. One could say, not just for this current time, but for the future ahead. And somehow he still isn't looking away or giving up. Oren is taking action locally and with global partners to address this issue, and I really hope he can tell us more about how he's doing it. So Oren, thanks for joining us.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Joe: Yeah, we really appreciate you being here. So I'm just going to state the problem as we understand it, and for us, we see the climate crisis, of course, as an issue that affects us all, but it's an even bigger issue for younger people. We, ourselves, find the crisis incredibly overwhelming, and it's hard to imagine being a young person growing up now, inundated with news of climate disaster. And yet, at the same time, young people are some of the ones leading the efforts to tackle these issues.

Jen: That's right. And according to the latest climate reports from both the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they're letting us know that the effects of climate change are even more widespread and harmful to human life than previously were known. And honestly, it's hard for me to even get to, "How do I support young people on this issue?" because I struggle so much myself with feeling overwhelmed and really powerless.

Joe: Yeah, and it feels even worse knowing that, even if we were all working together to tackle this, it would be a huge, huge effort, but there's also powerful entities, cynically focused on making money, pushing us in the wrong direction. So we're going to turn it around to you, how do you feel about this as a scholar, and also as just a human and as a parent?

Oren Pizmony-Levy: So I think our conversation today, and you already set the stage for this, I think our conversation will really go up and down mood-wise. Because on the one hand I'm going to share with you that I'm really worried, like you guys. You know, I'm waking up every morning, I'm opening my Twitter immediately... although, I was told not to do that. And then immediately I'm seeing all these devastating visualizations about the status of the planet and the climate, and it's get me really worried.

As a scholar, when I'm looking at it, there are couple of data points that really triggered me to take more action. One of them is the fact that in New York City, where Teachers College is located and some of my work is, we are now celebrating the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. The largest storm that really devastated city infrastructure and schools. When I'm thinking about kids that all of a sudden didn't have school ten years ago, they didn't have a building. We're not talking about just moving online. They didn't have a place to go, a place to call school. That's hard.

I'm thinking about the evidence on climate anxiety among kids. And we have couple of very striking data points that are with me all the time. One is a study by Elizabeth Marks and her colleagues in ten countries where they find that fifty-nine percent of their respondents are very or extremely worried about the topic. And over half of them are feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. And then we have research form our own doctoral student, Erika Kessler, who used data on twenty-two countries, and she find that in fifteen of them, more than fifty percent of fourteen-year-old students are saying that climate change is a serious threat to the planet.

But I don't want to stop there, because I'm also very inspired. As you two mentioned, we have a recent wave of youth activism that we haven't seen in a long time. It's a huge wake up call for policymakers, for adults, to really think about how come the kids are telling us that we are missing the most important moment of our history as a civilization?

So I'm very inspired by that. If I'm thinking about the wonderful work that the New York City Department of Education, Office of Sustainability is doing, at a city level, right? It's amazing. They're working with youth, they're working with parents, they're working with teachers, they're working with sustainability coordinators, principal, leadership teams, in really, in an effort to really push this ship, this gigantic ship of the DOE forward. And it's not an easy task and it has huge implications because it's going to affect 1.1 million students. Millions of citizens in the city. So this is great; this is happening.

I already made a couple of decisions about how I'm going to focus my career more on this topic. I'm going to lend more of my creative energy and leadership capacity to really advance this.

And I'm happy that, you mentioned my parental status, as we call it in sociology, I'm a father, to Barak, who's a three and a half year old. My husband and I are constantly thinking and talking about the world we are leaving to Barak and his generation. I am worried, and I believe my husband as well, about the moment we are going to have the talk about this. Parents have different talks with kids, depends on their identities. Our generation, we need to have this talk about our responsibility and what we've done and what we could have done. But now, he's only three and a half, so there is no reason, of course, to bring it to his attention yet.

And what we are doing is we are focusing on modeling responsible behavior in terms of consumption, toys and other things that he wants, or say that he needs. And we are really working on nurturing this responsibility to nature. So we spend a lot of time in the park, and from very young age, we spend time cleaning the park, taking care of the park. So when we see some bottles thrown out not in the recycling bin or not in the garbage bin, we take care of it. And he learned it from very, very young age.

I know it sounds small, and it's not going to solve the climate, but I think this is how you start.

[music interlude]

Jen: Yeah, I can see that. And I'm curious, just to follow-up on something that you mentioned earlier, too, about both how you have the worry on one side and the optimism on the other. Do you feel like your main way to keep your optimism alive is by looking at the engagement that's happening and the awareness, and letting that fuel you? Is that what keeps your buoyancy in place?

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Most people tell me that the main thing that keep them going is hope or feeling that they have hope and a lot of it. Okay? And it's this kind of optimism that people that work in this area, and not only in this area, also in the area of gun violence and human rights violation, et cetera. People that work in this area has to bring with them some optimism that the system can change. Otherwise, why are we documenting the system, why are we exploring what is here, if we don't envision some kind of a brighter future that is possible?

So other people tell me that they try to focus on the progress that we've made. And that's really important. So if you look at 2022, the situation looks horrible. But if you look at 2022 compared to, I don't know, 1992, when the first discussion about the international convention around climate change and climate change education really emerged. We've done a lot. Maybe it's not enough, right? I'm not saying we can all rest.

Jen: Right.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: But for me, looking at the broad perspective, historically speaking, and looking at, for example, how much progress we made around renewable energy, we now have the technology to produce energy from sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves, and even geothermal heat.

Jen: Wow.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: So the solution is there, the technology is there, we've developed it. We as a collective we. Now it's about really putting it into action. And we see that there is a boom in the renewable energy sector. And there are projections that in a decade or two, renewable energy will be the main source of energy. Okay? So focusing on the progress is really important. 

I spend time in parks, reconnecting with trees. And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying, "Everybody let's go hug a trees and that will make us feel better." No, just being in nature, looking at the diversity of flowers, recognizing... That's a thing that really gets me, recognizing the power that little seeds have in them to grow solar panels, basically leaves are solar panels. They translate energy from the sun, from light, into molecules that can do magic. Or they can develop the most sophisticated plumbing systems, roots, branches, et cetera. This is amazing.

So at home, what I like to do, that's a tip for everybody, when you finish eating your pepper, your bell pepper, or your tomato, put some seeds in the ground and just watch it grow. I'm amazed by that every morning. And we have a ritual with Barak, we go to the plant and we see how many new peppers we have, how many new flowers we have, how many new leafs we have. I know it sound a little bit silly or too simple, but I find it inspiring to see that nature has so much power.

[music interlude]

But let's stay on this topic for one more minute. As you know, I'm also a social scientist. So when I understood that emotions play a role in how people come to engage in climate change, and I'm not saying I was the first one to do this kind of work, other people mentioned that emotions and anxiety is important. But when I realized that this is affecting me and others in my networks, I became interested in this topic as a scholar and started asking people about what kind of emotions the term climate change bring to their mind. Why don't we play a little game here? Jen, if you want to go first and share with us, I'm giving you the term climate change, give us, I don't know, three to five words that come to mind?

Jen: Yeah, probably fear, powerlessness, sometimes I feel a sense of culpability or guilt, things like that.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Okay. Joe, how about you?

Joe: Yeah, I mean, pretty similar. I feel overwhelmed. I feel anger, I think. I feel frustration. I feel a sense of almost like a stuck feeling.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: So what you are describing is very similar to what I found when I interviewed educators in New York City. I ask them a very similar question, "What kind of emotions come to mind when you think about climate change?" and most of them said, or used, negative terms, like, "I felt angry. I felt worried. I feel hopeless or ashamed." Very similar to what you guys said. But then we repeated the same kind of exercise with kids, youth climate activists, when we saw them downtown in Manhattan, protesting in September 2021.

And we found very similar, that they're using this negative terms, but they also use positive terms. For example, they talk about hope and determination and feeling this sense of hopefulness and resilience and curiosity. They knew how to balance two sets of emotions, which is super interesting. And when we mapped it out in a visual software, we found that the positive terms were really central if you think about the network of emotions. The positive terms were at the center, at the core, of this network, almost like holding together all the fear and anxiety around them.

For me, this is a clear, quick tip for teachers that want to do work with kids and really develop this sense of citizenship and activism. 

If we want to create citizens that go and protest and fight for this, we have to have a balance of emotions. They can't come only upset and knowledgeable, they have to have also hope and sense of optimism. And you can do it by looking at solutions, progress, or all the other techniques that we talked earlier.

[music interlude]

Joe: Yeah, I really appreciate that point. I have felt that sense of kind of anger and hopelessness, as we said at the top, with this issue. It feels so overwhelming. And one of the things that I'm really frustrated with is my own education around environment and sustainability issues, and the way I feel like, when I was young, everything was channeled into these individual choice, individual responsibility types of solutions to this huge, systemic problem. And the older I get, the more I think this is a political organizing problem, it's not something... Not to say that we shouldn't recycle, of course, we should do what we can, right? But recycling is... my individual recycling choices are not going to solve this scale of a problem. And really, we need to get together, politically, to make it happen.

What if we are able to get some of that optimism, how should we channel it? What steps should we take to both hold onto it and build on it, but also channel it in a way that's really going to be most impactful and most responsive to the scale of what we're actually talking about here.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: So once again, you're asking me big questions with multiple sub-questions.

Joe: I'm sorry, that's a bad habit of mine.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: No, no, no, this is wonderful. This is wonderful. 

So let's take it step by step. First of all, you are right that, for years environmental education or sustainability education really focused on the pro environmental behaviors that individuals can take. Reuse, recycling, reduce consumption. But that's not enough. I think the scale of this crisis require us to ask fundamental questions about everything we do.

So in my work, as you mentioned, working with the DOE in New York City, working with colleagues in Israel, working with colleagues now for the OECD, we are really trying to look at the structural barriers that prevent schools from maximizing their potential in being part of the solution for the climate crisis. 

One of the things that I believe prevents schools from doing a good job on that, is their obsession with assessment and accountability. A topic that, on surface level, you won't connect to the climate, but it is connected to the climate in many ways. I'll give you at least two. One, when the discourse is focusing on assessment and achievement, achievement and economic growth, and all of that, we are having a discourse that goes against climate, because we know that we can't continue with the current economic structure of growth if we want to sustain the planet. Okay? I know my friends in economics will challenge me on that and it's fine, we can have a debate. But the research I'm reading from economists and non-economist shows that we can't continue with growth, business as usual, and still claim that we are protecting the planet. It's just impossible.

Jen: So you're saying that we need to care about something else more? Besides constant achievement, growth, productivity and wealth?

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Yeah, for example. But this is the meta level. And then at the practice level, at the school level, we know from experiments we did with teachers that the moment you mention accountability, achievement, test scores, standardized testing, their motivation to engage with climate topics goes down. Why? Because they don't see it as the core of the curriculum anymore. So going back to your question, Joe, if we really want to take this seriously in education, we need to ask fundamental questions about everything we do. So a student cannot escape the topic anymore. Okay? Or there are no practices that don't align with this mission of climate.

I'll give you an example. I would like every colleague at the college and every colleague at the AERA, American Educational Research Association, to think about how climate affects their work. I want someone in the curriculum and teaching space to think about how it's going to affect their work. I want people in teacher education to think how it's going to affect their work in-. I want people in policy and politics, leadership, administration, school psychology and counseling, higher education, sociology of education, anthropologists of education, everybody has to take a pause and to think how much climate or the status of the planet is affecting the subject that I'm studying. Humans and non-humans. Organizations and individuals. And unless we do that, then we are just doing performative work around recycling and reusing and reducing consumption.

Jen: So you're talking about slowing down to really ask what the impact is, so that this reality, both the problem or any possibilities can infuse everything we're doing. And to say, if we look at curriculum, what purpose is it serving, every piece in it? Is that right?

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I'm not a curriculum person, so I can't help people in doing the work, but I'm always a partner to ask questions. Right? So the curriculum is like, what kind of assumptions this curriculum is promoting? Or what kind of assumptions inform this curriculum? Or what are the intended and unintended consequences of such a curriculum? Okay? It's not that I'm interested that environmental education will be now everywhere, 24/7, blah, blah, blah. No. We need to do the other thing, also. We need to think about what current curriculum, what kind of environmental education current curriculum is giving kids. Meaning, what are they learning about the relationship to the planet, or to animals? Okay? Even if it's not labeled as environmental education, it is doing environmental education. That's my point.

Jen: Mm-hmm. Whether we call it that or not.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Or not.

Jen: Whether we're being aware about it or not.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Yeah.

Jen: We're still like communicating some kind of value system.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Yeah. And I think that's the bigger task. So I don't want kids to experience climate change education only through the sciences. We talked about it earlier. It need to be throughout the curriculum in a very sophisticated and engaging, unthreatening way. We need to think about age, when we are introducing different concepts. We need to focus on solutions, not only the problems. And I have many ideas on how to do that, so if we want, we can talk about it more.

Jen: Education aside, we've talked about that some, but also just as parents, as adults who are just listening to the news, do you have any practical tips for us about how to both stay informed and stay engaged and not do this thing that I sometimes do where I hear the bad news and I'm like, "I need to go lay down and pull a blanket over my head"?

Oren Pizmony-Levy: I can't tell you it's not a good strategy though, to lay down, take a break from all of that, recharge, and come back. I can't tell you that it's a bad thing to do. I can't tell you even that I'm not doing that. I am. I'm not necessarily just lying down, I'm watching bad television.

Jen: Okay, I'm glad I'm not the only one doing that, too.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Yeah, yeah. We're not going to talk about what kind of television I'm watching these days-

Jen: No.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: ... that's for another podcast. But working with youth as part of our center, we have a initiative called Youth at the Center. And what we wanted to do is to really engage youth and to support them. And we decided, although it costed us a lot of money to spend a full semester, rather than immediately offering a program, which is... People in education are really good in developing immediately a workshop, set of events, speakers... We just listened, for a full semester, to what kids want from an Ivy League institution like us, a research one, graduate school of education. And we learned that they want a space where they can ask questions. They want a space where adults would listen and sometimes provide advice. Sometimes they want us to amplify their voice.

And I found that request to be very, very important. So what we did is, we collected from them, concerns about what's happening or not in schools, and we, without names or without names of schools, we just took the quotes and brought it to the Department of Education in different forms, to make sure that people are hearing what these kids have to say. We did a lot of art projects with them, collecting stories about climate stories that they have, or sustainability projects that they're doing in school, and we are putting them all on a website so other schools can be inspired by what these kids are doing, and maybe offer it to their kids as well.

And we are entering our third year with a lot of energy and commitment. You need to see my students. My students are pumped about this. They are like, "We want to volunteer. We don't have to pay us. We want to do more and more work on this." It's amazing. It's really, really inspiring to see our students at TC getting into this.

When I’m you know, my friends that have teenager kids always tell me, "Oh, my kid is interested in this. Why don't you speak with them about that?" And I'm always telling my friends that I'm more than happy to listen; I don't want to do the talking. Kids that are concerned about that and thinking about this topic, sometimes just want someone adult to recognize that, yes, this is an issue. They want to hear a little bit what we are doing, what is possible to do, but most of the time, they just want us to listen. So that's what I'm doing as a friend, of friends that have teenagers. And again, I said it earlier, I am worried about the moment that my son will ask me questions about this.

Jen: But it's a good reminder, I think, to make space for people's feelings and their experience. And I feel like the things I feel most concerned or afraid of, I think the thing that feels most comforting is when someone else is willing just to sit beside me in my feelings and in my experiences.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Without judgments.

Jen: Without judgments. 

Oren Pizmony-Levy: So I just want to say one more thing, that in addition to all of the techniques and tips I shared with you so far, I also talk about my climate related feelings and anxiety. When work overwhelm me, I speak with my family, I speak with my friends, and many times I also speak with a professional mental health psychologist or counselor. I find speaking with it and airing my emotions to be a very, very helpful way to really navigate what I'm feeling at the moment and also to regenerate new energy so I can continue the work the day after. 

Jen: That’s really important. Yeah thank you for sharing that. Like something I'm going to come back to that you said, and remember a lot, is this thing you mentioned about the young climate activists who can hold both the feelings, that can hold the concern alongside the determination and the optimism. And I'm going to return to that a lot myself. How about you, Joe, what do you feel like?

Joe: Yeah, I mean, one of my big takeaways from this, weirdly, it's... maybe not weirdly, but it kind of gives me hope what you said about asking everyone to reflect, no matter what their role is, on how climate change and sustainability is related to their work. When I think about that for myself, that kind of gives me hope because you're opening up the first step. The first step is reflecting on how I already intersect with this. And that's, in a way, if you think of it sort of disembodied, it's more overwhelming. And even though it's still a big issue, if I think about where do I fit, that gives me kind of a place to stand, to take a next step from. So I really appreciated that step in your process.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: And I really hope that listeners take this, don't focus too much on the beginning of the conversation, about the problems, take the solutions that we talked about, the visions that we discussed here today. And always feel free to contact us at the center, we are always happy to hear from people that listen to different podcasts or resources that we put online. We are always available for a quick chat or to share resources and we can share the website for the center later on. And follow us on Twitter, we tweet a lot.

Joe: Nice.

Jen: Of course. That sounds great. Well, Oren, thanks so much for joining us. This really felt like... I don't know, I just feel very moved by this conversation. And I appreciate you taking the time and bringing so much of both your thoughtfulness, but also your heart to the conversation.

Joe: Yeah, thanks so much. I really do feel like we achieved feeling like we're in a place where we can take a next step on this, instead of just feeling overwhelmed. So thank you for that and thanks for taking the time to be with us.

Oren Pizmony-Levy: Sure. Thank you so much for everything you're doing and for helping us to advance this work.

[Music outro]

Joe: Thanks for listening. you can find the Center for Sustainable Futures website that Oren mentioned at tc.edu/sustainability, and we'll also include a link in the show notes to the episode. 

Follow How’s School wherever you podcast, and leave a rating and review to support the show.  In next week’s episode on the youth mental health crisis, we’re joined by Cindy Huang, a psychologist and researcher who shares about mental health challenges hitting home during COVID-19:

Cindy Huang: As an adult, as a psychologist, I'm of course, self-aware and can deal with mental health issues when they hit. as a parent of three children during the pandemic, one of whom was just an infant still when the pandemic hit, it was just sort of like everything colliding and making me fully realize, wait, this is what I research. And now I'm living this, I'm living and experiencing the stress and the risk factors that I talk about. 

Jen: How’s School is created, hosted and produced by myself, Jen Lee and Joe Riina-Ferrie  with audio production and original music by Billy Collins. How’s School is a production of the Digital Futures Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. You can follow the Digital Futures Institute on Instagram or Twitter @tcdigitalfuture

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