Field of Science


Why Do Kids Hate Polar Bears?

I have an email folder labeled "Angry Mail." It's not exactly bursting at its digital seams, but every once in a while I have to answer a letter from a reader who's upset about something. (Someone else answers all the friendly mail; I only get the nasty stuff.) So yesterday I finally dealt with one that had been sitting there for a few weeks. Its subject line was: Geoengineering and "Global Warming."

You can probably guess from the scare quotes that this reader, a girl of unspecified teen age, doesn't believe in climate change. We ran a cover story about geoengineers, scientists who are proposing drastic physical measures (cloud seeding; giant space umbrellas) to counteract global warming. Anonymous Reader disagrees with our premise: "I really think the geoengineering article in the April issue was totally one-sided. It didn't acknowledge that some of the things the author presented as scientific fact are either controversial or DISPROVEN!"

Teens love exclamation points and caps-lock, by the way. They also love putting little stage directions in asterisks, like this: *goes off on tangent*

This girl included links in her email to pages at both the London Times (saying it "disproved" glaciers shrinking in the Himalayas) and NASA ("global warming DID NOT cause ice to melt in the Arctic!"). Concerned, I followed both links. The Times story was about an infamous gaffe in which some scientist guessed, without having supporting data, that the Himalayan glaciers would all be melted by 2035, and a bunch of important people quoted him before someone realized the number was totally made up and also impossible. The glaciers will take a long time, maybe hundreds of years, to totally melt. But the article also makes clear that the glaciers are, in fact, melting.

The second link was to an article about weird winds that are contributing to melting Arctic sea ice. The article doesn't say anything explicit about climate change, probably because NASA assumes it is blindingly obvious that global warming is the major contributor to the ice melting. Once sea ice is thinned and broken up, wind that blows ice floes south will make them melt even faster. If this girl were looking for NASA's data on global warming and polar ice caps, she could have found it in one or two clicks.

So where is she getting these willful misinterpretations? A blog written by a meteorologist, which she helpfully sent me a link to. Did you know that fewer than one third of TV weathermen believe in human-caused climate change? I guess all that snow confuses them. I wanted to tell this girl to consider her sources; anyone can write a blog. (!) But her generation has grown up with reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube commenters. Any moron with an opinion can make himself heard loud and clear.

I sent her some more links to read; she probably didn't. I wish she had been the first juvenile climate-change skeptic I'd heard from, but she was far from it. Are all kids such cynics? When I was little I believed in EVERYTHING! (See, I can do it too.) At various times in my childhood I believed that Santa Claus existed, that a friendly poltergeist was following me, and that if I just tried a little harder I would finally tap into my powers of ESP and telekinesis. When I was very young, a bishop visited our parish and I misunderstood and thought he was God. To be fair, he had a really fancy hat.

I also believed that if my friend and I spent enough time picking up trash and making pinecone bird feeders, we would SAVE THE EARTH! We painted it on bookmarks and stationery. I convinced my parents to let me put a water-saving milk-jug contraption inside our toilet tank. I would rather have given up all my PBS privileges than littered.

So what happened? Was I the outlier? I know it's always been uncool to care. But the hostile dismissal of science ("Those 'scientists' are government funded idiots," says another teen reader) scares me. It's not going to be enough for me to care. It wouldn't even be enough for all the adults to care. The kids who are growing up into a world of rising oceans, vanishing species, and terrifying new diseases are going to have to care. The best I can do is to keep sending them my emails, even if it makes me hopelessly uncool. *is really thankful not to be in high school anymore*

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