The auditorium at James Blake High School in Silver Spring, Md., is packed when Cy Maramangalam strolls onstage, sporting jeans and a shaved head.
"All right, how's everyone doing today?" he says to rousing cheers. It feels as if he's about to introduce a hot new band, but Maramangalam is with the Alliance for Climate Education, or ACE, and he's here to talk climate change. In the past few years, the nonprofit has put on multimedia presentations for more than 1 million students across the country. Think of it as Al Gore for Gen Y.
"Check this out," Maramangalam tells the students, as cartoon characters and graphs dance on a giant screen behind him. He explains that carbon dioxide levels are higher than they've ever been in 800,000 years, and that this is driving up the globe's thermostat.
"Jacking up the temperature toward this point should be freaking people out," he says. "But it's happening quietly."
'A Part Of Science'
ACE aims to fill a big gap. Polls show most U.S. students learn little about climate change at school, and even many adults have a fuzzy notion of what causes it.
For the first time, new K-12 science standards issued in April include climate change. But the standards, written by a consortium of science and education groups in consultation with 26 states, are only voluntary and could take years to roll out. So Maramangalam hopes to bring kids up to speed fast on a topic that scientists say must be urgently addressed.
"You've inherited a country that's all about living large," Maramangalam tells the students, his voice swelling. He says each person takes up not only the space occupied by their home and school, but also land in Iowa to grow their food, in Brazil and China to make all their "stuff," and in the Middle East to get fuel to drive around.
"Can you believe that the average American teenager uses about 21 football fields of Earth's resources to live?" Maramangalam says.
Now and then, teachers or parents will push back on these presentations, saying climate change is too controversial or too political. Some schools won't invite the group at all. But Blake High's biology teacher, Colleen Roots, says she sought out ACE because many students don't learn about climate change in any of their classes.
"It's a part of science and a part of education that is lacking in the curriculum right now," she says. "No one has changed the curriculum in far too many years."
'A Right To Know'
In the auditorium, the students are rapt even as Maramangalam lays out complicated scientific concepts: the greenhouse effect, carbon sinks, the correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature. The presentation also pulls no punches when it describes how the world may look later this century.
"Economists predict that climate change will cost our world trillions of dollars each year in damages and threaten food and water supplies in communities around the world," a somber narrator intones.
It's heavy stuff, and purposefully so.
"They're going to be the generation to feel the impacts [of climate change] hardest and first," says Matt Lappe, ACE's education director. "And so in some sense we target high-schoolers, and young people in general, because they really have a right to know climate science."
After the presentation, some students do seem a little shellshocked.
"It was kind of scary," says senior Danielle Snowden. "I didn't realize that it was that big of an issue. I just thought, you know, we should do better. But it's like, we have to do better."
Junior Nicole Lertora nods in agreement. "I want to go home and unplug my charger right now!" she laughs.
In fact, the ACE presentation turns upbeat at the end, suggesting things kids can do to cut down on all that space they take up. Afterward, Maramangalam meets with a dozen students to brainstorm ways to reduce their school's carbon footprint. One says kids can carpool. Another suggests replacing the cafeteria's Styrofoam trays with washable ones.
ACE will foster those who want to become environmental leaders. Some have even expanded carbon-cutting projects beyond their own community. But mostly, education director Matt Lappe says, these presentations are designed to get kids talking about climate change.
"The long-term goal of this project — and we hope that it's not too long term, but relatively short term — is that we really start to shift the conversation, and shift the culture, about climate change," he says.
And that, he says, could have an impact well beyond the classroom.