What exploration and education mean for climate change

By Gary E. Knell 04 December 2015

Albert Lukassen’s world is melting around him. When the 64-year-old Inuit man was young, he could hunt by dogsled on the frozen Uummannaq Fjord, on Greenland’s west coast, until June. This photo shows him there in April. Photo by: © Ciril Jazbec / National Geographic Magazine November 2014 Climate Issue

Last month I had the privilege of meeting with several National Geographic Explorers during a trip to the Yucatán. One that stood out is Maritza Morales, who began her life’s work caring for the environment when she was only 10. Today she works with children to teach them about climate change, endangered species, the local ecosystem, and growing food sustainably. She contends that our planet's biggest problem is not pollution, melting ice caps, nor drought. She says that the lack of education about environmental issues is the biggest problem. “We need to create the next generation of heroes for Grandmother Earth,” she said.

When Gardiner Greene Hubbard (and 32 others) founded the National Geographic Society in 1888, he believed in advancing the study of geography for a wide audience, not just professional scientists — “so that we all may know more of the world upon which we live.” They created a membership base, a lecture series, and a journal that became the magazine we all know today. National Geographic Magazine has covered the issue of our changing climate since its earliest days, starting with extreme weather events — even before the turn of the 20th century. The subject has since evolved, including stories on rising seas, fossil fuel drilling, coal, fracking, water availability, melting icecaps, and last month’s issue entirely devoted to climate change. You can see climate change unfold in the pages of our magazine, which has been published now for 127 years.

Educational impact

As we embark on the climate change talks in Paris, I am thinking about the next generation and the value of education — geographic education. Geography is not just about finding a place on map; it's about our interconnectedness as a global community. Our children are inheriting a planet in need of attention, and will need all the tools at their disposal to make the best decisions possible about protecting it. They need to understand how things relate, which is why I believe that education and exploration have everything to do with making an impact on climate change.

We are sending National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore to COP21 to share his intimate portraits of endangered species living in captivity. He has taken more than 5,000 photos of these animals, close-up shots that allow us to look into the eyes of these species, to connect with them in a way we never have before. Most of these species are endangered due to loss of habitat, most of which is a direct result of climate change and human development.

But humans are a species threatened too — climate change poses real dangers for us. Few meetings actually have the potential to affect everyone on the planet. COP21 does. It’s critical to pay attention, to understand the issues, to know how climate change will affect our lives, and how it’s already affecting the lives of millions of people around the world.

An innovative future

The headlines and realities of climate change can seem overwhelming, but there is reason for hope. If we embrace solar and wind power to their full potential, we can cut the world’s yearly carbon emissions by a third. Countries around the world are already making a difference. Germany is on its way to create 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050. Cities around the world are paving streets with smog-eating concrete and sidewalks made with recycled materials. Even as individuals, we can make a difference through the choices we make every day.

National Geographic is partnering with the United Nations Foundation and the Earth To Paris coalition to give a powerful voice to a critical message: Reimagining our world’s energy future will take a shared sense of urgency — from countries, companies, cities, and all of us. Learn more at natgeo.com/climate.

And as we think about ways to create a more secure future for our planet, we mustn’t forget the guardians of that future: our children.

I grew up in Los Angeles and am very fortunate to have had an education and now a career that has exposed me to people, places and animals I could only have imagined when I was a kid.

There are kids in L.A. today that have never seen the Pacific Ocean. It is important that children around the world not only see and experience places on our planet, but also understand their importance. I want all children to have geographic literacy. For more than 20 years, National Geographic has been working for the inclusion of Geography in the school curriculum. Currently, Geography education receives no funding from Congress. In response, National Geographic developed an alliance network with geographic proponents in all 50 states and is looking forward to continuing to advance this cause.

We recently sent a group of our young explorers to present at the Council on Youth 11 in Paris, a precursor to COP21, and attended by more than 5,000 young people from around the world who are passionate about protecting our planet. The Nat Geo explorers represented a range of talents and knowledge, from conservation art to marine conservation to clean energy. We also filmed interviews with dozens of COY11 participants, capturing youth voices from around the world on the issue of climate change. These will be aired at COP21 and shared on social media. Alizé Carrère, who studies how humans are adapting to climate change, said she left COY11 “sufficiently optimistic” for COP21 after “seeing an army of committed youth bringing superpower ideas, technology and innovation for our collective future.”

This indeed gives me hope as well, and underscores the importance of educating and involving youth in the protection of our planet as they become the next generation of “heroes for Grandmother Earth.”

We have an unprecedented opportunity to support science, exploration, education and storytelling like never before. Because I believe those things have everything to do with future of protecting our planet.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

Gary E. Knell

Gary E. Knell joined the National Geographic Society as president and CEO in January 2014. He has been a member of the society’s board of trustees since April 2013 and has served on the board of governors of the National Geographic Education Foundation since November 2003.

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