North Branch students to join 5-day climate walk

RIPTON — Climate science is difficult for middle schoolers to grapple with.
It’s also a hard thing to have to teach them, said North Branch School science teacher Rose McVay.
“I want my students to learn the science of climate change for themselves — that it’s not based on ‘beliefs,’ but on data and evidence that they can study themselves, and that the causes are traceable to human activity,” McVay told the Independent. She also wants them “to see the difference alternative actions could make, based on data.”
But last year, during a two-month unit on physical climate science, she noticed her students were struggling emotionally.
“One thing we’ve learned is that kids, the more they know about climate change, the more anxious they get,” said North Branch director and head teacher Tal Birdsey.
This anxiety can take many forms, according to a 69-page report published in 2017 by the American Psychological Association.
“Perhaps one of the best ways to characterize the impacts of climate change on perceptions is the sense of loss,” wrote the report’s authors. “Loss of relationship to place is a substantial part of this. As climate change irrevocably changes people’s lived landscapes, large numbers are likely to experience a feeling that they are losing a place that is important to them — a phenomenon called ‘solastalgia.’”
Those suffering from a sense of helplessness might be said to suffer from “ecoanxiety,” the authors said.
“Watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations, may be an additional source of stress,” they wrote. “Qualitative research provides evidence that some people are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.”
With this in mind, this year McVay has been encouraging her classes to use their anxiety as a fuel to move forward, and after a unit focusing on climate solutions, students on April 5 will walk the first leg of the five-day Next Steps Climate Solutions walk, organized by 350Vermont.
Author/activist (and former North Branch parent) Bill McKibben plans to join them.
As they prepared for their journey, students shared their thoughts with the Independent.
“Learning about (climate change) at school has made it so much more real, especially this year, learning about all the effects and impacts on the world I’m growing up in,” said ninth-grader Isadora Beck. “It’s terrifying. It’s awful to see our planet being destroyed.” The effects may not be as visible in Vermont, she added, but the internet provides plenty of evidence of what’s happening around the world. “It sometimes feels like we can’t do anything, like it’s just hopeless and the world will fall apart and we will all slowly and painfully die in a bleaker and bleaker world.” But then she sees so many passionate young people organizing events for change and she believes she really can make a difference.
Eighth-grader Iris Wyatt has been inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, whom she describes as a “shy, blunt and sarcastic girl” who has “skipped school over 25 times to protest” climate change. Learning about Thunberg has forced Wyatt to re-evaluate her own efforts to fight climate change, she said. Last year Wyatt made a poster of a smog-covered Earth, asking, “What will our legacy be?” This year she is making a new poster to carry on the Next Steps walk, focusing on population, agriculture or deforestation. “I want to go further than asking ‘What will our legacy be?’” Wyatt said. “I want to say more and do more. It’s exciting.”
For fellow eighth-grader Elise Heppell, “even the prospect of trying to do something to slow climate change is intimidating.” Can we do it? Is it worth it? The biggest, most impactful first steps to address climate change aren’t things average citizens can do themselves, she said. “They need to be taken by the government. They are the ones who (need to) initiate something. They are the ones who will enforce it. That is the reason we are doing this climate walk — to get the Vermont state government kick-started.”
Among other things, Next Steps organizers back a proposed ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state.
Studying climate change for the past two years has been “interesting but also worrying,” said eighth-grader Vivian Siegfried, whose research turned up a lot of “surprising facts and scary numbers.” Preparing for her class presentation “was when it really clicked and came into perspective for me — that climate change is really very major, and will affect me,” Siegfried said. “I am considering putting an unsettling fact on my (Next Steps) sign, to help other people wake up to the extremity of the problem.”
The longer we wait, the harder it will be to reverse this, said ninth-grader Phoebe Hussey. “We have watched time lapses of the ice caps receding and seen videos of small island towns abandoned and flooded.” And yet, she said, “every day we get into our cars or turn on the lights,” often using fossil fuels, which “are not sustainable and only add to the greenhouse effect. Climate change is something we have contributed to, more than some think. It’s a problem and a challenge we created for ourselves and now it’s one we will have to take on.”
Una Kaeck thinks about climate change every day, not least because it’s been present for as long as she can remember. “Climate change is a very intimidating challenge,” the ninth-grader said. And while some issues have easy answers — choosing solar over coal because it produces less carbon dioxide, for instance — other issues, like which renewable energy sources will work best in a given location, are more complicated. “I think education is important, so people know what they can do in their everyday lives and how they can make better choices,” she said.
“Climate change is woven into their thoughts and days in a very real way,” said Sarah Kaeck, Una’s mom. “I’ve noticed little comments from my kids and it has definitely made me think about things differently. We adults have a different sense of the future based on our own experiences,” she added. “Not so with kids. We need to pay attention to them.”
Sarah Kaeck owns and operates Bees Wrap, a company that makes sustainable food storage wraps in Middlebury. Bees Wrap is co-sponsoring the Next Steps walk. Kaeck said she expects about a dozen employees to walk with her on the first day.
“Bees Wrap has a commitment to support organizations that protect the environment,” Kaeck said. “We’re also trying to help grow awareness of climate change.”
North Branch and Bees Wrap participants will join a hundred others on the first day of Next Steps, which travels 11 miles from Middlebury to Bristol.
“To date, we are a community of over 130 walkers!” 350Vermont officials announced last week.
Next Steps begins April 5 in Middlebury, ends April 9 in Montpelier and will cover a total of 65 miles.
For more information about next steps, visit 350vermont.org/nextsteps.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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