COMMENTARY: Community conversations about climate change

Courtesy photoParticipants talk during a Climate Cafe, where the format involves a student talking with a group of adults at each table.  

We are the Climate Café Team, a small but passionate group of environmentally minded students who host Climate Cafés in communities along the North Shore. Our cafés are not typical conversations – they are unrehearsed social adventures!

Imagine if you walk into the barn of a local farm. You see small circles of chairs settled on the dirt floor and overhear a group of students and adults struggling with the realization that our daily food choices are major contributors to carbon emissions. You join the conversation and decide that it’s better for your family and the planet if you shop at a local farmers market.

Or what if you drop into a science classroom and sit down beside a small group of students and teachers playing a media literacy game about “cherry-picking” data and how to separate science from spin. We all talk about how difficult it is to escape our own “echo chambers” and encourage each other to become smarter media consumers who demand better information.

Or picture a symposium of 200 environmentalists and 20 high school students brainstorming over bowls of clam chowder about ways youths can be more involved in civic life. After an hour of animated table conversations, we summarize dozens of great ideas and the café ends with a standing ovation.

Climate Cafés offer a unique opportunity for youths and adults to talk with each other about local climate issues and how we can create the future we all want.

Café conversations are open to the public and come in all shapes and sizes but the format is similar: one student and four guests seated in a circle, discussing the “question of the day.” We often begin with everyone sharing a personal experience related to the question — maybe stories of the worst storm they lived through, or concerns about sea level rise, or ways they reduce their carbon footprint.

Then, the conversation becomes livelier as teams explore the question through different lenses and begin to build on each other’s ideas. As the conversations unfurl, we try to listen respectfully, think collaboratively, and imagine new possibilities.

Over the past four years, we have hosted more than 40 cafés and feedback from the 1,200 people who have attended has been remarkable. Guests tell us that they enjoy exploring local issues with each other, and especially welcome the opportunity to talk face to face with students who care deeply about the environment. Everyone consistently says that we give them hope for the future.

At the same time, hosting Climate Cafés give us, your future leaders, a “competitive advantage” in college and in life. Talking with adults as peers, struggling with real climate issues, being exposed to different perspectives, and participating in civil discourse give us a strong start as citizens and civic leaders.

Margot Kelly, a senior at Ipswich High School, says, “I’ve not only found my own voice, but I’ve helped other people to find theirs, and I truly think that this kind of collaboration is an experience worth having!”

Help us keep the conversations going – bring a friend to the next Climate Café at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 16, at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, 6 Plum Island Turnpike, Newburyport.

To learn more, check out the new student website, www.Climate-Cafe.org. You can also reach Noah at Newburyport High School at NoahKeller01@gmail.com, Margot at Ipswich High School at 20kellym@ipsk12.net or Hannah at Pentucket Regional High School at heg22502@gmail.com.

Interested educators and community leaders can contact Shari Melto at s.melto@nautilusleader.com.