When her community’s apathetic attitude towards climate change wasn’t working for Sarah Ott, an eighth-grade science teacher and NCSE Teacher Ambassador who lives and teaches in Georgia, she decided to be the change that was missing. “I needed a way to make a bigger impact. That’s why I decided to start the group.”
That group, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby of Dalton, Georgia, is constantly working to ensure climate change is part of her community’s conversations. “There is a deep culture of silence in my area about climate change,” says Ott. She attributes some of this silence to misinformation and a heavy dose of denial about the topic. Through her work as an NCSE Teacher Ambassador, she has experience helping students overcome and resolve their misconceptions about climate change. So when she was approached with an opportunity to participate in a local Earth Day activity called “Color for a Cause,” showing the various outcomes of sea-level rise in a mural at their local mall, Ott knew two things—that the answer was yes, and that kids must be involved.
“I reached out to my friends and was like, ‘Hey, we need people to color,’” Ott says when recounting her initial reaction to the Earth Day opportunity. And she knew the newly formed Citizens’ Climate Lobby, or CCL, would be game. The mission of this community activity was simple: to raise awareness and work to normalize the conversation on climate change. Anyone interested in participating was asked to give some time, show up at the local mall, and wield color pencils for a few hours. In return, the participants got free pizza and a chance to make their voices heard on this critical topic.
As a science teacher, Ott does cover climate change and its misconceptions, though she didn’t want her students to feel obligated to participate in a public activity seen by some as ideologically controversial. Instead, she approached her network and local community climate change activists with the opportunity. A few months before the event, those interested in participating met to brainstorm and plan. In these preparatory meetings, they came to a common understanding of climate change and the ways it could possibly influence our sea levels. Ultimately, they decided to have their mural showcase three scenarios: an ideal world with robust climate action leading to minimal sea-level rise; less action, with some rise; and extensive sea-level rise resulting from no action whatsoever. They divided up each of the outcomes into separate panels and assigned volunteers to one of the three. “There was this group of girls that asked to color in the doom panel, and they did it with so much enthusiasm,” Ott notes with amusement.
The girls and the rest of the participants brought that level of excitement to the coloring table on the day of the event, too. “They were so jazzed—pizza, shopping, coloring?! Their energy was infectious.” The younger volunteers even added their own flair to the mural—solar panels and windmills drawn into the ideal world, and an evil villain included in the grim scenario.
More than a few people passing by couldn’t resist the urge to stop and ask what was going on. One college student approached Ott and expressed a desire to learn and do more about climate change. Ott believes the murals will pique the curiosity of both older and younger generations when they’re displayed at a community event this month. And if the CCL team’s greatest ambitions are realized, a matter-of-fact conversation about climate change among visitors will ensue.
“I’ve always been this way,” says Ott, when asked when she became so impassioned and outspoken about climate change. At an early age, she was doing all that she could think of to get others in the know and on board with fighting climate change. Now, as a mother of two young girls, as a school teacher, and as an active member of her community, Ott feels a personal responsibility to do everything possible to raise awareness about the dangers of human-caused climate change and provoke action. “Everything I do is for my own children and my students, to have a healthy and liveable world when they’re adults,” Ott explains. “That’s why I do what I do.”