Owen Liu, of UCSB's Bren School, recently penned a science mystery book for middle school kids on climate change.

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Despite the seemingly cataclysmic trajectory, it’s hard to get even environmentally minded adults to read one more thing about the gloomy topic of climate change these days. But maybe, with a little bit of mystery and a lot of globe-trotting exploration, middle school students can be convinced otherwise.

That’s the hope for The Confounding Case of the Climate Crisis, an adventure-meets-science novel for that critical age group. Written by Owen R. Liu, a graduate of Stanford University’s Earth Systems Program who is now pursuing a doctorate at the UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, the novel follows middle school students Anita and Benson as they travel through time and across the globe to learn about the science of climate change, meet the researchers who’ve been tracking it for decades, and visit communities around the world that are actively preparing for its impending arrival. The 160-page paperback book, which features colorful drawings of the adventurers every few pages, is the latest entry in Tumblehome Learning’s Galactic Academy of Science series, which aims to draw young people into science and engineering fields through exciting tales.

Liu was asked to write the book by his mother, who helps run the publishing company, and his background in studying climate change is properly solid. Raised outside of Boston, his interest in environmental science started while spending his childhood summers on the Maine coastline. After getting both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees over five years at Stanford, he worked as a research fellow for the Environmental Defense Fund on marine conservation issues. Deciding he wanted to return to school, he came to the Bren School at UCSB, which is renowned for its interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues. Liu just finished his first quarter of the estimated five-plus years that it will take to get his doctorate, which will be focused on the marine ecology of sustainable fisheries in the developing world.

He spoke with me about The Confounding Case of the Climate Crisis right before Christmas from a relative’s home in San Mateo. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation. Read more about or purchase the book here.

Was climate change a major part of Stanford’s Earth Systems Program?

There was a big emphasis on it in my major. We talked a lot about the rhetoric. On one hand, there’s the political debate about climate change, which is pretty much resolved at this point, but there is also the rhetoric about the problem itself. This is a huge, global problem that seems so intractable and so impossible for the normal person to do anything about. I got really interested in the positive things you can do that are hopeful. There is a need for someone to be the voice for optimism around these large environmental problems. That’s how I came to the issue.

Why target this age group with a book about climate change?

First of all, I love middle school kids. They are the perfect age where they’re old enough to have intellectual thoughts and really creative ideas, but they’re not jaded about the world yet like a lot of high school students get.

Then, just like my parents’ generation dealt with acid rain and the ozone layer, climate change is the big global environmental crisis of our generation. It’s absolutely essential to talk to our students about it. It’s becoming more taught in schools and part of the curriculum, but there is not a lot of literature for kids that’s fun but also about science and creative ways to think about this environmental problem.

How do you manage to keep the book from being too gloomy?

The first section of the book is about the real science of climate change, with bits about atmospheric chemistry and global warming. But in the second half of the book, the characters visit all these people around the world who are working on adaptation and climate resilience strategies. That’s really my favorite part of the book. They are all fictional stories, but it’s stuff that’s really going on.

The root of the problem is not necessarily reversible at this point, but we can think about adaptation and ways we can make our environment more resilient to the changes we expect. Once we internalize that these are the effects climate change might have, we can think about how to mitigate them.

One example is that the kids go to Kenya and talk to a village that is having a terrible cycle of drought and flooding because climate change is making rainfall very unpredictable year to year. They’re doing a restoration project on their local river by planting trees and shrubs and making sure the river is healthy. That will generate resilience and more ability to survive the ultimate effects of climate change.

The book also delves into the history of climate change research. Why was that important to include?

It’s important to realize that people have been thinking about this problem for hundreds of years. If you read the newspaper, some people think climate change is this issue that was manufactured over the past 30 years, but that’s just not true. The political angle has been over the last 15 years or so, but people have known that humans can have an effect on the global environment for a long, long time. In writing the book, I wanted to start in the right place, for these kids to meet and talk to the people who laid down the fundamental science of how climate change works so the kids can go on their trail of discovery throughout history.

The book also shows kids that there are many ways into a career dealing with environmental issues, not just as a laboratory scientist.

That hopefully does come through in the book. I’ve been doing environmental science for a long time, but it is interdisciplinary environmental science. At both the Bren School and the Earth Systems Program at Stanford, some people have political aspirations, some want to be economists, some want to be community workers. There’s all sorts of things that people want to work on, but they are in a science program. For a lot of environmental and global problems right now, I really believe you need a scientific perspective as well as an economic and political and social perspective on all these issues in order to really understand them and to really tackle them.


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