Jeni and I recently returned from a trip to Shanghai, China. We were invited to China by Mickey Glantz–of the Consortium for Capacity Building at the University of Colorado, Boulder–to participate as speakers in an international climate and society conference at East China Normal University. The conference targeted undergraduates, a caste of the educated class that Mickey thinks are too often overlooked by climate educators and conference organizers.

Opening Ceremony

Both Jeni and I had traveled to other parts of China (Jen to Tibet, Jeni to Beijing), but neither of us had ever visited Shanghai. We were treated to plates of duck tongue, views of the world’s tallest skyscrapers constructed by men on bamboo scaffolding, and to fellow presenters with decades of on the ground experience. Fellow speakers came from Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, South Korea, Nepal, China, Puerto Rico, Norway, Japan, and India. Some spend their lives coordinating disaster relief efforts. Some improve early warning systems. Others challenge politicians to rethink the adequacy of applying a crisis-based response to repairing cumulative, creeping climate changes. Others analyze hydrological systems to warn people when the floods might come, and in some cases, work to convince local governments that, really, this time, the floods will come. As the only two women presenters, and with a legal bent at that, we were fortunate to listen, participate, and share our perspectives.

We learned many things, but one lesson emerged insistently: Measure what matters. As Howard Silverman (my old boss at Ecotrust) writes on People & Place, what matters in terms of climate change may have multiple measures. He poses three measures: a 2 degree Celsius warming target (e.g., advocated by the European Union), 350 parts per million (ppm) emissions cap (e.g., advocated by 350.org and climate scientist James Hansen), and finally, according to a study in Nature, a trillion tons total human carbon emissions budget. (By the way, we’ve already reached the halfway mark.)

And there are more than three measures of what matters.

One of the Chinese students thought the measure was GDP. A Professor in Malaysia thought it was having food on the table. As two American law students, we think it’s climate policy that fairly allocates the costs and burdens of climate change.

The challenge, then, is empowering people to come up with their own measures for what matters, and then helping them push their thinking even farther outside the box. As for the Chinese student concerned that, if false, an alarm warning a village about potential flooding could weaken the GDP, or that by designing a more walkable infrastructure, carmakers would lose their jobs, how should we respond? Say that the flooded village can no longer sustain a single job if all its residents drown? Or that American carmakers have already lost their jobs? It’s hard to ask people, especially those living in other countries, to learn from America’s mistakes. We are not very good at learning our own lessons, so it’s hard to ask other people to do our learning for us.

So what to say? I think it’s best to encourage out of the box, creative thinking, because standard measures (like GDP) alone won’t work. The idea to structure policy that limits warming to 2 degrees Celsius is incomplete without policies that counter the injustices of climate burdens. Empowering the young generations to recalibrate measures for what matters is exactly what we have to do.