Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?

In search of a better climate to discuss climate change


OK, contestants, hands on your buzzers. The category is Renewable Energy. Here are your questions:

1. What Idahoan said, "This green stuff is driving me nuts"? Was it: A) an environmentalist, B) an elected official or C) a fifth-grader?

2. What Idahoan said, "The underlying cause of these climactic shifts is ultimately not well understood [sic]"? Was it: A) an environmentalist, B) an elected official or C) a fifth-grader?

3. What Idahoan said, "I won't be guided by the global warming propaganda machine"? Was it: A) an environmentalist, B) an elected official or C) a fifth-grader?

The answer to all three is "B." From the governor's office to the Legislature and all the way to Capitol Hill, a number of Idaho public officials continue to push back against the idea that climate change is at crisis level—or even happening.

In spite of evidence from the American Medical Association, American Meteorological Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Idaho still leans toward skepticism. According to a 2014 study from the Yale Project on Climate Change, 58 percent of Idahoans thought global warming was occurring. Even fewer—48 percent—said they were worried and a mere 32 percent indicated they were personally harmed by global warming. The numbers shrink even further in Twin Falls County, where the Yale Study indicated only 29 percent said global warming might harm them personally.

Rep. Pete Nielsen ought to know. Some Twin Falls County residents continue to send him to the Idaho Legislature where he sits on the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee. That's where he was in fine form Feb. 4, offering this riposte on the issue of global warming, and in particular the effort to tighten carbon emissions: "I'm not a carbon-type guy in the first place. This green stuff is driving me nuts. There's a lot of rebellion."

Some of those Idaho rebels have been quite adept at circulating counterclaims. Look through the comment section of articles on climate change—including those on—and more than a few will include the terms "hoax," "global weirding" or "climate alarmism." Those commenters have friends in high places.

In July 2013, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote, "While the degree and extent to which carbon emissions play a role in climate change is still debatable, the fact that Idaho is significantly impacted by the federal government's actions and inactions is not." In February 2013, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo wrote, "While there is no dispute over the fact that the Earth's climate has changed many times over the planet's history, the underlying cause of these climactic shifts is ultimately not well understood [sic]." In February 2014, U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador told NBC News, "As a policymaker, I won't be guided by the global warming propaganda machine."

OK, contestants, time for the bonus round:

1. What Idahoan said, "People are just using too much energy in the form of carbon dioxide, and its biggest impact is a wild change in our Earth's climate"? Was it: A) an environmentalist, B) an elected official or C) a fifth-grader?

The answer: "C," written in a letter addressed to Boise Weekly by 11-year-old Jack Leonard.

"I am a fifth-grader who goes to Cecil D. Andrus Elementary. I would like to state my concern," Jack wrote in his opening line.

"The burning question that relates to this issues is: If we do have a change in climate, how will kids adapt to the sudden change? Nobody has quite figured out the answer to that question. Yet, like every problem, there is a solution," he wrote, his next two paragraphs debating the pros and cons of renewable energy sources, with particular emphasis on solar energy.

Jack's letter prompted BW to visit with him; his mother, Jennie Leonard; and his teacher Carla Morton—while his younger brother, Henry, watched patiently—in a classroom at Cecil Andrus Elementary.

"A lot more people closer to my age do understand this," Jack said when BW mentioned to him that a good many Idaho adults don't grasp climate change, let alone its consequences. "Carbon dioxide triggers global warming. It's all about the amount of fuel we use."

Jack is an exceptional student: His level of learning has qualified him for the West Ada School District's "self-contained gifted program," designed for students to reach deeper understanding through project-based learning. Jack crafted—and typed—his letter to BW himself.

"I'm very fortunate to work with students like Jack every day," said Morton. "There's such a wonderful level of compassion and inquisitiveness. They work things out."

Jennie said, if given the chance, she would gush about her kids for hours.

"Jack was born ready to learn," she said. "I remember the day he was born, with his big bright eyes. He always loved to learn and he has always taken an interest in the environment."

Jennie said it was a recent broadcast of the PBS series Cosmos that got Jack thinking more about CO2.

"And I just think that solar energy is the way to go," Jack said.

In his letter to BW, Jack deemed solar energy as "a free gift" and while he conceded that there would be plenty of upfront costs for development and construction, "the pros of solar energy outnumber the cons."

Jack's mom said it's natural for her son to talk about solutions.

"I love the fact that Jack's generation is so hopeful about it. They see a problem and offer a solution," Jennie said. "An older generation? They usually throw their hands up in despair."

A few days later, BW shared Jack's letter with someone who knows a lot about the climate change debate. Ken Miller, Clean Energy Program director at the Snake River Alliance and a veteran environmental advocate, helped host the recent Northwest Clean and Affordable Energy Conference in Boise, May 29-30—no elected officials were among the attendees.

"Wow," said Miller when he read Jack's letter. "Kids get it."

Miller said the conference attendees included "some of the smartest environmental analysts and advocates that there are and, yes, they are very influential."

While a few of the conference presentations were extremely technical, there was a theme that would be familiar to Jack: Renewable energy.

"There are some amazing people in this room doing some amazing work," said Barbara O'Neill, Transmission and Grid Integration Group manager with the National Renewable Energy Lab, speaking about the real possibility of integrating more solar and wind energy into the nation's power grids. "Great things are possible. Keep doing what you're doing."

Back at Cecil Andrus, Jack said the letter to BW was the result of an assignment to send a persuasive letter to someone. As with the writing of his letter, the thorny topic was of his own choosing.

"I expect this to be a tough issue for a while. But my generation..." he paused for a moment. "Well, we have a lot of hope."