A Plymouth author’s young-adult book about taking action on climate and air quality has been attracting global accolades. Chris Casavant’s “The Greatest Cause of Mia Dubois” won the 2023 Next Generation Indie Book award in the category of Current Events. (It also was a finalist in the category of Science/Nature/Environment.)

Search the term “climate action,” and a bewildering array of goals, strategies, and tactics turns up. But increasingly, more people are trying to understand exactly what it means.

Examples of climate action range from the absurdist throwing of pumpkin soup on the Mona Lisa to the pragmatic microgrid islanding.

It’s helpful to organize thinking about climate action into two general categories: reducing the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, also known as “mitigation,” (including a net-zero goal), and adjusting to changes in the environment that are the consequence of global warming, also known as “adaptation.”

Understanding what actions are the most effective and therefore deserving of priority attention is central to both cutting greenhouse gas releases and adjusting to an altered environment. And this requires education.

Enter Mr. Casavant. He is a 6th grade social studies teacher in the Marshfield public school system. He grew up in Dartmouth and majored in history and journalism at the University of Connecticut, earning a bachelor’s degree there and later a master’s degree in history at Chicago State.

Chris Casavant’s young-adult book has been receiving accolades from all over.

His book follows the explorations and discoveries of its main character, Mia Dubois, an elementary school student in Plymouth, as she engages first in learning about both climate change and air pollution and then taking action. Her approach is plainly scientific, comprising the testing and rejecting (or not) of assumptions about climate change and air pollution, as well as how best to respond.

The story begins with a hurricane that topples a tree onto Mia’s house. Another tree traps her elderly neighbor in his car. The damage forces her family to evacuate. The neighbor ends up in the hospital. Mia soon learns that such tropical storms may be becoming more severe as a consequence of climate change.

In a translation from the French, Mia’s surname Dubois means “from the wood(s).” (It’s pronounced “doob-wah” in French, but it can also be pronounced “doob-awz” in English, thereby completing an assonance with the word “cause” in the book’s title.) Mia escapes from her yard during the storm and simultaneously emerges from her unawareness about sources of pollution. She thinks to herself, “No one ever told me that climate change could be to blame for these disasters.”

As described by Casavant to me, Mia undergoes a step-by-step process of discovery, learning about the different dimensions of climate change and convincing her school friends, immediate family, and even her teachers about the importance of learning and acting. Through an insatiable desire to learn and respond to the hazard, she breaks ground for others. Only her curmudgeonly grandfather resists convincing.

On a trip to visit her uncle in Chicago, Mia visits East City (a fictional stand-in for East Chicago, Indiana, notorious for lead contamination in its soil), where pollution from fossil fuels has led to serious health problems for the residents of a mostly lower income community. Mia corresponds with a new friend from the city whom she meets on her visit, learning that there are plans for the processing of Canadian tar sands into oil, making petcoke—a dusty product stored openly in large mounds that contributes to air pollution and greenhouse gas releases when it is burned to create electricity.

The need for the safe storage of petcoke drew national attention as a major environmental problem in Chicago and Detroit about a decade ago. Exposure to airborne particulates is associated with adverse health outcomes such as asthma, heart disease, and premature deaths. Airborne particulates remain a critical air quality problem even today, and the US Environmental Protection Agency has just issued a final rule strengthening the air quality standards for releases of fine particulate matter, otherwise known as soot.

In the book, tension builds around the question of whether students in Plymouth should even care about air pollution in East City. Mia’s social studies teacher helps her establish a constructive argument by drawing an analogy to the words of Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Especially with respect to activities that generate greenhouse gases, “[i]t’s not just their [East City’s] problem, it’s everyone’s,” Mia later tells a reporter.

Following models of measured activism set by her uncle and neighbor, Mia gradually learns how to take action in a way that garners attention but avoids counterproductive extremism (like throwing soup at fine art). The spread of media attention originating with the Plymouth students eventually forestalls the plan to process tar sands in East City. Guided by her mentors, Mia’s development in this respect is an Americanized but arguably more thoughtful version of a similar path taken by the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Think of school sit-ins during the lunch period, but not student strikes.

Chris Casavant teaches 6th grade social studies in Marshfield. Credit: (Photo courtesy of Chris Casavant)

Writing for young adults, Casavant weaves in the necessary captivating themes involving deepening relationships, a secret admirer, celebrity, peer envy, boundary pushing, and — of course — the pull of communicating, with minimal parental supervision, by cellphone.

Older readers would not necessarily be swayed by that story arc, but they can appreciate the book’s tight pacing, its solid references to current scientific understanding, and its emphasis on the need for personal connections — both locally and at a distance — to effectuate actions taken to mitigate climate change. Casavant mentors a student “Green Team” at his Marshfield school, similar to the “Climate Club” that becomes a key way for Mia and her classmates to work together as a community.  

Some climate change communicators and activists have begun to argue that, in order to motivate enough people to make a difference about responding to the threats of climate change, the “message” needs to shift from a presentation of sterile scientific data to one of creative storytelling.

Scientists excepted, the average layperson may not be fully receptive to the jargon, physics, big data, complex modeling, and deep uncertainties involved in the study of climate change. In theory, they might be more open to stories that resonate with their own circumstances, and consequently they may be able to learn more readily about appropriate and effective action to take in the face of climate change.

That argument holds in the age of unbridled social media only if the stories can be firmly grounded in well-vetted scientific understanding. Given the nature of science, which advances through the testing and rejecting of hypotheses, this is not a trivial challenge.

With this book, Casavant tells a compelling story backed by current science and real-world events that moves the education and awareness-raising of climate change and air pollution significantly forward for young adults. We should all be paying close attention. 

Plymouth resident Porter Hoagland is interested in local environmental and natural resource matters. He welcomes your feedback, and can be reached at phoagland@whoi.edu.

Share this story

We believe that journalism as a public service should be free to the community.
That’s why the support of donors like you is critical.

Thank you to our sponsors. Become a sponsor.