Save the Children

When I was a child in the 1950s, I went about my business with a little cloud hanging over my head. It didn’t matter whether I was playing in the backyard, studying in my bedroom or suffering from my first romantic crush (Annette on the Mickey Mouse Club). The cloud was always there.

It was the fear of nuclear war. We lived in suburbs west of Chicago. All day long, jets flew overhead on their way to O’Hare International Airport, sometimes so high that they were just a silver spot gleaming in the sun as they moved across the sky. When I saw one, I stopped what I was doing and waited several minutes to see if a mushroom cloud appeared to the east over Chicago. Once I saw the mushroom, I knew from school, our neighborhood would be flattened a few seconds later.

It never happened, of course. I can’t say that the cloud ruined my childhood or followed me into adulthood, but its shadow came back to mind Friday night (Oct. 19) as I watched John Stossel’s latest “Give Me a Break” segment on ABC.

Stossel took on global warming again. He acknowledged that is real, but questioned whether it’s a crisis, whether it’s our fault, whether the polar bears actually are at risk and whether we should care. “Who’s to say that yesterday’s temperature is the perfect one?” he asked.

What I found most disturbing was his interview with a room full of small children, who spoke about people drowning and dying because of climate change. Stossel didn’t ask the very important follow-up question: “Hey, kids, what should we do about it?” The answers might have ended the interview on a constructive note and spoiled Stossel’s implication that talking about climate change is child abuse.

But there is a legitimate point to be made here. Is the public discussion of global warming leaving many of us — not just children — with feelings of despair and helplessness?

The “climate blues” is recognized internationally as one of the pubic health problems associated with global warming. In 1993, a study for the United Nations Environmental Program reported that the psychological stresses of climate change may “lead to dysfunctional responses”:

When people experience a widespread problem that they feel unable to do anything about, they often develop some sort of psychological defense. A problem as overwhelming as climate change is likely to generate such counter-productive responses as cynicism, denial, and aggression. When people respond to a desperate situation by becoming cynical, they lose their interest in the problem and withdraw from activities that might help to alleviate or solve it. When they deny that the problem exists, they deny having any responsibility for causing it; as a result, campaigns that, for example, encourage people to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by driving their cars less, would fall on deaf ears. Finally, if people try to vent their frustration through aggression, they may become destructive and seek to sabotage efforts to combat climate change.

The Washington Post reports that these stresses may be particularly difficult for the young:

For many children and young adults, global warming is the atomic bomb of today. Fears of an environmental crisis are defining their generation in ways that the Depression, World War II, Vietnam and the Cold War’s lingering “War Games” etched souls in the 20th Century.

Parents says they’re searching for productive outlets for their 8-year-olds’ obsessions with dying polar bears…. Psychologists say they’re seeing an increasing number of young patients preoccupied by a climactic Armageddon.

How we discuss global warming with one another, with the public and with our children in ways that mobilize us for action rather than immobilize us from despair? The answer may lie in advice from Susan Joy Hassol, one of the nation’s primier climate communicators: “We need to stop being Chicken Little and start being The Little Engine That Could.”

Back in the 1950’s, the danger of nuclear war was completely beyond our control. We could learn to duck and cover, or dig a hold in the ground and stock it with canned goods, but our fate was sealed in a black box that moved around with the President of the United States.

Climate change is different. Each of us has a measure of power for change, from voting for the right person to screwing in a compact fluorescent bulb. If we are not helpless, we do not need to feel hopeless.

As Stossel acknowledges, most Americans now accept the science and seriousness of global warming. It’s time to move the national discussion beyond the disaster that confronts us if we don’t act, to the excellent world that awaits us if we do.

Next time you’re talking to a child about climate change, tell him or her we’re building a world where the air is cleaner; people are healthier; there are no more oil wars; we have forests in our cities; our buildings are more beautiful; we have lots of ways to move around; we’re free from energy crises; and people and ecosystems have learned to live together.

We all know the nightmare. Now we need a Dream.

— Bill B.

14 Responses to Save the Children

  1. Earl Killian says:

    We’ve had books and movies that warn us about global warming. What the US needs now is a story that helps us envision a world where we have stopped global warming in its tracks. The story would show how hard it was, but leave people feeling it is possible. Unfortunately many people don’t take SF (speculative fiction) very seriously, but popular culture often seems to depend on such story telling to effect change. So I agree with Bill that a dream seems like the necessary antidote to despair.

  2. My approach to this (my wife and I between us have 8 grown children and 8 grandchildren) is to present iclimate change as a great and potentially unifying challenge for humanity. America took on such a challenge during WWII. Our allies survived the Battle of Britain and the devastation of Europe. Whole human civilizations have met huge challenges in response to climate change and political circumstances many times in the past.

    We must raise our kids to understand the challenges they face and teach them to make smart decisions.

    What’s the alternative? To paint a falsely rosy picture? To lie to them? It’s up to us to show them the sanest paths possible to follow.

  3. IANVS says:


    Annette & fear of loud booms? You didn’t have a Zorro mask & cape too?

  4. Joe says:

    It’s Bill’s post, not mine.
    Annette never did anything for me. Diana Rigg, on the other hand….

  5. Ronald says:

    Why is it that the 2 countries of Germany and Briton are the leaders in the fight against global warming? Because they suffered from World War II and after a whole lot more than the United States. America has this triumphal attitude, we will win, we can’t be touched. These countries know they can be touched with catastrophe.

    In some ways, the global warming problem will be worse psychologically than the cold war, because a person can always think, am I doing enough, why don’t any of my friends care, I see all these SUV’s driving by at 70 miles an hour and more, what the hell are they doing. Maybe I should do more. I haven’t told enough people. They need to get involved, I need to do more.

    That was my rant of what somebody might feel about global warming. How to resolve the doing something now when the really bad things happening 20 and 40 years from now and to few are listening. These problems are all the same as personal health, am I overweight or should I stop smoking, nothing bad is happening to me now. It’s a tough question on when people get scared from the message and are just scared or scare people into action. Good luck to answering that question.

  6. Lynne Cherry says:

    I happened to find this website while searching for information about how much CO2 we can remove from the atmosphere from tree planting & protecting rain forest and other mature forests. The list is for the back of the book I’m finishing up–about things kids can do. It shows how much co2 can be stopped from entering the atmosphere through a million kids encouraging their parents to get energy-efficient cars and appliances, contacting their elected officials and working to pass anti-idling bills in their states. There really is a tremendous amount of potential for limiting the CO2 going into the atmosphere. Kids need to know that there are things that they can do. Empowerment is the best antidote for dispair.

    As an author of childrens’ books (The Great Kapok Tree, A River Ran Wild and 30 others) I really took to heart Bill B.’s comments. I am workikng on a book entitled How We Know What We KNow about our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming. Our goal was to present the science of climate change in a way that is engaging and hopeful and focuses on citizen-science and all the positive things that scientists and citizen scientists have done. For example, Susan Solomon, one of the scientists in the book, discovered the cause of the hole in the ozone. The story of getting rid of ozone depleting chemicals is a positive model. So is the creation of the Endangered Species Act.

    And I wanted to let Earl Killian know that I’ve written another very different book similar to the one he suggested–about a world where we chose the right path and did the right thing.. It’s a vision of the world as we wish it would be. But, I agree, that unfortunately, many people need the vision before they can get motivated to work toward making it reality.

    Lynne C.

  7. Tim Bousquet says:

    Lynn– please read Joe’s post on tree planting:

    The First Rule of Carbon Offsets: No Trees

  8. Shannon says:

    Ironically, according to DeSmogBlog, this topic was what Dr. Klaus Martin-Schulte was assigned to write on for the Energy and Environment Journal, according to its editor. (For the GW insiders to chew on)

    I was just chatting with a colleague in Georgia this morning who is paralyzed by guilt about her emissions from her huge home and trips to Europe. This is a real problem.

  9. Ronald says:

    Wow, how do you write a children’s book about this issue.

    The hardest part is the politics and economics of the thing. Parents of children want to have money so they can buy their family houses and cars and college educations, but the big bad environmentalists want to shut down the coal plants and coal mines so parents have no money. Well, how well received will the book be in a coal mining town or for kids who work in a coal power plant. Gotta tell them about all the wind power jobs people will have and that they and their parents and will have to move.

    “humans can’t take to much reality.” Some smart guy said that like Carl Jung, or something like that, although I don’t think it was him.

    It was easier in the old west when the good quys were the ones with the white hats and the bad quys were the ones with the black hats.

    I am making jokes about writing a children’s book about global warming, but I don’t mean to be rude. I think that is a fine thing you are doing, but the humans don’t understand the science, economics and politics, how are the kids going to be able to sort it out. Just like the adults I suppose, not well.

  10. Earl Killian says:

    To Ronald’s query, “how do you write a children’s book about this issue.” I don’t know Lynne Cherry’s approach, but I would start by considering Ursula K. LeGuin’s advice. Below is an excerpt from her book The Language of the Night.

    But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem—something neither the child nor any adult can do anything about at all? To give the child a picture of the gas chambers of Dachau, or the famines of India, or the cruelties of a psychotic parent, and say, Well, baby, this is how it is, what’re you going to make of it?—that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a solution to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.

    The young creature does need protection and shelter. But it also needs the truth. And it seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to a child about both good and evil is to talk about himself. Himself, his inner self, his deep, the deepest Self. That is something he can cope with; indeed, his job in growing up is to become himself. He can’t do this if he feels the task is hopeless, nor can he if he’s led to think there isn’t any task. A child’s growth will be stunted and perverted if he is forced to despair or if he is encouraged in false hope, if he is terrified or if he is coddled. What he needs to grow up is reality, the wholeness which exceeds all our virtue and all our vice. He needs knowledge; he needs self-knowledge. He needs to see himself and the shadow he casts. That is something be can face, his own shadow; and he can learn to control it and to be guided by it. So that when he grows up into his strength and responsibility as an adult in society, he will be less inclined, perhaps, either to give up in despair or to deny what he sees, when he must face the evil that is done in the world, and the injustices and grief and suffering that we all must bear, and the final shadow at the end of all.

  11. Earl Killian says:

    To Lynne Cherry, who said she had “written another very different book … about a world where we chose the right path and did the right thing”: Are you deliberately trying to tease? It would be nice if told us which one you mean.

    Most speculative fiction these days seems to be distopian, rather than utopian. The last fairly positive speculative fiction I read was After the Deluge by Chris Carlsson. Such books don’t seem that common (Aldous Huxley’s Island is the other one I can think of).

  12. Paul K says:

    We boomers have the shared experience of kneeling next to our schooldesks, hands over heads, ready to take on the blast. Did you ever take the field trip to the Nike Missile site along Lake Michigan?

  13. Earl Killian says:

    Speaking of positives, what is a positive form of “anti-global-warming”? Most terms to describe what we want in climate policy seem to be negative references to current practices, rather than something affirmative. The attractiveness of “sustainable” in my mind is its positive sense, but it is rather broader than the climate. What is the climate-policy positive terminology? It would be better to describe what we are for something rather than describing what we oppose. It is late, so I am probably missing the obvious.

  14. Bill Becker says:


    I missed that field trip to the Nike site. I think my teachers tried to avoid the topic rather than making it even more vivid.