Climate change can be a scary thing to talk about with grown-ups, let alone children. It is also very complex, with long-term effects that reach into future decades and centuries, and causes that include an invisible, odorless gas. When the president’s top science adviser encounters problems explaining climate change to members of the House Science Committee, the prospect of explaining fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, or ocean acidification to a 5-year-old or pre-teen can seem daunting.
“When we talk to our kids, we have to explain the science of what’s happening,” said Lisa Hoyos, co-founder of Climate Parents, an organization focused on mobilizing families on the issue. “But it’s important to quickly pivot to what we can do to solve it.”
The grassroots organization Moms Clean Air Force hosted a “Play-In for Climate Action” last week, with parents from all over the country rallying in a park north of the U.S. Senate with their children. They played games, danced to music, heard speeches, and then marched to the front of the Capitol building.
Moms attending the event had different perspectives on how they talk to their kids about climate change and pollution. Many did their best to tie it into simple, everyday topics like not being wasteful or leaving things better than how you found them. Some found a way to make climate change real to their kids by monitoring household buying habits and energy consumption. Others got into the details of the science, and their children became the climate enforcers of the household. Some parents admitted they mostly avoided the topic.
“I don’t know how well I’ve done with talking about climate change and pollution to my kids,” said Caroline Armijo, who lives with her two children in Greensboro, North Carolina. “In general I talk about it a lot, but that’s because I work in my community to advocate for coal ash cleanup. So I think my daughter hears about it a lot but I don’t know how great a job I’ve done.”
She asked her 6-year-old daughter, Lucy, if she knew a lot about climate change.
“No,” said Lucy, sitting on the lawn. “I don’t know what that is.”
Her parents then asked her about clean air, clean water, being outside in hot weather, and wasting energy. Lucy became very interested in the grass and said no more.
“Climate change can be kind of scary, especially for her age group,” Armijo said. “For her, because of what she can comprehend as a child, and also the impact it’s going to have on her generation — it feels almost futile. I know it’s not. But you can see the change as it happens.”
Armijo now reads Lucy and her brother children’s books that talk about cleaning the environment, recycling, planting trees, and helping their community. They talk about doing those things in their own lives. Climate change thus far has not been on the agenda.
“I guess I should do a better job of being more direct and trying to talk with her.”
It’s perfectly understandable for a parent to hesitate talking about climate change and the impacts of fossil fuel pollution with young children. A report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica said that children “tend to be especially vulnerable to the psychological impacts of climate change, especially those related to stress and anxiety.”
Some parents, however, can’t avoid it.
“Climate change always comes up,” Victoria Gutierrez, an attendee of the Play-In, told ThinkProgress. Gutierrez lives with her patient and curious 4-year-old son Albino in the San Juan Basin, New Mexico. “We live on the Navajo Nation. We have to protect the water — water’s one of the most important things we have out there.”
Water conservation is also part of the family’s daily life.
“A lot of Navajos, especially younger ones — a lot of friends of mine who think like ‘Why are you conserving water? We’re surrounded by lakes and water.’ That doesn’t mean you waste the water — look at California.”
The San Juan Basin is also the home of the largest methane “hot spot” in the country thanks to coalbed methane production. That, she says, combined with the two major power plants she lives between, and the oil and gas fracking operations that have cropped up in the area, have made climate change and its causes an immediate, tangible presence in her child’s life. He suffers from childhood asthma, as do many other people on the community.
“My area is so concentrated and polluted with, not only carbon pollution from the plants, but fracking pollution, and methane. So it’s all tied in, because we live in a sacrifice zone. There’s a lot of people out there who are sick and dying — cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, asthma. My son has had breathing problems since he was born. Some people say it’s genetic. But it’s not only family members — it’s friends of family members. A lot of people are sick.”
Asked how she talks to her 4-year-old about such serious, scary issues, Gutierrez said, “I talk to him like I’m talking to you.”
“You have to be honest with your child,” she said. “Look at the world we’re raising our children in. It’s not all fun and games. And if you want to prepare your children for the things we’re going to have to be dealing with, you have to start in now.”
“Because otherwise you’re going to have ignorance,” she said, glancing toward the Capitol dome. “You’re going to have ignorant adults who think everything’s a fairy tale land, and it’s not.”
“Young children don’t explicitly know what’s going on, but they’re taking it all in,” she said. “We don’t talk to him about it directly all the time, until he asks certain questions. Children are smart. He’ll say ‘Mama, what is that big smoke, in the sky?’ — and we’ll tell him those power plants are where the pollution comes from. And a lot of the electricity that comes from those power plants… we don’t benefit from it, New Mexico doesn’t get that power.”
It would be a mistake to minimize the role parents talking to their kids about such topics can play. Psychiatric epidemiologist Helen Berry has found that children who do not feel connected to their families and communities risk being more traumatized by climate-related natural disasters than better-connected kids.
Some moms at the event come face-to-face with impacts of fossil fuel use in their day jobs.
“The amount of children that have asthma exacerbations is just repetitive,” Suzanne Fortuna, a nurse in Cleveland, told ThinkProgress. “That means more emergency room visits.” She treats members of the community suffering from asthma, and has noticed an increase that she relates to air pollution and climate change.
Fortuna has a 9-year-old son, Aaron, who got diagnosed with asthma when he was 13 months old. She says she is “lucky” to have the education to stay up on his treatments, but not everyone can do that. Aaron loves to be outside, so asthma flare-ups are a constant battle, as are other less-obvious climate impacts.
“Just recently,” Fortuna continued, “this year in baseball, he got covered in poison ivy because the whole fenced area by the baseball field — it used to just be a little bit but has really proliferated, and I think it’s related to carbon emissions. It’s just making these plants overgrow and become more toxic. Poison ivy can also set off his asthma, too. There are a lot of impacts, it’s all related.”
Poison ivy does indeed thrive in higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, as does poison oak. Fortuna says these impacts add up and make it necessary to adjust her family’s behavior in response.
“Probably in the last five years or so it’s become more recognizable that we have so much that we could do to decrease carbon emissions,” she said. “It’s important to talk to him. From the use of electricity to natural gas, how do we teach him that there are other ways to produce energy, because these are going to be the kids that are going to create that in the future.
“It’s impacting his life so much now, that putting it in his head that we need to be doing things cleaner and better.”
She talks to her son about sea level rise impacting Atlantic beaches her family visits through erosion. “We try to tell him look at what has happened over your mom’s lifespan, and yes it makes him anxious,” she said. “Because then he’s like ‘well that means one day I might not be able to come here at all because it might be gone.’ We have those conversations — take pictures and remember things — but how do we change it so that it doesn’t happen in the future?”
“That’s why Aaron is more proactive about ‘who didn’t turn out the lights’ or ‘who didn’t recycle’ or ‘could we walk instead of ride.’ He brings that up, which I think it good.”
All too often, the numbers — and the journalism — explaining climate change can be boring to adults, let alone children. Yet to some kids, numbers drive the point home.
Melanie Gibbs and her 7-year-old son Bryce live in Boca Raton, South Florida, and climate impacts surround them.
“He happens to love statistics, and math,” she told ThinkProgress at the Play-In event. “We were reading a recent issue of Time magazine, which had loads of these great, colorful infographics, very open and accessible and visual. I was looking at that with him and we were talking about carbon output and what that meant, and when we breathe out that’s carbon dioxide, and the plants absorb that. But now the problem is there aren’t enough plants to match the emissions.”
“I think the key is to not drop all the info on them at one time,” she continued, “just keep the conversation going a little bit at a time. He reads something and he asks us about it or we see something and we tell him about it. It needs to be a daily conversation.”
“He kind of turns into the policeman of the household, makes sure that we’re recycling things, we don’t want to drive too far, walk if we can, turn off lights. He stays on us,” Gibbs said.
Practicality, rather than big concepts or rite of passage “talks” about the birds and the bees, seems to be the name of the game to these parents.
“It starts in the household,” said Natalie Prime, who has three teenagers and lives on Long Island. “You use particular products. It depends who the vendors are, and we buy and use accordingly, always recycle. Simple stuff.”
“We live on an island, surrounded by water” she told ThinkProgress at the Play-In event. The family lost power during Superstorm Sandy, which brought home the reality climate-related disasters.
“The severity of it, nobody tends to take seriously. Fear is not there. Knowledge, awareness, it’s being applied. But the fear’s not there. It’s changing, slowly but surely.”
If the fear of climate change’s impacts isn’t always there, the hope and excitement that accompany the innovation behind low-carbon solutions, often is.
“The budding scientists at the Moms Clean Air Force event, and elsewhere, are captivated and challenged by clean energy technology in the same way that a Sputnik-era generation was fascinated by rocketry,” said RL Miller, cofounder of Climate Hawks Vote. “Today’s kids aren’t building rockets to the moon — they’re building ships with solar sails and they’re racing cars powered by the sun. And they’re getting a real life education in climate politics when their moms talk with their leaders.”
“It’s not a good idea to leave a child in a place of fear,” said Lisa Hoyos of the group Climate Parents. She noted that kids have many real-life examples of youth advocacy — divestment movements in schools, kids serving as plaintiffs in lawsuits, green conventions like Powershift, and groups working with educators like the Alliance for Climate Education.
“The truth of the situation is that we can either absorb the news and feel immobilized or we can absorb it and the get involved in working to implement solutions,” Hoyos said.
Parents raising children today can draw upon the original ecologically-minded child hero, Captain Planet.
In 1992, the premiere episode of the eco-cartoon Captain Planet and the Planeteers was called “Greenhouse Planet.” Its plot involved a villain who denied the existence of climate change, and who had convinced the American president that doing something about this “crazy theory that might not even happen” would be bad for the economy. The solution involved the president on a rocket trip to Venus — which started as the villain’s assassination attempt and ended as an up-close demonstration of a runaway greenhouse effect — but to save the day the protagonists had to have “courage” and switch to solar and wind energy.
Nowadays there are exponentially more resources parents can access to supplement their child’s climate education. These range from games to videos to apps to museum exhibits to sample projects — there are many basic everyday activities to slowly teach the concepts.
Many museums are steadily featuring climate exhibits. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History covers climate change in several of its exhibits. The one that sticks out is a strange exhibit funded by the Koch brothers that features a game allowing visitors to change cartoon humans’ biology to adapt to future climate conditions. While not exactly the video exhibit at the Creation Museum purporting to disprove mainstream climate science, parent-child conversations prior to seeing museum exhibits can make a world of clarifying difference.
To some, there is a deeper purpose behind talking to children about climate science, energy, and the environment. Environmental philosophers like Glenn Albrecht have coined terms like eco-anxiety or “solastalgia” — which he defined as “an emplaced or existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation (desolation) of a loved home environment.”
“We are all struggling to talk about that which is so hard to understand and see,” Albrecht told ThinkProgress via email. “We are ‘now’ people and our children, under our watch, have become ‘instant’ gratification kids.”
“The choice is now between life and death, sickness and health,” he said. “Parents struggle because of their own guilt about a life of excess and its pollution — in all forms.”
The Australian Psychological Society recommends getting kids out in nature, finding something good to do for the environment, listening to their concerns, letting them talk about the environment, finding out what they know and sharing what you know while monitoring what they hear. Finally, they say: give children hope.
Albrecht imagined he would tell his nine-week-old grandchild in a few years’ time “that I have done everything in my power to prevent a nasty future for her and her generation.” He said he had “converted a life from fossil fuel ignorance and maximising to one that minimises everything to do with fossil fuel energy within my means and my value system. I am now carbon neutral or negative and proud of it!”
He said his house has solar rooftop generated electricity with battery storage and solar hot water. All of his water is stored rainwater and all waste is recycled back into the ecosystem. He also grows a lot of his own food and distributes the excess to his community.
“In other words, you cannot tell young children about climate change and a nasty future,” Albrecht continued. “We must tell them about a bright future and how by living in more sustainable ways right now, we can live well and be happy with how we live. We cannot just talk about maybe living a better life, we must demonstrate such a life style and the set of choices needed to attain it.”