ddressing Climate change with children should involve three steps. First, creating shared values about the natural world. Second, understanding the basics of climate change and previous successful environmental activities. Finally, acting both individually and communally to make contributions to and engage with those addressing the problem.
CONNECT WITH NATURE
One way to start is to make sure to communicate shared values: the natural world is important both to connect to and to protect. Here in Cork, it is easy to walk with children through the countryside, stop to appreciate both the majestic ocean and frolicking goats, but also to admire the less obvious beauty of spiderwebs or flowers. Explicitly appreciating the environment has benefits beyond making the natural world less abstract.
EXPLAIN THE BASICS
Some parents might be concerned that they don’t understand climate change themselves enough to answer questions. But scientists like Dr Katherine Hayhoe help break down these topics in accessible videos, which can help answer questions for both parents and children. Dr Hayhoe also reminds us that talking about climate change helps signal to both ourselves and others that others care.
However, the basics are not difficult to explain. The key point is that carbon dioxide (CO2) and other “greenhouse gases” reflect some of the energy that the earth radiates to space back down to earth. This prevents the earth from cooling as much as it used to when there were fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Fewer” is a key word here: we need some greenhouse gases to keep the planet habitable. However, especially over the past few decades, humans have dug up and burned enormous amounts of oil which have been buried for millennia.
The new greenhouse gases released from burning this oil radically destabilise the energy balance of the planet and move it away from the globally temperate period that human civilisation has enjoyed over the past few thousand years. When explaining these concepts, some people like to use the metaphor of a “blanket” of greenhouse gases, keeping energy or heat from escaping.
Luckily, not all of this energy goes to heating our environment; some of it is absorbed by oceans and by forests. However, we know that their capacity to absorb this extra energy is finite and even with that extra absorption, we already see major climate impacts in our backyard, such as the July flooding across Western Europe. It is helpful to tie climate change to local effects, or to extreme events elsewhere in Europe.
s well as understanding the basics of climate, learning about the possible pathways and solutions can help parents acknowledge legitimate worries their children may have while avoiding anxiety and hopelessness. For parents of young adults, they can explore humanity’s capacity to achieve a stable climate and learn about how ambitious climate goals can still make a difference.
FOCUS ON SOLUTIONS
For parents of younger children, they can discuss solutions that reflect collective action, such as the story of repairing the hole in the ozone which can serve as a model of international cooperation. In 1987, countries met in Montreal to sign a treaty that protected the ozone layer, whose weakening had just been discovered as a potential environmental threat. Due to coordination between countries, some potential alternatives, and forward-thinking political leaders, this treaty has been a huge success and now includes every country on Earth.
They can also discuss successful conservation efforts involved in protecting species, such as the California Condor, where a captive breeding programme restarted a population that had dwindled to only 27 individuals in 1987.
However, these stories of success should be measured against the real challenges of climate change. As Dr. Elizabeth Hasse reminds us, strong emotions of worry, fear, or anger and the interplay of these emotions can be a mentally healthy response to climate change. Such emotions are appropriate reactions to the current and potential future loss of things both children and adults care about. Downplaying worries or repeating overly optimistic sentiments reassuring children that everything is fine and that they should remain positive can amount to emotional invalidation, which may make it more difficult for children to accept negative emotions, live with the complexity of emotion, and manage difficult situations.
EVERY ACTION COUNTS
Some are concerned that our efforts to reduce emissions are too small to make a difference or unimportant. While it is often the case that coordinating with others has a greater effect, that does not mean that individual contributions do not matter. For one thing, climate change responds to the levels of emissions: your emissions could make subtle differences keeping the effects from reaching some thresholds. For another thing, if you are pessimistic about what others will do, that makes your actions more important, not less. Harmful climate impacts are worse the more greenhouse gases in the system, so if others contribute more, your emissions can be expected to do greater harm than if they did not.
earning is just the start. Having shared these values and explained some of the facts, it is important to make sure that children understand that many people are responsible, but we can also be response-able, meaning that we are agents able to take actions that can contribute, both as individuals and in communities, to addressing it. The goal of these actions is not to stop the problem, but to develop green virtues, attitudes and ways of thinking, as well as a healthy positive attitude. As Dr Myisha Cherry points out, when we are unhappy about climate change, “anger not only demands that things change; it proclaims that change matters.”
How can we be response-able? Parents can start with simple household activities. For instance, families can discuss food composting, which helps address food waste by making it into healthy soil. They can consider cutting back on meat (e.g. “Meat-free Mondays”, as advocated by Tom Hanks and Ringo Starr), especially ruminants like cattle and beef, since such changes in diet can reduce individual emissions significantly. Not only is it healthier to eat more plant-based meals, it is also better for the environment—and it can be cheaper as well.
We can also be response-able in our communites, with initiatives such as tree-planting or rubbish pick-up. For instance, the National Spring Clean, usually in April, is a coordinated effort to clean up the country. Many towns have a Tidy Towns campaign and seaside communities can get involved in Coastwatch or the 2 Minute Beach Clean..
Furthermore, parents can suggest ways to connect to others interested in addressing climate change. This can involve schools, community programs, or even climate actions. Some climate actions involve youth-led movements, such as Fridays for Future, started by the influential Greta Thunberg. Her example helps to demonstrate the possibility that young people can be a force for change, and we have included a video of her speaking in our additional resources.
The key is that habits are formed early, and if children or young people have a sense of connection to the environment, and ways that they can contribute to sustaining it, that can help combat anxiety or powerlessness. Adults can help support children through activities, whether individually or in communities. If our grandchildren look back and ask what we did, raising a generation that understands the challenge—and has the confidence to do something about it—has to be part of the answer.