Talking with Children About Climate Change

By Michael Dover and Rebecca Reid Gazette Contributing Writers

Here is a hypothetical tale of two elementary-school teachers, both teaching a unit about energy and the environment. Both explain what the term “fossil fuels” means and discuss the consequences of burning them—air pollution, acid rain, smog and climate change. One teacher goes on to describe the potentially disastrous effects of climate change around the world. The other moves the conversation to alternative fuels for cars and different ways of producing electricity, after which the students brainstorm ways of conserving energy at home and in school.

The teachers both care deeply about climate change and its effects. They both want their students to become environmentally aware and active citizens as adults. One elaborates on the problem, while the other focuses on solutions. The former approach is based on what scientists know or can realistically foresee; the latter engages the children’s imagination and creativity. What can parents learn from these examples?

The predicted consequences of climate change are serious and scary—extinction of species, flooding of coastal areas, droughts, disruption of ocean currents, threats to agriculture and fisheries, to name just a few. As adults we’re aware of the magnitude of the challenge and the political difficulties the world faces in trying to respond; feelings of despair and helplessness are natural when we consider the enormity of the problem. Children, however, are unlikely to comprehend something this huge. So how do we give them both understanding and hope?

Age-appropriate approach

Recently we sat down with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment’s educators—Casey Beebe, Colleen Kelley, Micky McKinley, Helen Ann Sephton and Ted Watt—to discuss that question, looking for ideas that parents can use to talk about climate change with children. We were surprised by their answer to our first question: Do children ask you about climate change or global warming? They all agreed that children rarely ask. Mostly, they said, children are likely to simply accept climate change as part of their lives, not thinking of it as catastrophic or even unusual. They tend to blame bad things on climate change, Colleen said. “They see a dead toad on the trail and they say global warming killed it.”

When we asked whether children seem to have fear about global warming, the subject turned to age- appropriate conversation and teaching.

“Young children don’t think globally,” Micky pointed out. Talking about the possible extinction of a species due to climate change doesn’t get heard as an important ecological indicator but as a kind of personal loss, like the death of a beloved pet. They may grieve but they won’t know what to do.

Everyone agreed that, for young children, the most important thing to do is instill in them a love of nature. As children learn more about what is around them, Casey said, they can also begin to learn about the interconnections that make up the web of life and how dependent we are on the living systems of which we’re a part. They begin to care.

Several Hitchcock staff stressed the importance of talking with kids about solutions and encouraging their inventiveness. Without needing to know the details of climate change, they said, children understand the value of preserving local food systems and reducing fossil fuel use, two ideas that can engage their imaginations to generate creative ways of achieving both goals. The solutions don’t all have to be “realistic” in the eyes of adults; the purpose is to give children a sense that they can take part in taking care of their world. Micky put it simply: “We want kids to be empowered, to think about what they themselves can do.”

As children enter the middle-school years, they’re ready to take on a bigger picture. At this age it’s possible to discuss the causes and consequences of climate change, but again it needs to be age-appropriate and tap their natural optimism. Ted stresses focusing first on evidence. The science of climate and the models used to make predictions are quite complex, but much of the evidence (e.g., records from tree rings and ice cores, changes in species distributions and growing seasons, retreating glaciers) is relatively easy to explain and illustrate. If they already have a connection to the natural world, these outcomes will have meaning to these children. The challenge is to present such evidence in ways that encourage greater involvement in solutions rather than triggering hopelessness. One way, Helen Ann said, is to emphasize that there are many adults working very hard to solve the problem.

So what can parents do when faced with these questions? The group agreed on several suggestions. Inform yourself. Get your children outside. Instill a love of the natural world and a belief in creative solutions, including those that you can start right at home. Finally, tackle the questions as a family and be positive models for your children.

Resources for talking about climate change

On the Web

Books

(This list is from a web search for relevant titles. We have not read or reviewed these books. Some are available in local libraries.)

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and member of the Hitchcock Center board. Rebecca Reid is the Hitchcock Center photographer.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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