Talking with young people about climate change

by Diana Ellis

Our planet Earth is now home to over 7 billion people. UN statistics tell us that just over one-quarter of those people are children under the age of 14. In another 20 years the world population will be 8.5 billion of which one-third will be children.

These children will be living in a world much changed from the one to which we have became accustomed. It will be several degrees warmer in many countries, wetter in others. It could be stormier or drouthier, depending on where they live. Some will experience rising seas and more floods, others will be subject to water shortages, vanishing forests, fauna and flora, and fewer wild places. How will we communicate with our children and with those of others about these coming changes?

On March 1, 2018, the Suzuki Elders held a salon in Vancouver to specifically examine the question of talking with younger people about climate change. In preparation for the salon we surveyed some parents and youth about their experiences and feelings of either talking with their own kids about climate change or being on the receiving end of information about climate change. We share here 12 hopefully insightful, sometimes amusing, stories from those interviews and surveys.

We start with a funny story – also a bit wrenching! This father’s children are now ages 11 and 13 – but he shared this anecdote about his son at age 4. It shows how much our little ones pick up from adult conversation…and children’s songs!

When my son was age 4, I brought him in to work one Saturday as I had to attend a board meeting at the environmental organization where I work. During the break he found a large beach ball ‘globe’ of the planet. He took it, raised it above his head, ran into the board room and yelled at the top of his lungsWe gotta cool this planet down – we’re all gonna die!!!

Now, I’d never spoken to him directly about climate change – at that age I hadn’t wanted to burden him. But we had learned Raffi’s “Cooling down the planet” song – so he might have picked up the phrase there. Or maybe he had just overheard me talking. They are SO perceptive! Needless to say, the board members teased me no end when I said I hadn’t put him up to doing this!

This is from a woman who works in the environment field. She is an indigenous person and brings that perspective to bear in conversations with her children.

My children and I always talk about climate change but, if you ever asked them, they would probably not even realize that that’s what I am teaching them. My two youngest children are ages 11 and 13 so they are old enough to process information about their responsibilities to Mother Earth. I admit that I rarely use words like “climate change” to my children. I prefer to use terms like “our relationship with” or “our responsibilities towards” Mother Earth. To me that language is important because it doesn’t allow a person to feel privilege or entitlement. It clearly defines our role as caretakers of the land – an interdependent and inter-connected symbiotic relationship with the Earth. My children know that we have big responsibilities towards Mother Earth. That was drilled into my head as a child and I drill that into my children’s minds. To be a good Onkwehonwe person you respect and protect Mother Earth. So, to help them understand, I tell them stories.”

These are words from a student who is now in university. He remembers his first experience of learning about the environment in high school– and how that learning progressed over the years from simple actions to complex analysis. From this we see the value of the learning opportunities provided by schools, teachers, and fellow students.

I first learned about environmental stuff from a teacher in 7th grade. It wasn’t about climate change, it was environment in general – how to take care of the place where you live – home, school. We learned about recycling. I started a trash pickup program at school. We had a younger teacher who was very keen, taught us advocacy, ways to be active – including writing the principal!!! This was all ‘entry level’ environmental awareness. Climate change as a topic came later, through the environment club at high school in 9th grade. Then, knowing that climate change was an issue, we began to do something about changing behaviour (consumption) and attitudes (transit) – and asking “what difference can WE make?” We did not talk about the impacts of climate change on the planet until a bit later.

This parent remembers his two daughters when they were younger – and their different responses to his activism. The story speaks to the importance of adults being aware of what we say “out loud” and how the varying personalities of our younger people need to be taken into account.

Our problem has always been to avoid our rants of frustration in front of the children – and we learned this when we tried to get one of our daughters interested in doing something at school. I think she was about 8 or 9 and she replied “why should I do anything?” We were shocked and asked why and she said “I know what you and Mommy say. It’s too late.” She had watched her older sister who was always galvanized to do something, but she only heard our frustration and felt disempowered by it. I’ll tell you, their mother and I were shocked and ashamed that we had loaded this on a child. We vowed never again to talk about these issues in front of the children unless we were talking about what can be done about them.”

These three parents describe how they respond to the first questions they had from their 11/12 year olds and one five year old.

In recent years my kids have shown worry. They watch the wildfires and ask if it is about climate change – – it is concerning to them. I say “yes it is, and this is why we need to do (and I describe some actions) …how do you feel about that? And then I listen to them.”

“My daughter asked me about climate change herself after watching documentaries like “A plastic ocean” and “Blackfish”. She seems concerned about it. I find it helps to focus on what each of us can do – changing our consumer habits, talking to others who are not as aware about recycling, using transit, eating less meat etc.

I showed my son (age 5) the starving polar bear video. I tried to explain to him why it was like that. I asked, “What do you think we could do?” He said “Put notes on our neighbour’s cars to tell them to drive less and help the polar bears”. I showed him the video about the impact of plastic straws on the turtles! We decided we’d live without plastic straws so at home we have stainless steel ones. I don’t tell him we need to save the world or anything. We talk about how it’s sad and then I ask, what do you think WE could do. I do struggle with placing so much emphasis on this since he’s a little kid. I don’t want him to get too depressed or think he needs to do all the fixing, yet our household does hold certain values and he’s learning about why. For example, he’s 5 and doesn’t know what Kleenex is because we’ve always used hankies.

These words come from a student who has received support and encouragement from his parents who grew up in another country. His story is an example of the importance of taking cultural differences into account, and how children and parents can respectfully educate one another.

The older persons that I talk to the most re climate change have been my parents. I am involved in sustainability at school and I share what I learn with them, asking what they think. They are good at listening to me and giving thoughtful response based on their own upbringing and experience.

Often what ties the topic of climate change to my parents, especially my father, is from their childhood. He grew up in far less developed circumstances than me  and talks about how animal products were luxuries and not an everyday food item. He humorously described how he once received a boiled egg as a birthday gift and was extremely excited and happy about it. When I talk about climate change and environmental issues being linked to social and economic issues my father responds well, linking those issues to what he experienced firsthand growing up in China. He encourages me to keep going on this path in a way that combines his perspectives and mine”.

The remarks from this father show how he tries to avoid a black/white viewpoint when talking with his child.

When my daughter asks me why climate change is happening, I tell her it is a natural cycle that people have sped up with all the carbon we put in the atmosphere. I try to balance things out by adding that people need employment to provide for their families so our first world economy is necessary but that we need to slowly and continuously move to less harmful industries.

This person has given thought to the ‘scary’ fears about talking to children about climate change. His children are in their early teens. He shares some useful DO’s and DON’T’s

I think It is overblown that we can frighten people with these conversations. Being falsely gentle is not a good idea. Instead, I say “this is the problem, and here’s where we need to go with it…” Tailoring stories can be problematic, kids don’t like to be played with. I’ve learned that one of the beautiful things about the developmental level of children is that they can only process what they can process – at whatever age they are at. I think any good conversation should explore, explain. Start with what is right there and go with your thought. It should not be a lecture.

 Do: Challenge their current level of understanding with slightly more complex issues to help them grow. Show them examples in the real world like changes in weather patterns, dykes along flood plains etc. Watch documentaries on Netflix or DVDs from the library on various issues such as the significant effect of the meat and dairy industry on global warming etc.

 Don’t: Try not to demonize certain industries. Tell them about the shifting scene over time, and that people were not aware of the impact on the environment before. Now that we do have the information, we need to act. On the other hand…also be truthful about the companies etc. You can talk about what Exxon did – it is documented, and they continue to do it and this is not good. The company needs to take responsibility and we can push them. I say to them that humans do have the ability to NOT take action – you have to be encouraged to act – ourselves, and others.

Here is another student with an immigrant background. In this case most of his support and encouragement does come from school, but there are core values he shares with his family.

My grandparents were immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China way back when. They came to Canada for a better place for us kids. In the traditional Chinese household, environment comes last – and – because they did not want to show disrespect for the country they had moved to, they were not particularly interested in my Canadian environmental concerns. They are already sustainability oriented – but intentionally unintentionally if you know what I mean. They were taught not to waste food, to use jars, containers. I learned that from them as a child. So overall I was more supported by schools – teachers, friends. I naturally fell into the circles of friends who ‘got it.” It was all about the teachers who supported us, saw our interest – and then they went the extra mile. They took us hiking, did field trips, encouraged us – and worked to help our interest spark.

This student did not have the same positive experience with her teachers, but almost because of that, she started to organize with other students. Now in her twenties, she remains active in the environmental field.

In Grade eight the teachers were proactive and honest in sharing what the state of the world was. It was pretty depressing – not very hopeful. I couldn’t believe that these adults knew it was happening, and how dire it was, but they were not visibly doing anything about it! At the time I felt curious, outraged, sad, and also felt an urgent need to act. Hence my first big effort – organizing a sustainability conference in Grade 9. From those memories I now urge adults – teachers – whoever, to share information about climate change with compassion, and with empathy about how horrifying it is to learn about. Always have some actions ready for what young people can do.

Another student with a different learning experience can now provide practical tips for any adult talking and/or working with younger people about climate change.

Looking back, what we heard from teachers was never about doom and gloom – we already get that message from the news every day . For us young people the message has to be about “what are we doing to do about it?” We don’t even need the science at a young age – it can be simplified down. For example, it would be better to say “if and when climate change kicks in we might not be able to feed everybody – so how do we change that – – what will that look like?” For example – an adult might say “eating less meat makes a difference – so let’s do meal planning together.” We don’t need to produce more cynics, we need more progressiveness in moving the issue forward. How can we do small stuff day to day to make a difference, and then we move into the larger stuff. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – – Maslow’s hierarchy of action!

This story is about people younger than ourselves who are NOT children – these people are in their 30’s. We tell it today because….well……when you hear you will understand.

Two years ago our environmental organization had an all staff retreat. On request, one of the break-out sessions dealt with something we seldom talk about – the emotional weight of what we do in our work. Towards the end, things got quite emotional – and the issue was children. Participants said they just didn’t know what to say to children about what they know about the environment, or described guilt over leaving a worse legacy behind.

Some viewed this as a reason not to have children of their own at all. They said “we know we were given this legacy, we didn’t create it, but we haven’t fixed it….is it a safe world to bring children in to?” ”we can’t imagine the feelings that our children would have about this world we are leaving them...

No solutions were proposed in that session, nor could there be – it was only an hour. But out of it a couple of people then organized what they called “good grief” sessions for staff – guided discussion groups that met over several months at work. My analysis is this – our environmental sector is based in science so we remove ourselves – we stick to the facts. We plug along not really thinking of how the work will affect us – but it does . This good grief group was useful therapy for what I call the low level perpetual stress of having this knowledge, and I think it needs to be built in to the culture of environmental groups, for staff and volunteers.”

… and finally

After telling the stories, we asked participants to give us one word or phrase to express their feelings on hearing them. Here’s what they said:


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