What To Tell The Kids

A moving and thought-provoking essay by Sarah Wolpow at The Daily Climate (an excellent but very old-fashioned aggregator site which irritatingly has no RSS feed or comment sections), on the subject of communicating with one’s children on climate change, and touching on the simultaneous inadequacy and necessity of small steps toward sustainability.

It’s gloomy stuff, the state of the environment. Usually I try not to dwell on scientists’ pessimistic planetary forecasts. Nobody, including me, really wants to hear it. Nobody wants to read about it over morning coffee and a doughnut. Nobody wants to tell their kids about it.

Yet I plunge ahead. I tell them that they have just lived through the hottest decade ever recorded. I tell them that recent flooding submerged one fifth of the land surface of Pakistan, washing away 7,000 schools.

I tell them that the Arctic is melting, that hurricanes are getting stronger, droughts are lengthening, and rainfall records are being shattered. Within their lifetimes, sea level could rise by 6 feet, or more, submerging the world’s coastal cities.

The children are quiet. Finally they ask if our house, a few miles inland from the Maine coast, will be okay. This question, in its innocent disregard either for the welfare of others, or for the fact that if the world disintegrates around them it won’t matter if their house is okay, seems to reflect a child’s perspective.

But it’s how we adults think too: Sure, catastrophic drought struck Texas last year and the Midwest this summer. But here in the Northeast global warming so far has mostly meant warmer winters. In other words, our house and family are fine.

More at the link.


  1. That is a great example of where the deficit model fails. The kids are given the information but it has no effect because they are only concerned about how it will affect them.

    Telling the public that "Carbon is forever; The next ice age has already been cancelled; CO2 disrupts directly; etc " will have no effect on them either. They must be told that the global warming means more droughts and higher food prices, that the melting sea ice will cause those droughts and floods, and will speed up the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets so flooding every port, and hence most of our great cities.

    The problem is that the scientists themselves don't believe that. On RealClimate Eric opposed threatening the deniers with international trials believing that the idea is ridiculous. He obviously does not believe that global warming is going to lead to floods, droughts and famines with the loss of millions perhaps billions of lives. Unless the real dangers are pointed out to the citizenry, they will not see the need for urgent action, especially since it will require economic disruption. Dealing with Climate Change means an end to BUA (business as usual) 🙁

  2. At first glance I thought this post was about "what to tell the kids" as in "how do we explain handing our kids the keys to a house that we've reduced to ashes" or "my will says you inherit all my real property, goods and chattel, but I gambled it all away in Las Vegas."

    More to the point, my son appears to be a victim of uncoordinated communication by a plethora of teachers as well as his parents, with the result that his outlook with regard to the future of the world is simultaneously hopelessly gloomy and outraged, and he's unwilling to learn more details of his upcoming degradation into a more cockroach-like existence. He doesn't feel he has any control over the situation and-- if I look to my own influence and am honest-- he's correct.

    The boy has been flooded with messages of past and ongoing environmental destruction, historical and future irresponsible extinction of various species, feckless selfishness of aloof industrialists, obliviousness of consumers and their ignorance of hidden costs, really an almost endless list of folly. As I say, "flooded" in the psychological sense, to the point that while he's entirely for remedying our lengthy toilet roll list of failings he does not seem even slightly hopeful about it and certainly does not want to hear about more desperate situations in need of his intervention.

    Why? Perhaps because the majority of teachers he's been exposed to have conscientiously attempted to educate him about the state of the modern world, and meanwhile at home due to professional reasons and personal proclivities of his parents he's had the same experience.

    Unfortunately, none of us grownups bothered to check on what darkness everybody else was jamming into the space between the kid's ears. Result: dismal. He's clearly in a mode of creating a hermetic bubble of inner peace, taking a timeout that may well last for decades. Who can blame him?

    Tread lightly and make sure you're not just one of a bag of hammers showering down on that little mind as it's trying to rise up. Children can't be sponges to soak up our anxieties.

  3. I should add that children perhaps don't need to be given ownership and responsibility at a young age for specific problems not of their own making.

    A sense of fairness, capacity for directed outrage, willingness to step up and act are all general skills, learned by modeling general behavior patterns. When I think of my own parents those versatile abilities are the best things they gave me with regard to dealing with the messes we tend to make, not attachment to Cesar Chavez or the Canadian Liberal Party or any of the extensive list of their social, environmental or political passions.

    Do what you will, your children will watch and learn from you. They'll decide their own priorities when they grow up. They have to, lest you both fall into the ageless and cruel trap of your trying to live vicariously through your offspring.

    You have to trust your children to choose wisely once they've learned the skills to do so, as much as you trust yourself and know your own worth.

    Pile on the freight too soon and those little bones might snap before they've had a chance to grow strong enough to take the load.

  4. Doug, how are adults any different?

    Isn't it exactly the problem that we so much can't handle the terror of what we are doing to ourselves that we tell ourselves old fairy tales about bankers and admirals and movie stars and pirates and kings?

  5. Adults also saturate fairly easily, at least according to research, and I do think that explains a lot of what superficially appears to be insouciance about the climate crackup or induced wreck. Perhaps some denskepticons are in this mode, blustering instead of looking the other way?

    What I know suggests that children are more fragile than adults, can more easily lose perspective, that we grownups are equipped with a rich fund of remembered historically stupid behavior followed by heroic diving catches that helps us avoid obsession or despair, gives us cause for hope.

    Nothing on this potential scale, though, come to think of it, and perhaps that's why we're making new history when it comes to contorted attempts to ignore facts. Oops, just articulated my way out of a comforting wisp of myopia. Dang.

    I stick with "be kind to your children, realize they hear things differently, don't load them with guilt and responsibility for a crime they did not commit, don't destroy their optimism, don't cause their hope to be stillborn."

  6. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, August 26, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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