When my daughter was a few weeks old, a wildfire broke out near our home in southwest Colorado. The previous winter had been one of the driest on record, and the fire quickly burned out of control. Each night, as smoke crept through the cracks of our home, I cradled Josephine’s tiny body and worried about her developing lungs. Eventually we fled.
Drought and wildfires are intensifying as the climate warms, and scientists say they’ll only get worse. According to the most recent federal climate report, just under half of the United States is experiencing some degree of drought, including 88 percent of the West, which is seeing record-breaking heat waves and water shortages. The same types of unsustainable human behaviors driving climate change are also polluting the world with plastic, wreaking havoc in our oceans, and pushing roughly a million plant and animal species toward extinction. A colleague recently told me that her five-year-old was “seriously bereft” after learning about extinction; she grieved the loss of animals she’d never seen as acutely as she might grieve the loss of a pet.
Clearly, our children are affected both physically and emotionally by the mess we’ve made of our planet. So how do we talk to them about climate change, wildfires, extinction, and other sources of ecological grief? How do we explain these issues in ways that are honest and easy to grasp but don’t leave our children mired in despair?
To get some guidance, I called Emily Fischer, an atmospheric scientist with Colorado State University and cofounder of Science Moms, a nonpartisan group that provides information to help families understand and combat climate change. Fischer also has two daughters, ages six and nine, and like my family, they’ve been impacted by wildfire: after literally running from a fire on a backpacking trip last year, her daughters are now afraid to be in the backcountry. Here’s how Fischer has helped them process that trauma and understand the realities of our warming world.
Validate Their Feelings
Brushing off children’s ecological grief as melodramatic—or trying to cheer them up by changing the subject—sends the message that the situation isn’t dire or even that nature isn’t worth saving. Instead, teach them that nature is precious by validating their feelings. When Fischer’s older daughter came home from school crying after learning about climate change, Fischer told her, “Yes this is real, and yes that’s an appropriate reaction. This is that big of a deal.” It’s totally fair for children to feel sad, scared, or angry about issues that affect their own well-being and that of places and animals they love.
Use Outside Resources
Children learn best through stories, and there are plenty of age-appropriate books, TV shows, and other resources that can help them grasp environmental issues. For teaching young kids about climate change and extinction, check out The Tantrum That Changed the World, The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge or The Lonely Polar Bear. The website Social Justice Books also maintains a list of recommended books about climate justice and environmental issues for children, organized by age group. And for teens—who may already know more about these topics than you do—Fischer recommends pointing them toward trusted first hand sources like NASA or NOAA so they can see the data for themselves, rather than read someone’s interpretation of it on social media.
Give Them a Sense of Agency and Hope
One thing Fischer emphasizes when talking to her own kids about climate change is that the problem can be fixed if we take action now. “I remind them that we caused it and we know the solution and the solution is that we stop burning fossil fuels,” Fischer says. She also explains that while real change requires global shifts in policy and energy production, individual actions also matter. Depending on kids’ ages, things like walking or biking to school, eating less meat, expressing themselves through art, sharing information through school projects, or even writing to elected officials are all ways they can help.
Most kids will eventually learn about climate change and extinction in school or from the media, so start preparing them beforehand. “Even preschoolers are ready to start learning about responsibility for the planet,” Fischer says. For them, begin by teaching them to love nature (by spending time outside!), which will inspire them to want to protect it. You can also explain to them that a lot of things people use, like our cars, pollute the air, which is bad. And don’t forget to reassure them that you’re working to make the planet safe and clean.
Eventually, your kids are bound to ask questions that you don’t know the answers to, and it’s best to hold off on answering until you can find accurate information. You can also prepare for their inevitably wise queries by reading books like All We Can Save, a collection of essays by women who work on climate change. And give yourself the same grace you give your kids—find reasons to be hopeful and joyous even in the face of devastating news.
Lead Photo: Rob And Julia Campbell/Stocksy