By MIRIAM ACZEL
Our climate is changing, and more rapidly and drastically that we thought. While geological evidence shows that Earth’s climate has constantly been changing over geological time, our current period of warming is occurring much more quickly and drastically than past events. Recent satellite data shows that there has been an increase of roughly 3mm per year in recent decades, and much of this increase is due to the thermal expansion of seawater. (As the water becomes warmer, the water molecules become less densely packed, thus leading to greater water volume.) Melting of glaciers and ice sheets is also responsible for the rapidly rising sea levels, as nearly all glaciers are retreating and losing ice mass. Since 1979, satellite data show a drastic reduction in Arctic sea-ice extent at roughly 4% per year. The IPCC’s 2018 report stated that keeping to global surface temperature change by the end of the 21st at 1.5C, relative to 1850levels would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
And even if we are able to make these kind of unprecedented changes to cut greenhouse gas emissions, climate scientists say the effects will continue because many parts of the earth system such as large bodies of water and ice, can take centuries to changes in temperature, and it takes decades for climate-warming greenhouse gases to be removed from the atmosphere.
So all of this means that no matter how much we are able to achieve in the coming years, climate change will inevitably be a reality that our children—and their children, as well as generations to come—will have to contend with. So it’s important to have these conversations, and they lead to both better understanding of and solutions to pressing global issues.
Here are some suggestions for how to talk about climate change to children:
Keep it age-appropriate
Unplugged Magazine suggests that in order to avoid overwhelming children with what can sometimes be overwhelming realities, ‘keep it age appropriate’: “It can be tricky to control the messages that kids receive about climate change. All they need to do is catch a scary news story on TV or the radio to start asking questions you might not be sure how to answer. Your best bet is to keep it honest, but age appropriate.
They also advise focusing on things that can be accomplished as a family that will help the environment, such as reducing consumption of single use goods, recycling more, driving less, eating less meat, and discussing why it is important to make these choices. And once kids are at an appropriate age, it’s a good idea to start looking for relevant volunteer opportunities, and that if children have a particular interest, try to find an opportunity match it.
Turn it into a story
Stories can be an excellent way to convey complex messages. According to children’s author Megan Herbert, storytelling is the first stem of an important three-step process towards positive action: “The theory is that you can entertain children and open up their empathy… A well-told story will get the audience to empathize with its characters and feel their emotions.” Storytelling therefore leads children to the crucial next steps—becoming curious, and then taking action.
Megan Herbert is the coauthor of The Tantrum That Saved the World, written together with Michael Mann, famed climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. The book is an important example of how storytelling can both inform and inspire children.
The project started because, as parents, Herbert and Mann wanted to write a book that would enable talking to kids about pressing climate change issues and what is happening to the planet, without unnecessarily alarming them—or boring them. And most importantly the authors wanted to inspire children to take action about climate change—but were also cautious not to addto the climate problem with the production of the book. Their solution was print the book on 100% recycled materials, using natural soy inks, and manufactured in a printing facility run entirely on renewable energy, with no waste sent to landfills, and offsetting of shipping carbon emissions. According to Mann,“every effort is being made at every stage of production and fulfillment to create a book that not only has a strong message, but that lives and breathes it.” And following the engaging story is an ‘Action Plan’ which lays out “simple and positive steps every person can take to make a real difference and to become the heroes of their own stories.”
Turning climate change issues into stories leads to another great opportunity to start conversations about important issues: read together! Fortunately, there are many books available that can help start conversations about climate change impacts and issues as well as solutions. These books can help explain complex topics in a fun and engaging way.
Here’s a list of some books that discuss climate-related issues, with links included:
Focus on the facts
It’s key to focus on the facts. Science writer Lucy Goodchild van Hilten suggests that while it’s crucial to make sure that we tell kids the difficult truth about our changing climate, this doesn’t mean we need to overwhelm them, but rather can start small. Lucy turned to members of the Facebook group Sustainable Community of Amsterdam for advice on how they talked to children about climate change, and several members explained that they first introduced young children to how natureworks: why water is so important, how trees and plants use carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, and why it’s crucial to care for animals.
According to Dr. Mann, it’s also important not to be ‘falsely optimistic’ or downplay the urgency: “We have to convey the gravity of the situation… fortunately what is true is that an objective assessment of the science does support the message that the threat is dire, and immediate, and the urgency is great, but there is still a path forward where we can prevent catastrophic climate change.”
Let kids become the scientist
As a PhD student researching energy and climate issues, I was excited to learn about an open access academic publication that is meant for kids, and is peer reviewed by kids. Frontiers for Young Minds—science for kids, edited by kids–provides an opportunity for scientists to explain their research in a clear and engaging manner for kids, and the articles go through review and revisions with the help and feedback of young peer-reviewers. I really enjoyed the process of writing my article What Is the Nitrogen Cycle and Why Is It Key to Life? and was particularly interested to hear the elements of this complex cycle that my young readers found most challenging, and what they wanted to learn more about. I plan to contribute other articles about my research and encourage others to do the same. And I highly recommend this important academic resource that introduces kids to important scientific concepts as well as the process of peer review, and is yet another way of sparking constructive dialogue about climate change.
Because kids are naturally curious, it is important to allow them to follow their curiosity to explore the natural world. Citizen science projects can provide another great opportunity for kids to engage with climate change issues, and I will follow up with more on citizen science in a future blog article.
Miriam Aczel is a President’s Scholar PhD Candidate at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy. Her research is on international energy science and policy, with a focus on mitigation of environmental and health impacts of shale gas, greenhouse gas removal technologies, and citizen science and public participation mechanisms. She is also co-founder and co-director of the Amir D. Aczel Foundation for Research and Education in Science and Mathematics, a nonprofit supporting educational programs in Cambodia and beyond.
Miriam is Director of Communications and blog editor for Leaders in Energy.