OPINION: Telling My Children About Climate Change

by Sarah Wolpow

My 12-year old has just asked to participate in another weekly activity thirty minutes away. I try a quick rebuff: “You’re already too busy and it’s too expensive.”

With more than a bit of adolescent attitude, she replies, “You just don’t want to take the time to drive me.”

I look at the clock. It’s past 7 p.m. We haven’t eaten dinner, and unfinished homework clutters the kitchen table. There is never a perfect moment to get into the real nitty gritty of why and wherefore. Still, sometimes you have to take the time to give your kids an honest answer to their questions.

“Yes, you’re partly right,” I tell her, and her sister too, who has now wandered in. “I don’t especially want to spend more time carting you around. But there is another reason. Every time we get in the car we contribute to climate change. By the end of this century – and you may both still be around – climate change is likely to make conditions for life on earth drastically different from what they are today.”

I pause. 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.

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 us 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.

Well then, my children ask, shouldn’t we do something about it?

I tell them they are already helping by riding their bikes and walking around town, by delighting in hand-me-downs rather than shopping trips, by eating local spinach rather than asking for processed foods from afar.

Although this cheers them up a bit, they are smart enough to know that a few leaves of spinach are not going to fix a whole lot. By the end of the conversation, they’re in tears.

Like every parent, I want my children to believe their futures are full of hope and promise. Yet at some point they also need to look with clear eyes at the world around them. Without that, where will the motivation come from to make anything better?

Still, our own family’s behavior is riddled with inconsistencies. Save the planet by biking to school, but drive two hours for a ski weekend. Buy local greens at the farmer’s market then wash them down with inexpensive California red wine, trucked from 3,000 miles away.

Humans, however, can live with inconsistency. So I tell my kids what I tell myself. “For today, pick one action to work on. Turn off the lights when you come downstairs. Nudge yourself.” I’m a nudger.

But in my heart of hearts I know that we need world-changers, not nudgers, and I don’t know where to send my children for training.

Sarah Wolpow writes a regular environmental column for the Maine Times Record and blogs at http://swolpow.wordpress.com. She lives in Brunswick, Maine. © Blue Ridge Press 2012.

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6 comments for “OPINION: Telling My Children About Climate Change

  1. JS
    December 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I agree with ryal001. The climate scaremongering that you, and a great many others, have taken so seriously is based on a few things. One is that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rising, and may even double by the end of the century. Two is that this gas absorbs and emits in the infra-red region. Three is that computer models, while unable to model the CO2 directly, have been run to show projections of alarming temperature rises. Points one and two are very convincing, but by themselves are not cause for alarm. A doubling of CO2 levels might well produce no more than 1C rise in global mean temperature, and that would be net-beneficial. The models on the other hand are known to be incapable of modelling key aspects of the climate system such as clouds, and indeed such as CO2 emissions – these are not modelled, but their presumed effect is. So far the model projections for temperature look to be way on the high side, and other aspects of the models have also been found to have very serious problems. So much so that they should not be used for forecasting and therefore for practical guidance. Yet there has been a concerted effort to act as if they were, orchestrated in part by the IPCC. Unfortunately, this body is not worthy of our trust. It very much looks like the computer-based speculations about the importance of more CO2 are way off the mark. If I were you, I’d tell your children to ignore them. Tell them some grown-ups are easily scared by their imaginings, just as most children are, but that checking out the facts and doing some thinking for themselves can drive those fears away.

  2. ryal001
    August 15, 2012 at 7:08 am

    I’m sure that your views are honestly held, but it’s sad that in this day and age you choose to frighten your children this way. When I was young it was nuclear war which frightened us. Only this was, and still is, a more real threat than global warming.

    There are plenty of published, peer reviewed, studies demonstrating that almost everything you said is not true. Certainly hurricanes and tornadoes are not getting stronger or more frequent, droughts are not increasing or lengthening (the 1930s were far worse in America), floods are no worse than they have ever been and the sea level is not rising faster than it has in the last 150 years and is exceedingly unlikely to rise 6 feet in the next 100 years.

    There has been a slight warming in recent decades. However, this is to be welcomed as it is beneficial to almost all life on the planet. You are scaring your children over model projections that are not panning out. It’s time to re-evaluate and raise your children to enjoy and contribute to all the benefits of living in the world’s leading democracy, not resile from it as if their mere presence is a sin against nature.

  3. climatehawk1
    August 14, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Great column. Thanks for taking the time to tell your children the truth.

  4. Tom in Oregon City
    August 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Actually, a RESPONSIBLE parent would try to motivate their children to take math, physics, chemistry, and biology, so that they can grow up to learn and even discover the facts and contribute something other than hysteria to the discussion. IRRESPONSIBLE parents merely parrot one side or the other, with no direct, first-hand understanding of the debate or the myriad variables at work, and without the essential caveat of the scientist: telling them not to just trust your word on it, but to study for themselves, from as many sources as possible, and ask questions. So, panic your kids with repeated stories, or arm them to understand the issue for themselves? Which is truly responsible?

    • Carbonicus
      August 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm

      Rhetorical question. Anyone with a brain already knows the answer.

      And you hit the nail on the head. Here’s the debate. Here are the facts. Here are the scientific theories at issue. Here is the underlying science necessary to settle the debate. Read what both sides say. Read the facts. Study the science. Make up your own mind. Don’t be little sheeple.

      Great post. I knew there was intelligent life in NJ. Thanks for demonstrating it.

  5. Jack Savage
    August 14, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Truly responsible parenting.
    I used to enjoy scaring the bejasus out of my child, too! I used to say there were giant flesh-eating spiders that came out at night from his wardrobe when he was sleeping…but the “climate change” bogeyman seems just as effective as a way of reducing them to tears.

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