When my son overheard a radio report about the massive fires in Australia, the first thing I said was “It’s not the end of the world.” Which is true. Australia, like California, has had wildfires for as long as it has existed.
I didn’t expect his follow-up question. He immediately asked about the status of the Red Kangaroo, his “second-favorite animal.” I told him I didn’t know a lot about the species range and that Australia is a very big place, but added that I knew koalas and kangaroos were being affected. Both of my children moaned with sadness.
That conversation, as awkward and painful as it was, taught me something about talking to kids about climate change and what’s likely to come: Give them a sense of agency. The world doesn’t end all at once, but parts of it are slipping away every day. Species. Habitats. Untold lives and ways of life. There’s no time to wait, but there is time to do something.
With animal and plant populations crashing (birds, insects, amphibians) and the effects of climate change manifest—1000-year-floods every few years, the Atlantic lapping at Miami apartment blocks, the wildfire smoke in Minnesota transforming the sun into an angry presence—I freely admit that I had second thoughts about bringing children into the world. But I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to think this or part of the first generation to reckon with real threats. War, disease, and potential disaster are all constants.
The difference today, however, is that parents bringing children into the world have to grapple with the reality that much of what we love is on the verge of becoming the stuff of storybooks or histories. Our children stand to inherit less and less.
That’s how I’ve explained climate change—and the fires in Australia—to my kids. The animals that kids are most familiar with are also some of the most threatened: giraffes, pandas, whales. Kids almost instinctively understand absence so endangered or vulnerable animals are one of the best ways to convey how much we’ve hurt the Earth and to make the threat of further harm immediate and, perhaps more importantly, actionable.
After reading up on the Australian fires, and learning that half a billion animals may have perished in the fires, including many koalas (and yes, red kangaroos), I brought the subject up with my son again. I spared him the specifics, but I told him the fires had hurt kangaroos, koalas, and many, many people. He did what kids do: He was sad for a moment then asked how we could help. I told him we’d donate to help the animals in this fire. We donated to Australia’s WIRES Wildlife Rescue.
I told my son that the donation was a token at best, that it wouldn’t put out the fires or save all the animals, but also that it was something. I told him that a lot of people would have to do much more after the Australian fires are extinguished and that we, as a population, need to mount a real effort to stem carbon emissions and combat climate change. He gets it. The question now is whether we’ve all learned our lesson too late.
Brett Ortler is the author of a number of books, including Lessons of the Dead (poetry) and nine nonfiction titles. His writing has appeared in Salon, Yahoo! Parents, Babble, Scary Mommy, and at The Fanzine, among many other venues. A husband and father, his house is full of children, pets, and noise.