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How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change

Without scaring the living daylights out of them.

Jeff Goodell has been covering climate change as a reporter for 20 years, detailing how we humans have brought on and will deal with the planet’s changes with such books as Big Coal, How to Cool the Planet, and, most recently, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. In this insightful, deeply-reported book, Goodell talks about the blind eye planners and citizens turn on cities like Miami, which by some estimates could be underwater in our lifetime and how “the real X-factor here is not the vagaries of climate science, but the complexity of human psychology.” But what if that human is a small one? Goodell, the father of three teenagers, has raised a household that understands the massive problems linked to climate change and has insight on how we can turn this complex topic to our kids. 

Just how do we teach our kids about climate change?
It’s something I think about all the time because I have three kids, two 19-year olds and a 15-year-old and I talk to them about a lot. I feel like my job here articulating the problem as well as I can when it comes to climate change. Because they’re going to be the ones who solve it. It’s going to be the great challenge of their time.

What should “the talk” about climate change look like?
It’s not a birds-and-the-bees thing. It’s an ongoing conversation that one has throughout their life. It starts out with talking about science — in the way that a three-year-old or four-year-old would understand it. You can’t grasp what’s happening without understanding two things: The fundamentals of science and faith in creativity. Those are the two things I try to underscore with my kids. In the past, people have had to deal with all kinds of complicated challenges, from plagues to political revolutions. Dealing with change is what we as humans have to do.

The most dangerous thing you can do as a parent is to pretend it’s not happening.

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How would you tell the story of climate change to younger kids?
One of the ways that kids have a window into the science is through animal stories — about polar bears on the declining ice or birds that have to migrate. In my view, Mother Nature is the greatest storyteller of all. Kids can’t be expected to care for the natural world, much less to understand it, unless they spend some time living in it. I think it’s very important for them to see that nature is not something that’s “out there,” but the fundamental basis of the world we live in. I always felt like it was my job as a parent to make sure my kids see the Milky Way, pick up frogs, swim in lakes and rivers, scramble over boulders, trace the veins on a leaf.

How do you make time outdoors a learning experience?
I’m taking my daughter this spring to the Great Barrier Reef. I want her to come and to see the reef and I want her to have that experience of the beauty of this reef before it goes away. We’re learning all about coral right now and talking about how scientists are working to restore coral; why the great barrier reef is in danger; what coral bleaching is. I’m using it as a broad educational thing.

But you don’t have to go to the Great Barrier Reef or the Greenland glaciers. Just pointing out how the water on the lake is freezing at different times or talking about how natural cycles work and how they’re changing, or why the birds are different here. On the darker side of it, talking about things like the California wildfires is important. Why are there these big fires? Parents can point out there have always been big fires but now because of less rainfall and drier conditions bigger fires are more likely.

Stories about entrepreneurs and inventors and scientists and the miracles of what some of these great inventors have done in the past are really important. These are more essential to the kid than the particulars of climate change.

What do you do when your kid oversimplifies the problem, saying they like beaches and warm weather?
We all love beaches and warm weather. That’s a basic human feeling. That’s why Coastal communities are popular. There’s something very primal about our love of water and warm places. You can say that’s great and I love it too, but as the world warms up, it’s going to bring other not-so-wonderful changes too. It’s going to melt the ice in the Arctic, for example, and Seas are going to rise. Use it as an opportunity to talk about the good things, but also that there’s another side of this that you’re not seeing right here as we’re lying on the beach. Use it as a lever into a larger conversation.

In other words, life’s not a beach.
One of the hard things as a parent is that you want your kids to be safe and you want to think your kids are growing up in a world where they’ll have opportunities and where they’re going to have a chance at a better life and that’s why we all work so hard as parents. That’s a hard thing to communicate because for a lot of people it will be a rougher world. How you think about that and how you encourage your kids to be smart and flexible and adaptive and creative is really the important thing. That’s why stories about entrepreneurs and inventors and scientists and the miracles of what some of these great inventors have done in the past are really important. These are more essential to the kid than the particulars of climate change.  

That’s why I want to raise tough, smart, resilient kids. I want them to understand, to know that they’re moving into a different world. I want them to be ready for it.

What, then, do we tell them about Scott Pruitt?
I think being frank with your kids is really important. I don’t mean you have to say that he’s a corrupt man who’s basically on the take from the fossil fuel industry and is doing everything he can to dismantle environmental protections in America and making the world a dirtier and less safe place for you — which is the adult thing one might say. But you can say he is rolling back laws that you think are important and that you disagree with him. I say that the Director of the Environmental Protection Agency really important job and that job is to safeguard environmental protections for our world to make sure we have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. I want someone in there who will do just that.

How can Americans, in particular, prepare our kids for the future?
We’re seeing major geopolitical shifts that are certainly linked to climate change and energy. The 20th century, the post-WWII moment was one of great American leadership economically and morally. That’s pretty obviously not going to be the story of the 21st century. I’ve spent a lot of time in China, and they get it. They’ve moved so quickly toward clean energy and solar power, they’ve brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and done it in a way that’s really raised the standard of living, but they’re also they’re making huge strides toward clean energy, self-driving, electric cars. They get that whoever dominates the clean energy world will dominate the economy of the 21st century. On the other hand, we have a president who is pedaling the fantasy of the comeback of coal. He’s pushing 19th-century fuels and I think the economic costs of that will be enormous in the long run.

I encouraged my son to take Chinese. I really think that fluency in the world is going to be increasingly important. Seeking opportunities beyond the borders of America will be really really important in the future. Far more so than it is now.

What kind of world do you expect your grandchildren to live in?
It’s not going to resemble my world much at all — a stable democracy, the United States of America I grew up in. I ascribe to the idea that I never make predictions especially about the future, so I do not know what form their world will take but I do think it will be radically different. It will be very chaotic, it will be very, to be blunt, Darwinian in that the strongest and smartest are the ones that survive and thrive. I do believe in creativity and I have an optimistic view about the human spirit, but I think the changes we’re going to be seeing are very disruptive. The X-factor is the human psychology and how people will react to this. And I think the world that my grandkids will live in will be a giant character test for humanity and I don’t know where that will go.

That’s why I want to raise tough, smart, resilient kids. I want them to understand, to know that they’re moving into a different world. I want them to be ready for it. The most dangerous thing you can do as a parent is to pretend it’s not happening. Then they find out that “Oh, the world is not what i expected, I’m disillusioned, I’m shocked, this is not what my parents told me it was going to be like.” I think saying, “Look, the world is going to be different for you. Here’s these changes that are happening. Be smart, be ready, and go for it.”