How climate scientists talk to their kids about the climate crisis

By Lachlan Gilbert/UNSW Sydney 10 November 2021
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We chat to three climate scientists from the University of New South Wales about how they talk to their kids about the climate crisis.

It’s important that we clean up after ourselves, we teach our kids, and not leave a place in a worse mess than how we found it.

But how do we explain the mess we’ve created on Earth that future generations will be left to deal with?

It’s a difficult conversation to have. But the fact that more than four fifths of Australians believe that climate change will result in more droughts and flooding means this conversation will be dinner table banter for a long time yet, as ordinary parents try to navigate the path between hope and abject despair about the existential challenges facing humanity.

The science underpinning our understanding of this climate emergency is complex, and may seem a challenge at times for a layperson to explain to other adults, let alone kids.

So how do the experts have this conversation with their own children?

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick is a climate scientist at UNSW Canberra with expertise in weather extremes, notably heatwaves and how they have changed over time. She has two children under five with a third on the way.

(Image credit: UNSW)

Professor Katrin Meissner is a climate change expert with UNSW Science and also the director of the university’s Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC). Prof. Meissner’s focus is on large scale climate feedbacks and tipping points. She has two teenage children, 14 and 16.

(Image credit: UNSW)

Dr Ian Macadam is a member of UNSW’s CCRC and leads the Knowledge Brokerage Team at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes. His expertise is in translating climate science for schools, businesses and governments. Earlier, he cut his teeth on the physical sciences with a PhD in climate projections and climate impacts. He has four-and-a-half-year-old twins.

(Image credit: UNSW)

Do your children understand what you do for work?

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick (SPK): I don’t think so, not yet. Because of COVID and both of them being at home they sometimes sit in on Zoom meetings and the older one did ask recently ‘what’s climate change?’ And it kind of took me back a bit because she’s four and a half she doesn’t know much about planet earth. We still have trouble explaining to her that Australia is a country and we live in Canberra, that’s a city. We do talk to her about it, but she hasn’t quite grasped that concept.

Katrin Meissner (KM): Yes, they’re old enough to understand that now. A few years ago, the older one wanted to go to the Fridays for Future climate rally. But I only let her and her friend go after they could answer a few questions about climate change. I wanted them to know why they were going. [Laughs] And my daughter was complaining saying ‘that’s not cool, everyone else is going!’ But I told them ‘no you’ve got to understand why you’re going’.

Ian Macadam (IM): I think they understand I work at a university. And they’ve been on campus, but that’s probably as far as they understand. You know, they look for places to play and gravitate towards whatever’s dangerous. But they’re a little young to understand the concept of climate change and how my work relates to it.

Have you talked about climate change to your kids and what did you, or what do you plan to say?

SPK: The only way we’ve really talked about climate change so far is about the dinosaurs. Before lockdown, we went to the dinosaur museum here in Canberra. And they loved it. My eldest has constantly been asking questions like ‘where are the dinosaurs now?’ And I said ‘well, you know, they died out’. ‘Why did they die out?’ ‘Well, climate change?’ ‘Okay, how did the climate change…’ and so she’s kind of being very inquisitive. But I haven’t yet had a sit down with her saying, ‘well, yeah, the climate is warming, it’s getting worse. It’s basically because of my parents and their parents before them – sorry about that!’

I have had a couple of conversations with my nieces and nephews. My niece, when she was nine or 10, asked me to come to her school and give a talk. So I actually started thinking: how am I going to talk about this? I don’t want to get in there and scare them and say, ‘you’re all doomed, you’re all gonna die’. I was never going to do that –I would talk to them about how the planet’s changing, the indicators of this and how we can fix it. I think you should always finish on a message of hope, especially with a younger demographic.

KM: We always had a very scientific approach to education. When they ask a question, they get the answer, even if the answer is not pretty. Even when they grew up, they knew that Santa Claus was not real from early on, and we never made a big deal out of how babies come into the world, we never made them believe in the tooth fairy… so climate change for me is just another fact we have to live with, a fact we can talk about with the kids.

Because we talk about climate change all the time, they were exposed to it from a young age. We would also take them on holidays where you can see evidence of it all around you, for example coral reefs. I think it was just part of their lives from the beginning, and they didn’t need me pointing these things out.

IM: I don’t think my two are that aware of climate change itself. So I’m trying to raise their awareness of environmental issues, but we’re at the stage where I might, for example, point out an electric car, or that it’s a terrible habit to leave the taps running. So at this stage it’s saying things like don’t waste things, don’t use too much plastic because it ends up in the ocean, that kind of thing. I think that’s a far easier thing to attack than the specific issue of climate change itself. I see climate change as just another facet of issues to do with waste and careful use of resources.

As for whether I’m worried about scaring them or other kids old enough to understand about climate change, to be honest, it doesn’t worry me. I mean, there are things worth being scared of!

How old should kids be when you talk to them about climate change, and what tips would you give other parents?

SPK:  I see myself talking to them when they’re in school – I think six-ish is a good place to start. But I’m thinking that in the meantime, if I get asked the question again from the older one, I won’t necessarily brush it off at the start or quickly change the subject. She understands sickness and how it can take a long time to get better, so she gets those concepts. So I do see myself using that same analogy – that we’ve done some things that made the planet a bit sick. And it might get more sick unless we give it some medicine to fix it, and these are the ways that we can do that.

The important thing about having these conversations is to be age appropriate – use simple language and concepts that a child can understand. Be honest – you can definitely be honest without being brutal. And finish it on a positive. It’s not too late, and we have solutions. Something that we’re going to do as a family is instil in our kids how they can continually reduce their emissions. One of the reasons why we moved to Canberra is we’re building an energy-efficient house. So as we raise them, we give them the tools and, hopefully, the right voting influence to make those changes.

KM: One of the problems with climate change is that it is not something that usually triggers fears in humans because we didn’t evolve to be scared of a change in statistics – it’s not something like a shark swimming towards you. So I don’t think my kids were afraid of climate change when they were little. But I believe it’s important for them to know the truth from a young age so I tell them what I know. But I also tell them what I don’t know – like saying, ‘we think this works this way but we’re not sure’.

I’m not an education specialist but I think kids can handle the truth as long as it is delivered in an objective way, without fear-mongering. And I think we need to remember that kids live in this world with us, that they see animals dying, they see people that get sick, they see that we, as parents, cannot protect them from everything. That’s just reality.

IM: I like the idea of seeing climate change as a resource issue – I think you have to relate it to things they see around them. So, you know, they’ve noticed that my car uses petrol, so pointing out electric cars is part of my way into talking about these things. So I think the next stage for me is to try and talk about why we don’t just jump in the car for absolutely everything – not just because of climate change, but for other good reasons like reducing congestion and how it’s good to exercise.

Do you worry about the world you will be leaving your children?

SPK: I do and it’s become more prominent since becoming a parent. Especially with the recent events like the summer in the US and what happened in Canada in a tiny town called Lytton where temperatures almost hit 50 degrees. The town broke its own temperature record by five degrees Celsius, and that kind of margin is incredible and frightening.

I think there’s a very high likelihood that we’ll see warming by much more than one or two degrees Celsius – I’m hopeful of somewhere between three and four degrees. So I’m worried about those futures of my kids. Yes, we are in a developed country and yes, I can give them the tools and the resources to adapt and mitigate where possible to those changes, but it’s still not a very nice world. Black summers will be so much more common. Those temperatures in Lytton will occur everywhere else. It breaks my heart to say that that’s their future, and that it’s not their fault.

KM: Yes, I’m absolutely worried for their futures. I say so not because of one particular impact of climate change, but because all these impacts will eventually happen at the same time. And that will lead to macroeconomic shocks and unrest. Imagine things like crop failure, water scarcity, fires, floods all happening at the same time in different regions of a country or continent. Plus whole regions, countries even, that have to evacuate because of rising sea levels. The pressures will just become so big that there will be more widespread civil unrest. It just won’t be a very peaceful world, even if we do mitigate against warming.

Even if we stopped emissions now, temperatures will still go up for a while – the climate system is so slow in reacting. And that’s without any tipping points – once we start to trigger tipping points, such as for example the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and part of the ice sheet goes, then we’re really in trouble. So I think that even if we stopped emitting fossil fuels completely now, they won’t have the peaceful and wealthy life we had. And the longer we leave it, the worse it will get.

IM: I’m worried to the point of, yes, climate change is a concern and some degree of future climate change is unavoidable now. So there’s part of me which says, well, you just have to accept that some change is now inevitable. The challenge is to make sure that climate changes are limited and well-prepared for. This is the immediate challenge where my mental energy is focused. Carrying on this work will be my kids’ generations’ challenge. But we need to do something now to give them a chance.

This article was originally published here.