7 min readTalking to Children About Climate Changeposted 10 months ago

Last year’s heatwave in the UK was unprecedented, and 2022 was the hottest year on record for the country, but these weren’t exceptions. The Met Office calculations hint that we might witness such temperatures every 3-4 years, an alarming frequency considering that without greenhouse gases and global warming, the frequency would have been once every five centuries. Research from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) tells us that the world will witness unprecedented temperatures, and a rise of more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels is likely by 2027. Guardian reported experts warning about the role that global warming has played in the occurrence of extreme weather conditions like “more severe heatwaves, droughts and wildfires but also more intense rainfall events and flooding.” 

In the near future, we will be seeing very real effects of climate change play out in front of our eyes, in media, and in our safe spaces. And children will not be untouched by these impacts. If anything, they will often be the most vulnerable to climate uncertainties. Compared to their grandparent’s generation, children born in the last year are 2-7 times more likely to witness adverse climatic conditions such as heatwaves, flooding, droughts, crop failures and wildfires. 

Globally, children face an uncertain future; the climate crisis is infringing on children’s rights to a safe home, healthy environment, healthcare, food and education. Climate risk is a child rights and child safety issue. 

Compared to a person born in 1960, across their lifetime, a child born in 2020 will experience, on average: 

  1. 2 times as many wildfires
  2. 2.8 times the exposure to crop failure
  3. 2.6 times as many drought events
  4. 2.8 times as many river floods
  5. 6.8 times more heatwaves

Source: Save The Children’s Born Into The Climate Crises Report

On a micro level, this means that children learn about the “normal” weather and climate conditions and then live through each day with pieces of that “normal” shedding away. On a macro level, they are growing up in a world that a pandemic has ravaged, exposing them to several vulnerabilities. It is unconscionable.

Addressing climate change and climate anxiety

The climate crisis is hitting us hard emotionally and psychologically too. When a young person first begins to understand the concept of climate change, the feeling of doom can be overpowering. And when you add the living experience to the mix, it can feel like there is little hope for the future. The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported eco-distress or eco-anxiety in young children and adolescents, with signs like helplessness, anger, loss of sleep, panic, and guilt affecting young people. 

UNICEF came up with the Children’s Climate Risk Index revealing that 1 billion children are at ‘extremely high risk’ of the impacts of climate change. There are also questions about the extent of the physical health impact of climate change, such as heat-related stress, asthma and allergies, vector-borne illness, and the health consequences of floods and droughts. The threat to well-being is real. 

It can also lead to feelings of impermanence, lack of stability, and sense of place and identity; something experts are also referring to as solastalgia, or the distress produced by environmental change impacting people while they are directly connected to their home environment. All these emotions and reactions to climate despair must be addressed when talking to young children. 

Let’s not forget a young person named Greta Gerwig brought in renewed attention to environmental concerns and led to the creation of the Fridays for Future climate movement. 

How to talk to children about climate change

Parents, teachers, caregivers, grandparents, relatives, and all adults will need to navigate this issue with children. It can be a potentially difficult conversation, so we lay down a guide to help you get started. 

Learn before you teach

We don’t have all the answers about climate change and how vast its impact will be. Events unfold in front of us in real-time, and we learn as we go. Scientists, environmentalists, policymakers, and activists are working to improve things. But the questions and uncertainties will not go away. 

Talking to children about climate change will be an open-ended conversation as we live through it. Plenty of resources are available to help you set the context for this conversation. Dr Hana Patel, General Practitioner and GP Expert Witness, share resources we can use in the process, including The Woodland Trust, UNICEF, and WWF

Save The Children and NASA also have many resources for adults' and children’s education on the issue. Make use of these resources and then learn together with children. 

Depend on Science & facts

Start with basic facts about how we use resources and the pressing demands of an ever-increasing population. Explain the cause and effect behind events, how resource overuse led to greenhouse gases emission, how the emission makes our planet hotter, and why rising temperatures are concerning. Make use of media and informational resources on the internet. Don’t add subjective statements or opinions to the mix. Let them process the facts. 

Improvise the conversation

Listen to the child and observe how they are reacting to the conversation. Each child is different. Some children will feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the information; others might ease into it, whereas some children will want to take immediate action to improve things.

First, understand how much the child knows. Then, learn how they are reacting to the information. Then tailor your conversation accordingly. If the child is trying to come up with solutions, don’t dismiss them. If they feel hopeless, give them an action plan or promising direction. Let them know that you are in this together. 

Focus on solutions

But ensure the child does not think it’s their burden to solve the problem. Focusing on solutions provides hope because the child understands they can make a difference and prevent things from worsening.  

Every time you share a problem, for example, depleting energy resources, accompany that with a solution. You can recommend or brainstorm solutions together, like reducing wastage at home, switching off electric appliances, finding natural light instead of using power during the day, gardening, etc. 

If they seem too panicky or concerned, acknowledge that, reinforce that they are safe, and then tell them that taking positive actions can make a difference. 

Take action together

It is important to empower children as agents of change. You can choose a very actionable day for this conversation, like Earth Hour or World Environment Day, or a marathon for a climate charity, and segue into how these initiatives will help solve the bigger problem. 

“Little things, such as planting a seed, or learning more about energy use at home, and then creating an action plan to save energy, maybe placing reminders around the house to switch off appliances when not in use,” Patel shares. 

Spend some time outdoors, in nature, with children. The act of slowing down, appreciating nature for its bounties and co-existing with other species can be profoundly impactful in balancing hope with corrective action. 

Talking to children about climate change is crucial in preparing them for the future and empowering them to make a positive impact. While the climate crisis poses significant challenges and uncertainties, it is essential to approach these conversations with accurate information and scientific facts. By improvising the dialogue to meet each child's needs, focusing on solutions, and emphasising collective action, we can instil hope and responsibility without burdening children with solving the problem on their own. Ultimately, we can inspire children to become change agents and work towards a sustainable and resilient future by taking action together as families and communities.

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Kritika M Narula

Kritika M Narula

Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.