The Climate Change Elephant

Elephantby Sarah at ProgressiveKid

We don’t know the degree of devastation that climate change will bring. But we know that it’s happening. And–guess what?–your kids know it’s happening too. You need to talk to your kids. Here’s why and here’s how.


Your children already know some things about global warming, things that may or may not be accurate, and they’re worried:

  • The Future Foundation, a UK-based market research firm, has just released the results of a survey of teenagers that identified a phenomenon called green angst. Green angst is, in a nutshell, worry about the eco-unfriendliness of the world. Girls surveyed were more worried than boys. Forty-five percent were disappointed in their parents’ generation, faulting them for not having done enough. Twelve percent were embarrassed by their parents’ lack of greenness.
  • Another UK survey, from another UK-based market research firm, YouGov, showed that 74 percent of children between the ages of 11 and 14 worry about climate change more than about their homework.
  • According to a recent survey by Future Leaders of 54,000 university and college applicants aged between 17 and 21, 91 percent think that in 25 years the effects of climate change will be “hitting the world hard.” Eighty-five percent believe climate change will be affecting their lives, and 80 percent that the frequency of natural disasters will have increased. More than 60 percent believe the Amazon rainforest will be gone. And 78 percent believe that the world will need to change dramatically for human society to survive into the next century.
  • A survey from Greenpeace and Habbo of 50,000 children from 18 countries found that teenagers think of global warming as a more serious threat to society than drugs, violence, or war. Almost three quarters see it as a serious problem.

That’s sobering news. But then put it in perspective and you wonder why kids aren’t worried even more:

So your children are (a) scared, and they’re the ones (b) likely to suffer the most from the effects of climate change. Climate change is like an enormous elephant in the living room. And if moms and dads aren’t mentioning that there is an elephant in the room, you can imagine how a sort of neurosis could evolve:

  • We can’t talk about this huge elephant.
  • Maybe it doesn’t really exist.
  • Maybe my parents are scared of it so we’re pretending it doesn’t exist.
  • Maybe my parents can’t see it.
  • If they can’t see it, they’re not doing anything about it.
  • If they’re not doing anything about it, who will?
  • Maybe they don’t care.

And there’s also the danger that, if you don’t talk to your kids about climate change, they’ll get their information elsewhere. And the information they get might be inaccurate and it might come attached to the wrong message, such as “We’re all gonna die.” You’re going to talk to your kids about sex, right? You want them to get the right information and the right message. The same concern needs to be applied to climate change.


To talk to your kids about climate change, adopt a three-pronged approach:

  1. Get the facts yourself.
  2. Send the right message.
  3. Don’t just talk; do.

Get the Facts Yourself. As with sex ed, don’t start the conversation until you know what you’re talking about. Educate yourself. This is not as difficult as it sounds. There are books available on the market now that break down the science into easily digestible parts and provide you with clear understanding of how to respond to climate change. The best book I know is Julie’s book, A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids, which although written for kids, has helped a bundle of parents too. Or trawl the Internet, getting your facts from reliable sources.

Send the Right Message. You need to think about how and when to have the conversation, unless it comes up naturally, maybe even introduced by your kid. Follow these guidelines:

  • Taylor the message to your kid. Most two-year-olds don’t need to know a thing about climate change. But some precocious toddlers might ask. Figure out what your kids are thinking and what your kids already know. You can figure this out by asking them or listening to what they’re saying, even during play.
  • Change the message over time as appropriate. What your kids need to know at age 5 is not the same as what they need at age 11. Give them just what they need to know at each age. Parent Map offers a good list from a University of Washington psychology professor on how to deliver the right message at different ages.
  • Be optimistic. This is not lying, as in “everything is going to be great!” But, if we all get on it now, there is a lot we can do, and we can slow down the progression and lessen the effects. And you can see the good in just about anything. Maybe concern about climate change will have some positive effects too, like getting us to refocus toward important things and away from meaningless consumption. Maybe it will bring humans together. Maybe we will learn to appreciate our animal neighbors more and lessen the toxicity of our planet.

Don’t Just Talk; Do. Probably even more important than what you say to your kids is what you show to your kids. Your children are reassured when they see you do something to help the planet; they know that the adults in charge, the ones who care about them, are clued in and taking action. Here is a list of solid, action steps to take (from one of our earlier blogs):

  1. Read together about climate change. Look for Julie’s book A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids as a good place to start. Be sure to talk about what you have read.
  2. Create a culture of empathy toward all living things. Don’t kill spiders and flies. Relocate them outside if necessary using a bug vac. Don’t use toxic cleaning or lawn care products. Talk about and look for evidence of the animals, plants, and trees that share the space where you live. Turn your yard or school grounds into a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
  3. Get involved in something bigger. Help your kids start or join a climate change response team at their school or other local institution.
  4. Get involved in something even bigger. Join an environmental group with a broad focus. The Internet is a great tool for this level of networking.
  5. Socialize with similarly engaged people. Your kids need to feel like they’re not alone in their concerns for and work for the planet. Make sure that at least some of what you do in response to climate change is social. Picnics, potlucks, and informational fairs can make this uneasy business something that we and our children can live with better and more healthfully.
  6. Involve your children in the actions you take. We’re not protecting our children from anything by keeping them out of the business of responding to global warming. They already know and they’re worried. Some of the most creative people I know are kids—maybe the answers to many of the planet’s problems rest in some smaller-sized hands.

You know your kids better than anyone. But make sure that your own fears and concerns about climate change and your desire to protect your children from these fears isn’t actually making things worse for them. They do not live in a vacuum. The news is starting to reach them. Soften the blow by showing them that you’re clued in and taking action. Unfortunately, you can’t ignore the elephant, hoping it will find a way to squeeze itself back out the front door.

©2008 ProgressiveKid
image by Brian Snelson CC license

2 Responses

  1. My best wishes to you for what you are doing!! This post is awesome…some great stats for my son, Alec Loorz, 13, to add to his presentation. He started an organization (I’m just the background admin) called Kids vs Global Warming and preaches just this message to schools, conferences, etc. Check out his website! Congrats on getting featured on Amazon…that’s how I found you. I’m sure you’ve seen the elephant animated short that won the global warming psa? it goes with this post!

    in solidarity, victoria

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Victoria. What your son has done is amazing. His site is fantastic, and I love that YouTube video for his org. It’s quite brilliant. Would Alec want to share a bit with our noncommercial site, Kids’ Rock ( We have a special feature there for kids to tell other kids about the progressive work they’re doing. And we hope to be adding a Kids’ Rock blog soon for kids to share all their great work. Hearing about amazing kids like your son gives me hope!

    I hadn’t seen the psa but I’m so glad you told me about it. I guess elephants are a natural metaphor for what we’re dealing with.

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