Above the Waterline: Talking to kids about climate change

Students learn about nature at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

The most dangerous thing you can do as a parent, or a teacher, is to pretend like something is not happening when it clearly is, especially when that thing will have consequences for the lives of your children or students. As the old saying goes, denial is not just a river in Egypt; it is a force in all of our lives.

But, how do you talk about an issue like climate change, which is already occurring and will accelerate in the lifetimes of today’s young people, without scaring or depressing them?

Father and climate journalist Jeff Goodell, a man whom I’ve known since he wrote Big Coal more than a decade ago, has some ideas that he offered to the parenting resource, Fatherly. I’d like to share some of them with you, along with stories from local teachers and school leaders.

First, no age is too early to start talking about how the natural world is changing around us. As Jeff says: “It’s an ongoing conversation that one has throughout their lives; it starts out with talking about science – in the way that a three or four-year-old would understand it.” Animal stories about polar bears on the declining ice or birds that have to migrate are examples. In Jeff’s view, “Mother Nature is the greatest storyteller of all.”

At Pace Academy in Atlanta, climate change is fully integrated into the K-12 student curriculum, according to Trish Anderson, director of the Isdell Center for Global Leadership. This program cultivates leadership capabilities among students by focusing on annual themes that range from climate, water and food to conservation and energy.

Trish says that a core principle of the Global Leadership program is “advocacy for change within communities.” It is not just about service, but also developing “a mindset” of advocacy in relation to others. The key, she says, is to keep the students engaged in specific projects that underscore how they can make a difference.

Like Jeff, Trish believes that the fundamentals of science and faith in creativity are essential in order for young people to grasp what is happening in a world where the climate is rapidly changing. Stories about what inventors, entrepreneurs and scientists have done in the past resonate more with kids than the specifics of climate change.

At a small, private school in Athens – where one student is a climate refugee from Puerto Rico – Jesslyn Shields, a middle school teacher, says that she regularly incorporates present-day events such as hurricanes, wildfires, coral bleaching and changes in animal migration patterns into her lesson plans. A trained scientist, Jesslyn helps the students understand how scientists (with adequate resources) can quantitatively examine an issue like climate change, design studies and develop strategies and solutions. “The students seem to understand that it’s a now, not later, situation,” she says.

Another common theme: Make sure that your children and students spend time outside: to have fun in nature, learn how the natural world is connected to our everyday lives, and develop a feeling of personal responsibility for its care. Provide opportunities for outdoor adventures. Let your kids get dirty and muck about in nature. Show them how streams connect to rivers and then the ocean, how trees and forests provide important services for all species, how and why birds migrate and more.

Che Calix, a science teacher at The Paideia School who previously taught in a public school in East Point, says that it’s tough to get the climate change subject into public schools because “there is so much other material that must be taught.” Now at Paideia, he’s been “blown away” by the level of understanding and acceptance of climate change. Che says that the topic comes up “organically” with his middle school students and notes that he is careful to present information based on the students’ level of awareness and sophistication.

“Dealing with change is what we as humans have to do,” says Jeff Goodell optimistically. For years, he has been working thoughtfully and strategically to raise his children to be tough, smart and resilient – to know that they are moving into a different world and to be ready for it.

I have no doubt but that my grandchildren will live in a world that will be fundamentally different than the one I have experienced – that there will be social, food and water disruptions that we can only begin to imagine. I worry about how they will live and thrive and often contemplate what I can do (once they arrive in the coming years) to help them be strong, adaptable, compassionate and always hopeful.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.