Talking to children about the climate crisis
Why talk to children about the climate crisis
We and our children are living in a world that has already been significantly altered through human actions, and will live with the impacts of climate change for the rest of our lives. Over 97% of climate scientists confirm this. Children will experience far greater impacts than adults, despite being the least responsible for the climate crisis. As parents, teachers, or caregivers, it is common to want to protect our children from this complicated reality. Yet, many children are already impacted, and many are experiencing anxiety or strong feelings about the climate crisis.
Talking to kids about climate change is an important way to help them process these feelings, stay resilient, and find ways to act. Having these conversations is a starting point to diminish our children’s despair, fear and hopelessness, and to promote and expand self-efficacy and climate action.
When talking to children, whatever age they may be, it is important to answer their questions, explain the urgency, and point to the many people all over the world working on solutions. You can also help them identify opportunities to be part of the solutions, help them build resiliency, and encourage hope. How much detail you provide on the causes and impacts of the climate crisis depends on your child’s age and where they are along their journey of discovery. As you begin your first steps to a deeper discussion, remember: you know your child, you know how much they can handle. Remember too, you may even be surprised by their knowledge.
How to talk to children about the climate crisis
Begin the conversation by asking them what they already know. What have they have been hearing, seeing, and learning about climate change – at school, from friends, from family, through social media, and from online sources? You will then have a baseline to begin your conversation.
- Equip yourself with the facts
- To the best of your abilities, answer specific questions they may ask
- Spend time in nature together
- Empower action
- Create space for talking about, acknowledging, and validating their feelings about climate change
- Lead by example
- Discuss ways to activate and promote hope
- Emphasize that we are in this together: this is an intergenerational problem that requires intergenerational action
The history of climate conversations with children
While scientists have been studying how human actions change the Earth’s climate for well over 100 years, the subject only began entering general conversations in the mid to late 1980s. In the United States, the first Congressional hearings on climate change were held in 1988, the same year that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established. Broader discussions around sustainability and environmental degradation began earlier, around the middle of the 20th century. However, conversations with children, then, and in large part now, tend to revolve around polars bears rather than people. Similarly, solutions offered to children focus on the “3Rs” (reduce, reuse, and recycle), instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stopping burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas). Recycling and polar bears can be entry points to conversations, but the conversations must not stop there. Children have the right to know and understand the truth about our changing climate, the systemic nature of the problems we face, and the many solutions. Talking to kids about climate change creates a place for them to process what they know and discuss their concerns.
Children are the least responsible for our warming world, yet will be the most impacted population group. As the climate emergency worsens, the impacts to and lived experiences amongst children in the Global South and the Global North will, for the most part, vary significantly. However, children in low wealth communities in all countries suffer greater impacts than those in wealthier communities. Children and adults living near polluting infrastructure, such as fossil fuel power plants, pipelines, compressor stations and incinerators, have compromised health and are more susceptible to climate impacts. Polluting infrastructure is regularly located in rural, low wealth, and immigrant communities, exacerbating the unequal impacts of climate change. The built environment in these communities (homes, roads, public transportation, hospitals) often lack private and public funding and support, making them less resilient in face of extreme weather events. The impacts of extreme weather affect children’s mental health and physical and cognitive development, as well as their access to healthy food, safe drinking water, healthcare, and education. The impacts of extreme weather on children will continue to increase: Children born in 2020 will experience a two to seven fold increase in extreme climate events compared to people born in 1960.
Consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions drastically
As the climate emergency worsens, children around the world will have more direct and, in many cases, traumatic experiences with the impacts of extreme weather, sea-level rise, and air pollution. Physical and mental health outcomes will worsen. As children become more cognizant of the realities of the crisis facing them and their families, feelings such as concern, dread, hopelessness, and anger may increase. It’s important to understand and make clear that these feelings are expected and appropriate responses that deserve to be validated and acknowledged.
The last decade has been an exciting time for new research on the emotional and psychological impacts of the climate crisis on children and young people.
- Earth Warriors, a curriculum that teaches young children (3–11 years) about climate change, has found that teaching in an age-appropriate manner, through play and using a positive, solutions-focused approach, can allow children to learn about these topics in their early years without creating anxiety.
- A study of 214 parents across the United States found that while most parents (68%) were interested in talking to their children about climate change, under half (46%) had talked about climate change with their child in the past month, and 20% never had had a climate conversation.
- A survey conducted across 10,000 young (aged 16–25) people in Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the US found that climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government response are widespread, and impact daily life. Almost 60% of young people are “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, and 75% feel that “the future is frightening”.
- A review showing that direct and indirect effects of climate change place children at risk of developing mental health problems like PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias and panic, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse highlighted the need for adults to protect and support childrens’ psychological well-being and to understand strategies to build resilience.
- Young children have significant knowledge about the Earth and important ideas about environmental issues, as well as knowledge of the responsibilities of individuals with respect to sustainability. Research by the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education found that adults often underestimate the competencies of young children.
- Research conducted by the Cartoon Network across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, showed that the health of the planet is a top priority for young children, with 91% of children concerned about climate change, and importantly, that they want to be part of the solutions, with 83% wanting to do more to fight climate change.
- Young people’s understanding about climate change is influenced by interactions between family, peers, media, teachers, and social norms. This research informs strategies to communicate climate change to young people and how to best promote knowledge, engagement in the climate crisis, and a sense of efficacy.
How to talk to children of different ages
Remind children of all ages that climate actions and working on solutions requires intergenerational collaboration. Actionable ideas based on age:
Early age (ages 0-4)
Read, share stories, and be together in nature. Visit local parks, beaches, forests to share and nurture a love for our natural world. Go to climate-oriented events together (take pictures, make family memories). Talk about solar panels, windmills, how you’ll conserve energy, and how you can reconsider the way you eat.
Primary school (ages 5-11)
Create a family climate plan, and update at regular family meetings. Let your children lead: meatless Mondays, composting, rain gardens, tree planting. Create short, medium- and long-term goals. Make visits, calls, and letters to elected officials around climate action, bills, and new laws. Discuss the importance and interconnectedness of justice, equality, and equity to creating climate solutions.
Middle school (ages 12-14)
Discuss ways to bring sustainable practices into after-school activities. Let your child lead, find their voice, express their feelings. Share examples of other youth acting on climate in your community and around the world. Youth activist organizations like Fridays for Future, which encourages youth climate strikes, and Sunrise Movement, which works on climate policy, have empowered and activated millions of youth worldwide. Also, remind your children that millions of adults are working on climate solutions. Solutions don’t rest on their shoulders alone, but on all of ours.
High School and young adult (ages 15-25)
Share your journey on climate education and activism; you will inspire them. Encourage them as they look to careers and paths forward to lead with their passions. Remind them that their angst, grief, and fears can be channeled into actions, and encourage them to build active hope. Addressing voting rights, protecting democracy, equity and equality, and ensuring equal access to clean air, clean water, healthy food, and a safe environment are all connected and part of the solutions. Focusing on one part helps the whole. A youth organization that encompasses these varied parts is the Future Coalition. Action for Climate Emergency is another organization that works to educate, support, and inspire young people who want to be involved in solutions to the climate emergency.
Concerns about talking to children
As parents, teachers, and caregivers, it is common to feel conflicted about wanting to help our children understand and navigate the complexities and realities of the climate crisis, while at the same time, wanting to protect them from having to face these realities. You may feel some of these legitimate challenges when it comes to talking to your children about the climate crisis:
- Personal fears about climate change
- Lack of knowledge about climate change
- Concerns about increasing child anxiety
- Insecurity about initiating the conversation
- Unsure if children are ready for the conversation
You don’t have to have all the answers, nor resolve all your worries, before you begin having climate conversations with children. The sooner you begin talking to your child about the climate crisis, the sooner you can learn together, create space for them to process their feelings, and find ways to be part of the solutions.
New research, books, and studies on ways to communicate the crisis and help children act are being released on a regular basis. Books and podcasts, both for children of all ages, and for parents, caregivers, and teachers, are increasing each year. What’s more, there are many online forums bringing together parents and caregivers to support children in the climate crisis. In the past five years, organizations like the Climate Psychology Alliance and the Climate Psychiatry Alliance have been established and are becoming go-to hubs for information and resources.
Education curricula and climate
The importance of formal education around climate, cross-curricular, is also being recognized and mandated in many jurisdictions. In a US survey, 80% of parents support the teaching of climate change, and this crosses political divides. Yet, according to a 2021 UNESCO report, only half of the world’s countries even mention climate change in education curricula, with most downplaying its relevance and importance. The United Nations has called for all schools to teach climate education by 2025.
- In the United States, New Jersey began requiring climate education K-12 across seven cross-curricular areas in the fall of 2022.
- Washington State (2018) and Connecticut (2022) are requiring K-12 science climate instruction.
- Beginning in 2020, Italy has required cross-curricular climate education in all years of study.
As more states, countries and jurisdictions mandate climate education in schools, it is important to advocate for teacher training and place-based resources for students.
Parenting in a Changing Climate: Tools for Cultivating Resilience, Taking Action, and Practicing Hope by Elizabeth Bechard, published in 2021 by Citrine Publishing.
Parenting on Earth: A Philosopher’s Guide to Doing Right by Your Kids – and Everyone Else by Elizabeth Cripps, published in 2023 by The MIT Press.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change: Turning Angst into Action by Harriet Shugarman, published in 2020 by New Society Publishers.
Forums for parents
Our Kids Climate (58 parents groups from 23 countries)
Youth Climate action
Climate Generation ignites and sustains the ability of educators, youth, and communities to act on systems perpetuating the climate crisis.
ACE educates, inspires and supports young people to lead the fight for their future.
Articles and Online Sources
A calm guide to climate anxiety for parents, published in Parents on March 30, 2022, by Katie C. Reilly.
A guide to climate change for kids, published by NASA Climate Kids.
Climate change and children’s health, published on December 13, 2022, by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Do scientists agree on climate change?, published by NASA Global Climate Change.
Getting every school climate-ready: how countries are integrating climate change issues in education, published in 2021 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
History of climate science research, published by the UCAR Centre for Science Education.
How to talk to kids about climate, published by Our Kids Climate.
How to talk to kids about the climate crisis, published by UNICEF.
Most teachers don’t teach climate change; 4 in 5 wish they did, published in NPR on April 22, 2019, by Anya Kamenetz.
Should schools teach climate change studies? These countries think so, published in the World Economic Forum on August 24, 2022, by Stefan Ellerbeck.
The challenges of climate change: Children on the front line, published in the UNICEF Office of Research in 2014, by Patrizia Faustini.
Toxic waste and race: Report confirms no progress made in 20 years, published in University of Michigan News on April 17, 2007.
Your crushing anxiety about the climate crisis is normal, published in Smithsonian Magazine on May 18, 2022, by Antonia Mufarech.
Can teaching young children about climate change and sustainability actually motivate climate action?, published in The OECD Forum Network on January 24, 2022, by Shweta Bahri & Keya Lamba.
Cartoon Network EMEA study finds climate change key kids’ concern, published in Animation World Network on July 6, 2021, by Dan Sarto.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Arpin, E., Gauffin, K., Kerr, M., Hjern, A., Mashford-Pringle, A., Barros, A., Rajmil, L., Choonara, I., & Spencer, N. (2021). Climate Change and Child Health Inequality: A Review of Reviews. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(20), 10896. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182010896
Bandura, A., & Cherry, L. (2020). Enlisting the power of youth for climate change. American Psychologist, 75(7), 945–951. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000512
Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van Hoorn, J. (2018). The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. Current psychiatry reports, 20(5), 35. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-018-0896-9
Dayton, L., Balaban, A., Scherkoske, M., & Latkin, C. (2022). Family Communication About Climate Change in the United States. Journal of prevention (2022), 1–15. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10935-022-00712-0
Engdahl, I. Early Childhood Education for Sustainability: The OMEP World Project. IJEC 47, 347–366 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13158-015-0149-6
Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet. Planetary health, 5(12), e863–e873. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3
Ojala, Maria & Lakew, Yuliya. (2017). Young People and Climate Change Communication. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.408
Thiery, W., Lange, S., Rogelj, J., Schleussner, C. F., Gudmundsson, L., Seneviratne, S. I., Andrijevic, M., Frieler, K., Emanuel, K., Geiger, T., Bresch, D. N., Zhao, F., Willner, S. N., Büchner, M., Volkholz, J., Bauer, N., Chang, J., Ciais, P., Dury, M., François, L., … Wada, Y. (2021). Intergenerational inequities in exposure to climate extremes. Science (New York, N.Y.), 374(6564), 158–160. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abi7339
March 5, 2023
Author: Harriet Shugarman
Editor: Colleen Rollins