How I Talk to My Daughter About Climate Change

As a reporter covering the environment, I'm all too aware of what the next 50 years could hold. As a 9-year-old, she's not—and for now, she wants to stay that way.

An illustration of a child opening a globe with smoke coming out, while an adult gathers it in her arms
Ping Zhu
Editor’s Note: This article is part of Parenting in an Uncertain Age, a series about the experience of raising children in a time of great change.

Late last year, a local middle-school teacher asked me to talk to her class about my work as a science journalist. When the appointed afternoon arrived, family scheduling conflicts required my young daughter to tag along.

“So I’m going to be talking to these kids about climate change,” I told her in the car. “You can stay in the classroom and listen, or we can find another place for you to hang out while I talk.”

She looked up from her book, one in a labyrinthine series about warring cat clans. “Another place to hang out,” she said, and returned to her reading.

My daughter is 9—9 and a half, she would tell you—and she’s curious about many things. She’s curious about dragons and hyenas, prime numbers and royal marriages. She’s curious about robots and religion and race and gender. She wants to know why kids can’t vote; she wants to know if there’s any news about the Mueller investigation.

She doesn’t want to know about climate change. Not from me, at least. Not yet.

Climate change has been part of my professional life for well over a decade, and part of my personal life for even longer. While I don’t have any illusions that climate change can be averted by individual actions alone, I spent 15 years living off the electrical grid, and for both financial and environmental reasons my family still lives relatively simply. My husband and I deliberated for years about whether to have a child at all, partly because parenting in an affluent society is, shall we say, a carbon-intensive activity, and partly because we knew that future generations will probably have to contend with the consequences of a severely disrupted climate. While my personal ambivalence about parenting is long gone, I understand it in others, and I still worry about what lies ahead for my daughter.

My own responses to climate change have, inevitably, affected my daughter. When we lived off the grid, she got so used to explaining to her friends how our composting toilet worked that when she was five, and we moved into a house with a flush toilet, I overheard her showing friends how to push the handle. (They sweetly assured her that they had it sorted.) She knows that her father and I spend money pretty carefully, just like we try to use water and food and paper and power carefully, and while she makes fun of our habits, many of them have become hers, too.

But I don’t need to bring up climate change in order to explain why it’s a good idea to save a little water—and in general, I don’t. As a parent, I approach the subject of climate change much like I approach the subject of sex: While I answer all questions, without hesitation and in full, I make sure not to answer more questions than I’m asked.

My daughter hears the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” from others, and she’s asked me what they mean. A kind of pollution, I tell her, that a lot of people are working on fixing. A problem that I’m trying to help other people work out. That satisfies her curiosity, for now. She’s heard her classmates talking about bigger wildfires and rising seas; she’s heard adults joke darkly about “the end of the world,” and it scares her. When she tells me about her fears, I don’t deny that many of the effects of climate change are scary, but I remind her that people say silly things when they’re scared, even adults. I tell her that the world isn’t going anywhere.

My daughter is growing up in a relatively safe place, in a relatively stable climate, and bit by bit she’s learning about the dangers of the world. She’s learned that friends can be mean to each other, that classmates can be struck with life-threatening diseases, that kids her age are having to flee from war and famine. She’s learned, because she’s heard and asked and we’ve told her, that some kids in our country have been shot to death in their own schools. Someday soon, I expect she’ll ask me—or someone else—to tell her more about climate change and what it’s likely to mean for her. But she can choose when and how much to ask.

Too many of the climate-change education materials I see deprive kids of that choice. Often, they focus on how to explain climate change: They suggest that teachers use a houseplant to introduce the carbon cycle, or invite an older member of the community to visit the class and talk about the climate changes he or she has observed over a lifetime. They use age-appropriate vocabulary and activities to introduce the concepts of scientific uncertainty and civic engagement. Since climate change is usually tackled in science class, these materials are often written by scientists, so it’s no surprise that they’re primarily concerned with translating the science of climate change. But as a parent, and as a climate-change communicator, I’d like to see these materials spend more time on when and why teachers ought to discuss climate change in class. When are kids ready—both intellectually and emotionally—to learn about an abstract, global problem that may affect their future in very tangible, often disturbing ways? And what, exactly, do we want kids to learn from their first lessons about climate change? When we explain to elementary-school students why the sea ice is melting and polar bears are starving, are we truly satisfying their curiosity—or are we just sharing our own burdens of worry and responsibility?

David Sobel, an environmental educator, spent many years collecting neighborhood maps drawn by children in the U.S., England, and the Caribbean. These hundreds of maps, he reports, show a clear pattern: Kids between the ages of 4 and 7 put their homes at the center of their maps, often dominating the page. Kids ages 8 to 11 move their homes to the margins, focusing instead on what Sobel calls the “explorable landscape”—woods, neighborhoods, and other spaces that are within reach, but yet unknown. Kids 12 to 15 draw maps that are larger in scope and more abstract, but still anchored in familiar, often social places. “At each of these stages, children desire immersion, solitude, and interaction in a close, knowable world,” Sobel writes. As a parent, I’ve learned that kids usually tell us, or show us, when they’re ready to expand that world. When my daughter is ready to set out into the unknown territory of climate change, I trust she’ll let me know.

During our recent middle-school visit, my daughter and I found a hallway nook where she could read. The kids in the classroom I visited were three and four years older than she is, and they were studying the causes and effects of a recent nearby wildfire—a huge, drought-fueled fire that had choked the town with smoke for weeks, and forced some students to evacuate their homes. With the help of their teacher and a local arts grant, they were making a short film about the fire, and in the spring they would talk with students in Hawaii and Alaska who were at work on similar projects. As I talked to them about my own work, they squirmed, and laughed, and tipped their chairs at risky angles, and every so often they looked serious, because climate change is a serious thing. But they could barely contain their questions. In the years between my daughter’s age and theirs, climate change had become part of their explorable landscape—and they were ready to face it.