As an environmental science instructor, there comes a time each term where I have to talk about climate change with my students. The reaction is predictable: they start saying how awful it is, they get scared about the consequences, and they ask why it is still happening if we know what is going on and how we are causing it. Over the years, I have found a few techniques and resources to be particularly useful.
Don’t show despair
If you have lost hope, don’t let it show. The kids will pick up on it, and it is far better to communicate to them that the best and brightest minds are working on the problem.
Give them ways to engage with the problem
Provide examples of how their everyday behaviors contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and then show ways that they can change to reduce their carbon footprint. Offer action items like letter-writing, community outreach, fundraising for an organization, and joining groups working on the problem in your community. Help them come up with their own ideas for solutions, and support development of their innovative ideas.
Make it a science lesson, not an existential crisis
There is a lot more to climate change than “we’re all going to die.” How do we measure carbon in the atmosphere? What are carbon sinks? How much carbon can one tree absorb? How does the ocean absorb carbon dioxide? Where can the carbon go besides the atmosphere? What are other technologies we can use? How do solar panels turn sunlight into electricity? Answering these questions helps children to understand the scope of the problem, while also providing them with an understanding of the solutions. I have written posts about the importance of science and the basic science of climate change.
Help them understand how we got here
Older children and teenagers will be asking how we got to this point, and they deserve answers. Explain the political battles, the denial and its roots, and scientific conservatism when it comes to raising concerns. Include the progress we have made, too – the growth of renewable energy, the international agreements, the local actions, and the grassroots organizing.
NASA’s Climate Kids provides a multitude of learning opportunities, along with innovation opportunities and teaching resources.
Global Warming Timeline shows the progression of climate change through science and the public mind.
What You Can Do About Climate Change offers dozens of ways that both children and adults can take to reduce their individual footprint and take larger actions to fight climate change.
Our Children’s Trust is a group of kids and lawyers who are currently suing state and federal governments in the United States, with the goal of forcing climate action by arguing that climate change violates their constitutional right to life and liberty.