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January 06, 2013

Why kids are worried -- and what you can do about it

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor  

The other night at dinner one of my teenage sons told us about a discussion they’d had in his classroom that day.

His teacher asked the 11th graders which issue they thought was more pressing: the economy or climate change. My son said he thought climate change was the bigger problem, but my older son, who has been studying economics, disagreed, insisting that the economic crisis is more of a hazard, “It’s hard to find a job now as it is. What happens if we have another Recession, or even a Depression?”

“A job won't do you much good if your house is under water,” his brother retorted.

Our dinner discussions aren’t always so topical. Sometimes we talk about crazy substitute teachers, or the adorableness and laziness of our two chubby cats, or we squabble about the ban on cell phones at the dinner table.

But our conversation that night reminded me that our kids are worried about the future — and they have a lot to worry about. For my niece, who lives in Manhattan, the risk doesn't dwell in the abstract future.  When we saw her over the holidays, she told us that some of her school friends still haven't been able to go home because of damage caused by Superstorm Sandy. "I never thought that much about the environment or climate change before the storm," she said. "Now I think about it a lot."

Climate change all over the map

Climate change was barely addressed during the Presidential campaigns, as many have noted, but since Sandy it seems to be everywhere, and most of the news isn't good. For example, The World Bank issued a report predicting that planet temperatures will rise by 4 degrees by the end of the century if current trends continue.  And a recent New York Times report charts the soupy future many coastal cities will face if seas continue to rise.

For those who still question climate change, there’s more: the recent about-face of a prominent climate -skeptic, scientist Richard A. Muller, who announced his reversal in a Times op-ed: “Following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

If you’re like me, news like this make you shudder — and in response you dash to think about something, anything, else. But as parents we have a huge stake in the Earth's future. We do everything possible to keep our kids safe, teach them values, and help them get the best possible education — but none of this will matter if we leave them a planet in ruins.

What can parents do?

A lot, it turns out. You can learn more about climate change and international efforts to prevent it at 350.org, an organization founded by environmental writer, Bill McKibben. At home and in your community, there are countless, small, steps you can take to help mitigate the problem, from skipping meat just once a week to driving less.  (Go here to find more ideas on fighting climate change.)

In education terms, you can make sure all kids are receiving accurate information about the causes and implications of climate change — no small challenge, it turns out.   In school districts around the country, teachers are under pressure to avoid the issue of climate change, or to critique climate science and present "alternative" information, often sponsored by the energy industry A poll by the National Science Teachers’ Association found that 54 percent of teachers say they faced skepticism from parents about climate change and climate change education. Last year, Tennessee passed a law that protects teachers who encourage students to critique evolution and climate change.

Find out more about education and climate change at the National Center for Science Education.

Climate Parents

Finally, you can join other parents (as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and everyone else with a stake in the future — i.e. all of us) by signing up for Climate Parents,  a new organization started by journalist Mark Hertsgaard (author of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth) and environmental and labor movement activist Lisa Hoyos, to educate and advocate for policy reform.

It’s a new year — how about a fresh start on climate change?


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This is great advice for my house hold. There's something for everyone to do that will help the environment. I will make sure that extra weight is removed from our cars. On weekends, we will car pool more. The kids can recycle and save water while brushing their teeth or washing their hands.

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