Last April, while chaperoning my daughter's field trip, I mentioned
to a fellow parent that I was going to visit Ms. Jackson's
class to talk about climate change. Another parent, not
involved in our conversation, gasped and lunged toward us. "You're not going to talk to the class about climate change," she said. "They'll be petrified!"
On the day I spoke to the class, I arrived early, during recess. Two
students were inside, sitting at computer terminals, and when Ms.
Jackson reminded them of my topic, they both gave exaggerated negative
looks that begged an explanation. They responded with the same
message: Climate change is scary, and we don't want to be scared.
Both incidents were reminders that a conversation about climate
change is often, really, a conversation about fear. And, to be clear, there
is reason for fear. James Hansen, America's leading climate scientist, says
if we continue with business as usual, half the species that exist today
will be extinct at the century's end. It would be a heartbreaking saga,
played out in slow motion during the lifetime of today's fifth graders.
Species loss is only part of the story. I spent most of last year working
with eleven retired three- and four-star admirals and generals on a
report assessing the national-security implications of climate change.
(That work, incidentally, is what led to my invitation to talk with the
students.) Their report suggested that water and food shortages, combined
with violent weather events, could lead to massive upheavals and
instigate conflicts in every global region. These were grown men, all of
them battle tested, and they found the news about climate change to be
very scary indeed.
What, then, does one say to fifth graders?
Lacking confidence that I might know this on my own, I asked a
dozen friends for advice. Their responses brought focus to the one-hour
One friend said to be honest but selective: Admit that the challenge is
great, give them one or two examples of consequences, and focus on good
things that are happening. This was helpful. The honesty built trust with
the students, and talk of political momentum lightened the discussion.
Another friend suggested I give them something easy to do, something
a bit more difficult, and something very challenging for "homework." This
helped engage kids at different levels. For an easy task, I asked them to
replace one incandescent lightbulb with a fluorescent one. For a
midrange task, I suggested putting up a clothesline in the backyard
and hanging out clothes to dry.
For the stretch, I suggested they talk to their parents about dissecting
their family's energy bills, comparing next month's bill with the same
month last year. If their energy usage and costs went down, perhaps
they could split the difference with their parents. This way, it becomes
a business for the student, who now has a financial incentive to turn
off the lights, unplug the appliances, and find new ways to save energy.
The follow-up essays, assigned by the teacher, Ms. Jackson, showed
that the clothesline idea clearly resonated with the students. In class, we
had talked about how clothes, sheets, and towels feel different when line
dried. The students liked the notion that giving up something (the convenience
of a dryer) could also mean they get something (energy savings).
The best advice from friends was to focus less on the details and
more on a framework. As the science of climate change gets better, the
news gets worse. This generation of children needs a way to process
these news accounts; without it, there is every reason to believe they
might shut down emotionally or lose themselves in avoidance tactics.
Here, I made a quick point about bad news: It generally assumes we
will continue with business as usual, doing nothing about the causes of climate
change. That, of course, may not always be so, and these kids themselves
can help bring about change. (See "A Climate of Hope.")
The bigger point was to consider what one might say of their generation
seventy years from now. I talked of their destiny, at least as I see
it, saying that their generation will be the one to develop solutions and
help us understand how to live in a changing world. They would do so,
in part, because they must. We talked of what it might feel like to be
part of such a cause, or to know that their generation and their country
would be leading an effort to help protect the planet.
This idea, too, was a focus of the student essays. They liked that
they might be part of a movement, and that they might be called to do
something great or heroic, that responding to this challenge might give
their lives greater meaning. Their words were
a reminder of a vital lesson -- one I need to
review often: Climate change discussions may
start with a sense of fear, but we can, and
must, move them toward a sense of hope.
Credit: Indigo Flores
Kevin Sweeney is a management consultant
whose practice focuses on climate-change
issues and corporate social responsibility.