Social and Emotional Learning

Truth and Consequences: Teaching Global Warming Doesn't Have to Spell 'Doom'

Turn fear to hope and action when discussing climate change with the next generation.
Credit: Indigo Flores

Last April, while chaperoning my daughter's field trip, I mentionedto a fellow parent that I was going to visit Ms. Jackson'sclass to talk about climate change. Another parent, notinvolved 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. Twostudents were inside, sitting at computer terminals, and when Ms.Jackson reminded them of my topic, they both gave exaggerated negativelooks that begged an explanation. They responded with the samemessage: Climate change is scary, and we don't want to be scared.

Both incidents were reminders that a conversation about climatechange is often, really, a conversation about fear. And, to be clear, thereis reason for fear. James Hansen, America's leading climate scientist, saysif we continue with business as usual, half the species that exist todaywill 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 workingwith eleven retired three- and four-star admirals and generals on areport assessing the national-security implications of climate change.(That work, incidentally, is what led to my invitation to talk with thestudents.) Their report suggested that water and food shortages, combinedwith violent weather events, could lead to massive upheavals andinstigate conflicts in every global region. These were grown men, all ofthem battle tested, and they found the news about climate change to bevery scary indeed.

What, then, does one say to fifth graders?

Lacking confidence that I might know this on my own, I asked adozen friends for advice. Their responses brought focus to the one-hourclassroom discussion.

One friend said to be honest but selective: Admit that the challenge isgreat, give them one or two examples of consequences, and focus on goodthings that are happening. This was helpful. The honesty built trust withthe students, and talk of political momentum lightened the discussion.

Another friend suggested I give them something easy to do, somethinga bit more difficult, and something very challenging for "homework." Thishelped engage kids at different levels. For an easy task, I asked them toreplace one incandescent lightbulb with a fluorescent one. For amidrange task, I suggested putting up a clothesline in the backyardand hanging out clothes to dry.

For the stretch, I suggested they talk to their parents about dissectingtheir family's energy bills, comparing next month's bill with the samemonth last year. If their energy usage and costs went down, perhapsthey could split the difference with their parents. This way, it becomesa business for the student, who now has a financial incentive to turnoff the lights, unplug the appliances, and find new ways to save energy.

The follow-up essays, assigned by the teacher, Ms. Jackson, showedthat the clothesline idea clearly resonated with the students. In class, wehad talked about how clothes, sheets, and towels feel different when linedried. The students liked the notion that giving up something (the convenienceof a dryer) could also mean they get something (energy savings).

The best advice from friends was to focus less on the details andmore on a framework. As the science of climate change gets better, thenews gets worse. This generation of children needs a way to processthese news accounts; without it, there is every reason to believe theymight shut down emotionally or lose themselves in avoidance tactics.

Here, I made a quick point about bad news: It generally assumes wewill continue with business as usual, doing nothing about the causes of climatechange. That, of course, may not always be so, and these kids themselvescan help bring about change. (See "A Climate of Hope.")

The bigger point was to consider what one might say of their generationseventy years from now. I talked of their destiny, at least as I seeit, saying that their generation will be the one to develop solutions andhelp 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 bepart of such a cause, or to know that their generation and their countrywould be leading an effort to help protect the planet.

This idea, too, was a focus of the student essays. They liked thatthey might be part of a movement, and that they might be called to dosomething great or heroic, that responding to this challenge might givetheir lives greater meaning. Their words werea reminder of a vital lesson -- one I need toreview often: Climate change discussions maystart with a sense of fear, but we can, andmust, move them toward a sense of hope.

Credit: Indigo Flores
Kevin Sweeney is a management consultantwhose practice focuses on climate-changeissues and corporate social responsibility.

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