George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.
By Kevin Sweeney
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Credit: Indigo Flores

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 classroom discussion.

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.

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Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Trish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was a very sensitive topic for my children. I wasnt really sure how to approach the issue with them, especially since i dont believe that the planet is doomed like mass media makes it seem. My friend told me about this book called Deb and Seby, . It was cute and funny, and told my kids to "chillax" about whats going on with our planet.

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

(this is in response to the comments left by skeptics)

i still find it extremely difficult to believe that there are people in this country who still choose to believe that global warming is a hoax and that it is poor science. The proof of climate change is as clear as crystal, just look at changing weather patterns, look at melting ice, look at the number of species that are now in danger of becoming extinct. There is evidence that shows that our burning of fossil fuels does add carbon dioxide (a lot of it, mind you) to the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It really doesn't take a scientist to put these pieces together.

What the scientific community has come to realize is that the human species is profoundly affecting the earth's climate at a rate that the earth has never been able to produce.

In less than 200 years, we have released almost all of the carbon that took the earth millions of years to scrub out of the atmosphere.
Don't you think that changes anything?

It's really straight up ignorance to think that the human race, with all of the deforestation and pollution, is not big enough to initiate something has detrimental as premature climate change?

The fact of the matter is that the earth is not in any trouble at all, but many of the species on earth (including us) are at risk of extinction.

It doesn't take a lot to do something loving for the earth. You can't deny that all of our millions of tons of garbage pollute the earth, so think about it this way:

You keep your house clean, right? It's your living space, your little domicile, you wouldn't want garbage underneath your floorboards or insulating your walls or floating in your sink and bathtub, right? The same principle applies to the earth.

Everything you have, you have because of the earth. Every single thing. The earth is your home, it is all of our homes, so it is our responsibility to clean up after the messes we make instead of leaving them for future generations or ignoring them completely.

That's really all I have to say.

Miriam D Mantu's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Certainly, this topic is a 'must discuss' topic. But even as a mother, I find it a struggle to explain to my 5 year old daughter, or even to have an open discussion with adults about Global Warming..It's just terrifying, just reading the papers, hearing the radio news, watching the telly, everywhere, it's all about fear.

I believe if the Mass Media found a better way of broadcasting this topic then it would change our views (more like fears) towards it. Please don't make it too scary!!!

Peter Weiss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I have a new CD called "Do As You Otter" and it's got a song called "Greenhouse Glasses", a light-hearted, but educational look at climate change. You can preview it and other great songs at


Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was great. While global warming can be a scary thing, we have to teach younger generations about its effects or things will never change. To teach some of my students about global we have been following Andrew Weaver's expedition to Antarctica scheduled for later this year.

Check it out. The expedition should provide some very interesting findings.

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was great. While global warming can be a scary thing, we have to teach younger generations about its effects or things will never change. To teach some of my students about global we have been following Andrew Weaver's expedition to Antarctica scheduled for later this year.

Check it out. The expedition should provide some very interesting findings.

Andre	X.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Children should be aware of the present situation of our Mother Earth. Teachers did not mean to scare them for feeding that kind of learning.The main goal is to built in their young mind the awareness so that in their own little way they could contribute their part. The World Water Forum just held a meeting. The World Water Forum just met for the fifth time in Istanbul (not Constantinople) to talk about the state of the world's water. The amount of water in the world seems to be receding. Before a shortage happens, most world governments agree that something needs to be done about it, even if it means taking out a payday loan or two to help out. Changes in the world water supply have been brought about by climate changes. The consensus among the political and scientific community is that we have to get every nation in on the World Water Forum. So why did Istanbul get the water works? That's nobody's business but the Turks.

Parentscienceteacher's picture

I assume everyone has discussed with their students the hacked e-mails, the rigged hocker-stick graph, "hiding the decline", the questionable use of proxy data has read "Cool It" and explained the real reason behind the biggest scientific scam of our life time. I know did, it's sciecne fair time & they are about to collect raw data and produce their own primary literature for their peers to review. What perfect timing! I actually had two Chem majors from a local university doing intern observations in my class during these vital discussions about the scientific method & the only way to treat raw data, everything else is open to fudging, as reported all over the web.

John Shade's picture

Looks like I am running six years late in commenting here! My suggestion is that a simple explanation of three items is desirable for children: 1. climate has always varied, and the recent gentle warming has generally been beneficial 2. we are stronger than ever before in coping with that variation - there is no reason to be alarmed about that 3. some people are more easily upset than others by scare stories, including those about the climate system. I would also recommend parents and teachers get hold of a copy of 'Facts, Not Fear' by Sanera and Shaw. This has a wealth of good ideas and approaches for informing children on eco-scares.

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