How to talk to your kids about climate change: climate scientists

Students at a School Strike 4 Climate protest in Sydney in May. Photo: SBS News.


The topic of climate change has once again been brought to prominence after Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined other world leaders for the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow earlier this month.

It was revealed at the conference that Australia is now ranked last out of 64 countries and is among the worst performers in emissions, energy use and renewables.

Australia’s biggest issues were around the lack of decarbonising the economy, cutting fossil fuel use and promoting renewables.

“The country’s international standing has been damaged by climate denialism by politicians, refusal to increase ambition and refusal to recommit to international green finance mechanisms,” the ranking said.

While it may seem our politicians are having a hard time grasping the truth about climate change, Australian scholars and academics are already preparing the next generation for the realities of the issue.

Three climate change experts from the University of NSW (UNSW) have canvassed the topic of how to have a conversation with children on climate change. All three are parents themselves.

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick is a climate scientist at UNSW Canberra who specializes in weather extremes. She’s currently the mother of two children under five, with a third on the way.

Professor Katrin Meissner is a climate change expert with UNSW Science and the director of the university’s Climate Change Research Centre. Her specialty is looking at large scale climate feedbacks and tipping points. She’s the mother of two teenage children.

Dr Ian Macadam, meanwhile, is a member of UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre and is the lead for the Knowledge Brokerage Team at the Australian Research Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes. He helps translate scientific jargon for schools, governments and businesses, and is the father of four-and-a-half-year-old twins.

Prime Minister Scott Morrisson at COP26 in Glasgow. Photo: The Conversation.

Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said instilling hope for the future was important when talking to kids about climate change.

“I would talk to them about how the planet’s changing, the indicators of this and how we can fix it. I think you should always finish on a message of hope, especially with a younger demographic,” Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said.

A mother of two teenagers, Prof. Meissner takes a different approach to the topic with her children.

“We always had a very scientific approach to education. When they ask a question, they get the answer, even if the answer is not pretty,” Prof. Meissner said.

“Even when they grew up, they knew that Santa Claus was not real from early on, and we never made a big deal out of how babies come into the world, we never made them believe in the tooth fairy … so climate change for me is just another fact we have to live with, a fact we can talk about with the kids.”

Dr Macadam recommended positioning the conversation around resources.

“I like the idea of seeing climate change as a resource issue – I think you have to relate it to things they see around them,” he said.

“So, you know, they’ve noticed that my car uses petrol, so pointing out electric cars is part of my way into talking about these things. So I think the next stage for me is to try and talk about why we don’t just jump in the car for absolutely everything – not just because of climate change, but for other good reasons like reducing congestion and how it’s good to exercise.”

Young people are protesting the government’s lack of progressive climate change policies as they’ll be left to fix the mess. Photo: School Strike/Wikimedia Commons, published under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

All three experts expressed apprehension about what state the world would be in when they left it to their children.

“I do [worry] and it’s become more prominent since becoming a parent. Especially with the recent events like the summer in the US and what happened in Canada in a tiny town called Lytton, where temperatures almost hit 50 degrees,” Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said.

“Yes, I’m absolutely worried for their futures. I say so not because of one particular impact of climate change but because all these impacts will eventually happen at the same time,” Prof. Meissner said.

Dr Macadam stressed the importance of addressing climate change urgently, to ensure today’s children have a future.

“The challenge is to make sure that climate changes are limited and well-prepared for. This is the immediate challenge where my mental energy is focused,” Dr Macadam said.

“Carrying on this work will be my kids’ generations’ challenge. But we need to do something now to give them a chance.”

Tileah Dobson is the news editor of the Sydney Sentinel.