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Stop telling kids that climate change will destroy their world

Some “climate anxiety” is the product of telling kids — falsely — that they have no future.

Teenagers and students take part in a climate protest outside the White House in Washington on September 13, 2019.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

My 5-year-old daughter is now old enough to read a lot of books and magazines aimed at children, and it’s given me a whole new perspective on the discourse wars over how we talk about climate change, conservation, and the future of the planet.

As I’ve written about before, climate change is going to be bad, and it will hold back humanity from thriving as much as we should this century. It will likely cause mass migration and displacement and extinctions of many species.

What it won’t do, however, is make the Earth unlivable, or even mean that our children live in a world poorer than the one we grew up in. As many climate scientists have been telling us, the world is a better place to live in — especially for people in lower-income countries — than it has ever been, and climate change isn’t going to make it as bad as it was even in 1950.

“I unequivocally reject, scientifically and personally, the notion that children are somehow doomed to an unhappy life,” Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia, told Ezra Klein in his column this week about overcoming climate despair.

Writing aimed at adults doesn’t always do the best job of striking a balance, though not everyone agrees on precisely what that balance is. Books like The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, to my mind, do a reasonable job of describing some extreme scenarios that really are worth contemplating, but they still don’t add up to an uninhabitable Earth, or even one that’d be an awful place to live.

Yes, some things will be worse, but because of progress on many fronts in addressing extreme poverty and disease, as well as general economic growth, our kids’ lives will be better than our parents’ lives were.

This question matters because there’s a fierce debate among activists about whether more pessimistic messaging energizes people to fight climate change or causes them to despair, conclude the world is doomed, and tune out. But the messaging for adults is positively nuanced and optimistic compared to the presentation of climate change and other environmental challenges that gets passed on to kids.

What we’re telling our kids about climate change

As a parent, I think it’s essential to empower kids and pass along the message that the world will be in their hands, that they will have the power to solve its most pressing problems, and that there are lots of people already working on those problems who are eager for kids to learn, grow, and join us. Fighting climate change is part of that, and it’s important and worthwhile, but not because there will be no world for children to live in when they grow up.

Unfortunately, the latter message is the dominant one in Our House Is on Fire: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet, a beautifully illustrated picture book aimed at ages 3-8.

“There might not be a world to live in when she grows up. What use is school without a future?” one page describes Thunberg as thinking. Even as a setup for Thunberg’s rise as an activist, I’m not thrilled about that message. Some kids might hear that and be inspired to speak before the United Nations, but most kids are going to hear that and be scared and disempowered.

That pessimistic message seems to be sinking in for the young. A 2021 study funded by the campaign and research group Avaaz polled 10,000 people between 16 and 25, and found that over half thought that humanity was “doomed” because of climate change.

A child holding a protest sign that reads, “You’re gonna kill us all!” Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

“You see children saying things like ‘The world’s going to burn up, we’re all going to be dead in 20 years,’ and that’s pretty unlikely,” Susan Clayton, a conservation psychologist who studies how climate change affects mental health, told National Geographic in an article about kids and climate anxiety.

Clayton has some good advice on what to do with a climate-anxious child. But it’s worth pausing on her quote. Why do we see kids saying that? Because books, stories, and protest messaging aimed at them tell them that! There’s pessimism in the water around climate change, and kids often take that pessimism far more literally than adults do.

A child holding a protest sign that reads, “I’m sure the dinosaurs thought they had time too.” Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images

In some cases, it feels like adults are displacing our own frustration at political inaction on climate onto kids — and doing it by telling them things that aren’t true, and that they don’t have the perspective or context to take with the appropriate grain of salt.

The problem permeates advice about what kids can do about climate change, too.

I imagine the tendency of advice for kids about climate change to urge them to challenge their grownups, recycle, ride bikes, and attend protests is out of a well-intentioned urge to give them advice they can use right now. But I worry it sets them up for frustration, and is fundamentally not very honest about how they can solve climate change.

Kids who throw themselves wholeheartedly at those problems for their entire childhood, but who aren’t themselves Greta Thunberg, aren’t likely to get anywhere, and they won’t be positioned to get anywhere as an adult either.

The best way a 7-year-old can improve the world probably isn’t by pleading with adults. It’s by learning more and developing new skills that she’ll be able to directly bring to bear on problems like climate change when she gets older.

Raising a better future

When our daughter asks about environmental issues, I like to tell her that a few generations ago, there was smallpox, but some kids studied hard and grew up into grownups who fought to eradicate it. I tell her that there was leaded gasoline, but we learned it was bad and phased it out. I tell her that today there is climate change, and solving it is going to require new inventions and new ideas — and she can be the one to invent them.

I explain that if we had better batteries, then we could use solar for more of our power grid, so maybe she can learn how to invent better batteries. I explain that if we could grow beef without cows, they wouldn’t belch methane, so maybe she’ll be the one who figures out how to do that in a cost-effective way.

But I have yet to find a children’s book that frames the climate crisis that way: as a challenge, but one like the many that humanity has overcome, and one that our kids can overcome by learning about the world and inventing new solutions. If you know of one, I’m in the market for recommendations; if you don’t know, I invite you to think about where this hole in our messages for children leaves them.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!

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