“So, mama, the entire world is going to burn up?” my son asked with his eyebrows arched. 

This is not how I thought this conversation was going to go. Brendan noticed something on the news about the wildfires were starting to ramp up on the west coast, and I muttered something to Dave about “remember how bad the smoke was a few years ago?” I noticed myself muttering “climate change” under my breath, the kindling to light Brendan’s curiosity.

“What does climate change mean, mama?” 

I stared blankly. I didn’t know how to answer him. “Climate change” means a lot of things, doesn’t it? It means that our weather patterns are shifting in ways scientists saw coming decades ago and we didn’t do much to reverse the tide. The ozone layer is depleting because of CFCs, something I learned in grade school and still seems to be a problem. It includes greenhouse gas emissions, like methane and carbon dioxide, that are prevalent in the energy, agriculture, and transport industries. 

Climate change leads to global warming, meaning that has effects well beyond our ecosystem. It exacerbates underlying health disparities in our country, especially those for Black mothers who are dying at three to four times the rate of their white counterparts. It’s the wildfires that are at decade-level highs because of decreased rainfall and trapped air pollution. Farmers see it in the reduced crop yield year over year, impacting their ability to put food on their own table. We see it in unexpected floods that sweep away low-income areas of cities, further deepening the economic divide. It’s the hurricanes and other natural disasters that arise, seemingly out of the blue, leaving us scratching our heads wondering why it is working. 

It’s a long-term problem that, despite our best efforts, it’s hard to solve because politics gets in the way and any helpful policies will take two or three decades to enact. 

So how am I supposed to make this relevant to a young child? Afterall, I learned in my environmentally-focused elementary school that we could reverse climate change with the catchy “Recycle Reduce Reuse” jingle, and I see how much good that did three decades later. 

My best parenting moments are when I pause and try to find the right words, and by “pause,” I mean “consult Google.” The first article promised to direct me how best to make this conversation enjoyable, so I scanned the listicle only to find generic advice. Explore the outdoors! Embrace the emotions! Make it age-appropriate! Get your facts together! Wasn’t that what I consulted this article to do in the first place?

And then I thought of the one topic he’d totally relate to: the dinosaurs. Nevermind that they’re all extinct, Brendan is a dinosaur aficionado and is emotionless when it comes to talking about the meteor that crashed to earth, turning the dinosaurs into fossils. Surely I could explain that our earth heating over a long period of time because of the pollution we put in the air held some parallels and that he would understand without thinking his world was going to burn. Afterall, I’m following all of the tips in the aforementioned parenting article, right? 

I was wrong. 

Our conversation took a far left turn when I explained that the dinosaurs didn’t have healthy air to breathe or food to eat, and he equated that with a meteor that was going to land directly on top of our house. He started crying, thinking that we were going to die suffocating in smoke, and I had to hold him while he cried. It was not my finest parenting moment, and in total, was a 15-minute conversation followed by a 30-minute emotional rollercoaster.

So, on this Earth Day (and everyday because we have to focus on these issues more than simply 1/365th of our life), don’t do as I did. Looking back, here is what I should’ve done. 

  1. Watch highly educational shows on any streaming service. Yes, I am advocating for screen time. Our favorites right now is Wild Kratts, where two brothers talk about environmental conservation efforts and animal habitats in a scientifically accurate way. It’s a mix of animation and real footage of animals. This has prompted so many conversations.
  2. Find local ways to support climate change efforts. I’ve long supported global NGOs and foundations who pour their resources into bolstering and funding local, on-the-ground, vetted organizations who are truly making an impact. Justine Lucas, a friend of mine, is the executive director for the Clara Lionel Foundation and, while we can’t make a donation to them directly, Brendan and I are watching the ways they help those on the frontlines of climate justice in both big and small ways. Brendan specifically loves the youth organizations – watching them work inspires him to do more. 
  3. Find small ways to help around your community. One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is garden and give that produce back to our local food banks. We’ve also made conscious shifts toward energy-efficient appliances, transport and more. As we make those choices, we talk about it with Brendan. He may not get it right away and want to take action, but those conversations build a lifetime of giving back. I’ll report back in 10 years to see if it made a difference.

To dig deeper into the latest movements in combating climate change, I highly recommend checking out Justine Lucas and Fiona Korwin Pawlowski’s interview on We are Good and For What It’s Earth with Emma Brisdion and Lloyd Hopkins. 

How would you explain climate change to a young child? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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