How to Teach Your Kids About Climate Change


Earlier this fall, three devastating hurricanes from the three largest oceans struck. The meteorological anomaly occurred on the heels of the United Nations–commissioned climate report, a grim missive penned by 91 authors from 44 countries that hastens the date of “significant global crisis” to 2040, a mere 22 years away. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the earth’s temperature has already warmed one degree Celsius since preindustrial times. If greenhouse-gas emissions continue unchecked, it will rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, increasing the likelihood of fires, coastal flooding, and megastorms, which in turn will threaten “food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth,” the report finds.

All I could think about were our daughters. In 2040, Pippa will be 32 and Maisy 30. What kind of world are we leaving them? Twenty-two years is nothing. As I was reading the news, my iPhone dinged. It was a friend posting an excerpt from the report, listing simple actions we can take at home with our families, and within our communities, to combat climate change. I’d been too morose to read that far and missed it, buried in a chart in chapter four.

I skimmed the IPCC’s recommendations, taking inventory. The suggestions looked workable; we were already doing many of them in our home, but there was a lot of room for improvement. The report validated what we already know: the choices we make as individuals and families do matter, and these are steps everyone can take starting right now.

Walk and Bike More

This is the number-one feel-good fix, good for our health and the planet’s. In our family, we try our best to walk or ride the three-quarters of a mile to school every day. That’s a mile and a half of driving, or an estimated one pound of carbon dioxide saved, not to mention 40 minutes of quality time with my girls. We’re fortunate to live within walking and biking distance to downtown’s shops, farmers’ market, grocery store, restaurants, and public library; and as our daughters have gotten older and gained more independence, we’ve cut back on organized after-school activities that require driving in favor of DIY outdoor fun like biking, running, and playing soccer in the sandy arroyo by our house. As an ultrarunner, I count all the steps I walk and all the miles I ride in a day as training for upcoming races, and going forward I vow to run more, and drive less, to the local trailheads.

Reduce Your Meat Consumption

The IPCC isn’t suggesting you have to become vegetarian, but in terms of climate impact, it’s hard to refute that meat consumption exacts a high toll on the environment, from carbon emissions to deforestation to water shortages. A 2018 report published in the journal Nature states that the “food system is a major driver of climate change” and recommends that individuals shift to a “flexitarian diet.” The IPCC report doesn’t cite a figure that might serve as a guideline for reducing meat intake, but our family has started small and is consciously trying to eliminate one to two meat meals per week—substituting tofu in our stir fries and increasing our consumption of beans to make sure we’re still getting the protein we need.

Shop Locally and Seasonally and Reduce Food Waste

When you do buy meat, the IPCC report recommends sourcing grass-fed cuts from your farmers’ market or local ranchers to reduce the carbon footprint of transporting food to your table and the consumption of meat from carbon-intensive industrial meat lots. The same goes for fruits and veggies and dairy: the shorter the distance from farm to fork, the fewer the greenhouse-gas emissions. Wasted food is also a culprit of climate change, and the Nature study estimates that one-third of food is thrown out before it even reaches the market, let alone our tables. The IPCC encourages individuals to throw less food away—which is where our five chickens come in handy. Not only do they provide us with eggs daily, they consume most of our food scraps. Win-win.

Hang Your Laundry on the Clothesline

When I was pregnant with my second daughter, my mother installed a wire clothesline in our backyard with spinning pulleys and a bag of wooden clothespins. She’d grown up in Canada and always loved the smell of air-dried sheets. I used it maybe three times a year because the dryer was faster and easier. This summer, though, our electric dryer broke and we were too busy to replace it, so the clothesline was our only option. The dread I used to feel when contemplating a load of laundry was soon replaced with the satisfaction I had knowing that air drying is better for your clothes and the environment. Air-drying clothes can reduce the average household’s carbon footprint by a whopping 2,400 pounds a year, and if all Americans line-dried for just half a year, it would save 3.3 percent of the country’s total residential output of carbon dioxide. We’ve since bought a new dryer, but vow to use it only on rainy days—and for bulky, slow-drying towels.

Go Solar

This one requires a bigger investment of both money and time. The 17 solar roof panels we’ll need to offset our monthly electricity usage (our electric hot tub is a major energy suck) will take 12 years to pay for themselves, but the 30 percent federal energy tax credit, which will drop to 26 percent in 2020, helps soften the sticker shock. Down the line, by adding two extra solar panels, we’ll be able to charge an electric car—another IPCC recommendation—meaning that someday soon we’ll be able to power our driving using only the sun.



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