Opinion: Talking to your children about the birds and the bees and climate change

Editor’s Note: Kottie Christie-Blick is a climate change education consultant, course instructor for the University of San Diego, California, and a mother. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

Call to Earth is a CNN editorial series committed to reporting on the environmental challenges facing our planet, together with the solutions. Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative has partnered with CNN to drive awareness and education around key sustainability issues and to inspire positive action.

Every parent worries about when, and how, to have a conversation with their children about the birds and the bees. Are they old enough? How much detail should I give? Will they understand? What do they know already?

The reality is that the information is already out there. It’s in the news and it’s being discussed in schools. It’s across social media. It’s written into plot lines in books and shows. And it’s not just adults discussing it – so are kids.

And by the birds and the bees, I’m referring to climate change and its effect on plants and animals and people around the world. We need to address it head on.

As much as you’d like to be able to tell your children climate change isn’t something they need to be concerned about, you know you can’t. It’s here. We are all seeing it, many of us are dealing with its impact already and it’s going to get worse. How much worse depends on how quickly we can reduce adding greenhouse gases to the air.

Kottie Christie-Blick - Kottie Christie-Blick

Kottie Christie-Blick – Kottie Christie-Blick

Just like other grown-up issues your children need to face, it’s best if they learn about climate change from you, as well as their science teachers, climate scientists and other reliable sources who can give them accurate information (rather than the kid down the block). Ask them what they’ve heard about climate change and if they have any questions or concerns. Answer them openly and honestly.

Start with the basics. Explain why our planet is heating up and changing our weather patterns. Educate yourself first using reliable online resources, such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, both US government agencies.

Or research together with your children. My website, “Kids Against Climate Change,” has child-friendly articles and videos for all age groups. Discuss what you’ve seen and read, both the facts and your feelings.

If your children express anxiety over climate change, acknowledge their concerns. Make sure they have the correct facts; then assure them that there are grown-ups taking steps to slow down climate change. Project Drawdown highlights many effective actions being taken to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as replacing gas burning stoves, ovens, furnaces and boilers with those that run on electricity. Look at the website together and discuss your favorite ideas.

But you’ll have to acknowledge that it’s not enough. Everyone needs to be mindful to live more sustainably; that is, to live in a way that Earth’s natural resources (trees, clean water and even clean air) are not depleted.

The first place to start is to reduce waste: electricity, water, food. Turn off lights when not needed. Use less air conditioning and heat. Use less water. Take only the food you’ll eat. Explain that not only will this help the planet, it will save money in the family piggy bank.

A mother and daughter pick up plastic bottles and other trash from a beach. - Kosamtu/E+/Getty Images

A mother and daughter pick up plastic bottles and other trash from a beach. – Kosamtu/E+/Getty Images

Remember that actions speak louder than words, so the more your family can do to use less the better. Make a list of climate actions and post it on the fridge, such as turning off the water while brushing teeth, recycling, composting food scraps, unplugging chargers when not in use. Check them off when family members do them. I’ll bet your children would love to decorate the chart, perhaps with a colorful environmental theme. And if you want to be super cool parents, and give your children bragging rights at school, put solar panels on your house or buy an electric car.

As a family, be on the look-out for evidence of ways people are beginning to reduce their carbon footprint. Talk about what you see each day as you move through your community (electric cars and buses, new trees planted, shoppers using re-usable bags). Have a competitive family? Keep a tally sheet – one point for each person who spots evidence of environment-friendly action. Spend time in nature with your children, be it in your back garden or local park, a forest or the seaside. Enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the natural world. Your joy, and the sense of discovery you feel exploring it with your children, will encourage them to fall in love with the beauty and wonders of the natural environment and will make them want to take care of it.

There are many young people inspiring others to ramp up environmental stewardship. But kids don’t need to start a movement to do good. All they need to do is talk. Encourage them to speak up for sustainable living, and to remind everyone they know to reduce their waste and take action to reduce their share of environmental pollutants.

However, once again, you need to be honest and acknowledge that doing all of this is still not enough. Reducing environmental impact is also the responsibility of oil companies, technology and utility companies, the transportation sector, manufacturers, governments, investors and philanthropists and organizations such as the United Nations. Everyone needs to take steps to slow down climate change.

But these groups won’t take action without pressure from consumers and citizens. This is where your children really need your help, because as an adult you have more power. Help pressure these groups to take responsibility for cleaning the environment and mitigating climate change, and tell your children what you are doing. Don’t be surprised if they give you a pat on the back and say, “Job well done!” After all, it’s going to affect their future.

The best way to talk to your children about climate change is openly and honestly, and to give them hope by taking action together. The next step is to encourage everyone you know who has children they love to do the same.

And don’t forget to talk about the birds and the bees, and ways we can help all animals that are being impacted by climate change as well.

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