'How to Talk to Your Kids about Climate Change' (Book Review)

This thoughtful guide helps parents with a tough topic, while inspiring action.

Man and boy walking down a hiking trail
Annie Otzen / Getty Images

Becoming a parent can be a rewarding experience, but with it comes tremendous responsibility. These days, that responsibility includes the unenviable task of explaining the climate crisis to children, and breaking the news to them that the world they're just getting to know is in fact in danger.

A book by long-time climate activist Harriet Shugarman can make these conversations a bit easier. Titled "How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change: Turning Angst into Action" (New Society Publishers, 2020), it is a 150-page guide to broaching this topic with children and implementing climate action into family life. 

How to Talk to Kids about Climate Change book cover


Shugarman is well-qualified to write such a book. She is the founder and executive director of ClimateMama, a website created in 2009 to help parents learn about the climate crisis. She is also a professor of Global Climate Change Policy and World Sustainability and chair of the Climate Reality Project in New York City. 

The first third of the book provides an overview of the climate crisis and how we've still failed to take action, despite decades of knowing there was a problem. Shugarman, who spent 13 years working for the United Nations, explains how the Paris Agreement works, but is unimpressed with its non-binding commitments. She has little patience for Obama's rapid expansion of the oil and gas sector, Trump's isolationist policies, and the United States' overall failure to use its global influence to lead and prepare for what's ahead.

It's not until chapter 3 that Shugarman talks directly about parents, focusing on the psychological toll of climate awareness. She acknowledges the profound grief that many parents feel, and how acceptance is necessary to move on to hope, resolve, and finally action.

Chapter 4 emphasizes the importance of leading by example and telling children the truth, without sugarcoating it:

"It's important that [children] learn the facts about climate change, its impacts, causes, and possible solutions directly from you or from an educator you trust to share this reality ... By seeing other children and adults around them working to create a livable future where they will not only survive but thrive, your child can build hope and resolve."

Furthermore, you shouldn't shy away from entering into constructive discussions with people whose views differ from yours. Show your child that all conversations can begin from a place of love. "We mustn't normalize situations and actions that are clearly not normal, nor allow lies to be spoken and remain unchallenged. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but not their own set of facts. We must speak the truth. Work to uncover it, and then champion it."

Educate yourself on the climate change curriculum at your child's school. This varies widely across the U.S., so it's important to know what they're learning. You can offer to supplement it with additional resources. (Shugarman recommends Young Voices for the Planet.)

Modeling active activism is important, too, as opposed to the "naptime activism" that emerged with the Internet. This is also called "slacktivism" – clicking links to sign petitions or share stories without actually getting out there, protesting, shouting, waving a sign. Watching a parent march has a profound impact, so Shugarman encourages taking kids along to age-appropriate protests.

Conversations With Your Children

The book takes a while to get into the nitty-gritty of how to speak to kids about climate change, but when it does (in chapter 9), the suggestions are great. Young children can help make a "family climate plan," a roadmap to help a household reduce its carbon footprint. Children can learn basic concepts of "mitigation" and "resilience." "[Mitigation] can be translated as lowering your greenhouse gas emissions as a family. Some ideas include meatless Mondays, lights-out Tuesdays, composting, rain gardens, and tree plantings."

Resilience is about adapting to changes that are already occurring. "Talk about climate disasters with your children: how we are making hurricanes worse; how when it rains or snows, it does so in extremes; how it's hotter in the daytime and cools off less at night than it did when you were young; how allergies are worsened."

Children can be encouraged to take action in many forms. It doesn't have to mean marching in a protest; it can also be writing letters, drawing pictures, putting on a play, organizing a neighborhood plastic cleanup, or creating a climate plan for school.

Talk to your children about the origins of things to give them a sense of how much comes from nature. One contributor, Perry Sheffield, wrote, 

"[Talking about] plastic, for instance, led to a discussion of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels led to a discussion about our electricity and eat. In this way, we teach the wonder and interconnectedness while simultaneously conveying a sense of stewardship, responsibility, and understanding that almost everything we observe results from human choices."

Throughout these conversations, remind your children that there are many adults working on these issues and they are not alone. "The present and future do not rest on the shoulders of your child alone. Make sure he understands this clearly."

Older kids and teens pose different challenges. Many are growing up in a world where everything appears extreme, so they're skeptical of what matters and what doesn't. As one parent commented in the book, "At some level, [my kids] think that what's happening is normal. I saw their attitudes change a lot after Donald Trump was elected, especially since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. They really think the system is rigged and that people are generally corrupt (which is so sad) and that their individual action doesn't make a difference." Don't be surprised if you find your teenager has a different view on climate than you do, and be patient. "Let your approach be tempered by their current perceptions and knowledge base," Shugarman writes.

Shugarman's passion shines through the entire book. This is a subject in which she has decades of experience, vast knowledge, and strong opinions. There is no doubt that parents will come away feeling empowered to speak the truth to their children and to strive to equip them with tools to fight in years to come. It's the least we as parents can do for them.

Order "How to Talk to Your Kids about Climate Change" online from New Society Publishers or other online book vendors, $17.99. PDF version also available.