Global Warning

Parents Need to Act Against Climate Change For Their Kids’ Sake

Droughts, heat waves—with the evidence mounting of major climate change, why aren’t parents taking action to protect their children from its dire effects?

Matt Gray / Getty Images

The dream is always the same:

His daughter is crossing the street, holding his hand, when he hears a whistle blow—loud, mournful, insistent. Behind her, in the middle distance, he sees a train racing toward the intersection.

He tightens his grip to hurry them across. But suddenly they’re unable to move, like in the games of freeze tag he played as a boy.

Instantly, his torso drenches in sweat. He shouts to passers-by: “Help us! Stop the train!” But they ignore his cries, as if they can’t hear.

Again the whistle groans. The train keeps coming. He screams louder.

Then he wakes up, heart pounding, and no more does he sleep that night.

This dream belongs to a journalistic colleague who, like me, has covered the climate story long enough to understand the implacable science facing his child as our planet continues overheating. But after he shared it with me, it became my dream too. Except in my version, it was my 7-year-old daughter, Chiara, and I who were crossing the street, frozen in place, as the climate train bore down upon us.

Now the deadly heat, drought, wildfires, and storms afflicting the United States this summer have made this dream seem all too real. “This is what global warming looks like,” Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press. The death toll is approaching 100 and certain to rise further, for the heat and drought are projected to continue through the end of July. In our country’s most extensive dry spell since 1956, the U.S. Agriculture Department has declared 1,000 counties—one of every three in the U.S.—natural-disaster zones because of extreme drought. “It’s like farming in hell,” Fred Below, a plant biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told BloombergBusinessweek.

Beyond the distress and discomfort, the record-breaking heat raises a puzzling question for anyone who cares about the future of our young people. The laws of physics and chemistry—the fact that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades after being emitted—mean that man-made global warming is just getting started on this planet. As a result, my Chiara and millions of other youth around the world are now fated to spend the rest of their lives coping with the hottest, most volatile climate in our civilization’s 10,000-year history. Think of them as Generation Hot.

Why, then, are so few parents taking action to try to protect their beloved children from this gathering catastrophe? And why has no one asked them to?

It made a certain sense when, in 2007, Al Gore urged young people to start “blocking bulldozers” to prevent the construction of coal plants. After all, who has more to lose from unfettered climate change than the kids of Generation Hot? And in the last five years, many young people have indeed targeted coal, the deadliest conventional fossil fuel, energizing a grassroots effort called Beyond Coal that helped block the construction of 166 (so far) proposed coal-fired power plants—the biggest victory against climate change you never heard of.

But what about parents? Why aren’t we up in arms? Protecting our kids is our core responsibility as parents.

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Parents could bring enormous moral authority to the climate fight, not to mention social and financial resources, but no major environmental group appears to have organized them. Nor have many parents organized themselves in the way, say, Mothers for Peace did during the Cold War. Today’s parents don’t vote as if the climate matters. Even in green-minded San Francisco, most parents I know don’t even talk about climate change.

Having covered climate change for 20 years and written a book, HOT, about how our kids can survive it, I think there are three main reasons for parents’ surprising passivity.

First, many parents don’t know, or choose not to believe, what science says about the climate threat. Most people get their information about such matters from the news media, and media in the U.S. report climate change through political rather than scientific lenses. Scientists are virtually unanimous that climate change is happening now and very dangerous; the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and its counterparts in every other technologically advanced country have affirmed this repeatedly. The message coming from the U.S. media, however, has been far less definitive, if not dismissive. Only 3 percent of media stories about the wildfires ravaging the West this summer mentioned climate change, according to the advocacy group Media Matters.

Second, if parents do face the facts, they understandably find them depressing. Who wants to think about their kids inheriting such a perilous future? It’s easier to pretend it isn’t happening.

This is especially true given the third reason: a widespread belief that there is nothing one can do to change the situation. The problem is too big, the political system too broken, the polluters too powerful.

As a result, many parents end up practicing what I call “soft denial.” Not to be confused with the denial purveyed by right-wing ideologues, soft denial does not reject climate science per se. No, a soft denier accepts the science, at least intellectually. But because climate science’s implications are so disturbing, the soft denier acts as if the science does not exist. In psychological terms, such a parent is in denial.

Understandable as this may be on one level, it is not responsible parenting. When Lisa Bennett, a writer in the Bay Area and the mother of two young boys, awoke to the dangers of climate change, she felt compelled to act. “I began to think it a bit crazy that I attended to every bump and scrape on my children’s little bodies and budding egos but largely ignored the threat likely to put sizable areas of the world … underwater in their lifetime,” she explained.

It’s time for parents everywhere to follow her lead: to wake up to the realities of climate change, shake off the paralysis of despair, and help their children live through this unavoidable challenge. Make no mistake: we know how to solve this problem, and many of the solutions will actually make money and create jobs. For example, in more than a dozen states now, you can lease a rooftop solar-energy system at no money down, with guaranteed savings on your monthly electric bill.

Some parents may begin addressing climate change by changing their family’s consumption patterns: eating less meat, taking mass transit, switching to solar energy. Those are valuable steps, if only because they make us think about how our individual actions affect our collective future.

But nothing is more urgent than changing the strongest drivers of climate change: the government policies and corporate practices that push greenhouse-gas emissions ever higher. Under current rules, polluters can emit greenhouse gases for free; worse, they’re subsidized with billions of tax dollars. Until that stops, individual lifestyle choices won’t make much difference.

Like it or not, parents must get politically active, employing the only language politicians respect: removing them from office if they don’t serve the public good.

Which is why no parent acting alone can protect her child against climate change. Parents can only influence governments and shift corporate behavior if they act in concert with large numbers of like-minded people.

At the moment, parents are the singlemost unorganized constituency on climate change, but some of us hope to change that. We’re launching a group that aims to mobilize parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, and anyone else who cares about young people. This means you too, President Obama and Governor Romney. You’re both parents and you need to start acting like it with respect to climate change.

For now, we’re calling our group Climate Parents, because we believe that taking action on climate change has become part of every parent’s job description, just like providing proper food, clothing, and shelter.

Whether we will succeed, we cannot say. But at least we’ll know we didn’t stand idly by while the climate train came barreling down the track at our precious children. And who knows? If enough parents heed the call, we might be surprised by what the power of love can accomplish.