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How to talk to kids about climate change

Florida has come out of a pretty scary hurricane season and professionals say kids, especially teens, have shown anxiety about climate change.
Three simultaneous wildfires in North Florida burned more than 34,000 acres in March of this year. New research suggests climate change could double Florida’s fire risk in the next 30 years. Photo courtesy Florida Forest Service.
Three simultaneous wildfires in North Florida burned more than 34,000 acres in March of this year. New research suggests climate change could double Florida’s fire risk in the next 30 years. Photo courtesy Florida Forest Service. [ Florida Forest Service ]
Published Dec. 26, 2022

While families across the country wrestle with how to explain climate change to children, Florida kids have an especially stark reminder.

The Sunshine State is coming off of a scary hurricane season, with 14 named storms and eight hurricanes. In early September, Hurricane Ian devastated the state’s southwest region, killing more than 100 people. Ian was swiftly followed by Hurricane Nicole, the first November hurricane to land in 36 years. Meanwhile, scientists point out that Florida is uniquely at risk to rising temperatures, increased sea levels and extreme weather events due to climate change.

According to a report from the Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation, climate change is significantly impacting mental health, with clear evidence for severe distress following extreme weather events.

Fishing boats pushed onto land from during Hurricane Ian are pictured on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022 in Ft. Myers Beach.
Fishing boats pushed onto land from during Hurricane Ian are pictured on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022 in Ft. Myers Beach. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

That can lead both parents and teachers to wrestle with how to explain climate change to kids without making them unduly anxious.

“It is really important to take children’s concerns seriously and not to pooh-pooh their fear and say there is nothing to worry about,” said Dr. Judith B. Bryant, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. “Try to address their questions factually as best you can but also calmly take in their emotional cues by not dismissing their concerns. But don’t amplify them.”

The next step is to show them ways they can help, which can give kids a better sense of control, Bryant said.

“As with any disaster or other weather event, point to the fact that there are helpers, experts and scientists who are working on this, who are addressing these problems,” Bryant said.

In the classroom, some teachers feel that in today’s politicized environment, teaching climate change can open them up to criticism from parents or politicians.

A woman walks along a flooded street caused by a king tide in 2019 in Miami Beach. Low-lying neighborhoods in Florida are vulnerable to the seasonal flooding caused by king tides. Scientists point out that Florida is uniquely at risk to rising temperatures, increased sea levels and extreme weather events because of climate change.
A woman walks along a flooded street caused by a king tide in 2019 in Miami Beach. Low-lying neighborhoods in Florida are vulnerable to the seasonal flooding caused by king tides. Scientists point out that Florida is uniquely at risk to rising temperatures, increased sea levels and extreme weather events because of climate change. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP (2019)  ]

David Zierden, a professor who holds the title of Florida’s state climatologist, has over the years acknowledged the politicization of climate change and global warming when it comes to teaching. Part of his role is to inform and educate Floridians about climate issues.

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“Climate doesn’t follow any political bounds,” he said in a recent talk.

Zierden accurately predicted the 2022 active hurricane season because the recent rise in water temperatures tends to make storms stronger, he said. Florida’s science standards in school received a D for its treatment of climate change in an October 2020 report from the National Center for Science Education.

The Florida Climate Center at Florida State University advises teachers on how to educate on a variety of topics, from sea-level rise to greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, green technologies, pollution, hurricanes, ocean circulation, El Niño and even career avenues.

“Overall I would suggest a focus on the solutions — from small everyday changes to large-scale efforts — as this can illuminate for kids the many ways they may contribute, and that there are opportunities to contribute in many different professions and fields,” said Emily Powell, a research scientist with the Florida Climate Center. “There are solutions, and there is hope.”

Hillsborough High School students cram recycled materials into a larger receptacle to make room for more in this 2013 photo courtesy  Hillsborough High. Getting kids involved in programs like this can help them feel more empowered and less anxious about climate changes, experts say.
Hillsborough High School students cram recycled materials into a larger receptacle to make room for more in this 2013 photo courtesy Hillsborough High. Getting kids involved in programs like this can help them feel more empowered and less anxious about climate changes, experts say. [ Hillsborough High (2013) ]

Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg said parents should be alert to signs of distress in their kids, such as becoming withdrawn, not wanting to go outside or not wanting to separate from a trusted adult. Seek advice from a pediatrician or trusted medical adviser for ways to get outside help, Katzenstein said.

Depending on the child’s age and development level, Katzenstein said there are a number of ways families can make kids feel empowered through action. She has noticed that older kids, from middle school on up to college age, seem to have the most anxiety about climate change. But they have the most options. They should be encouraged to write a letter, show up at an event, organize a recycling drive at school and take part in the family’s own plan to reduce its carbon footprint, she said.

Organizations like the Rainforest Alliance have guides like 10 easy ways kids can help save rainforests, which include ideas like using less paper and helping parents and teachers reuse paper instead of throwing it out.

And you can talk about success stories, like the time in 1987 when 197 countries agreed through the Montreal Protocol to ban ozone-depleting substances called CFCs used in refrigerators and aerosols. That successfully averted the disaster of a UV-bombarded Earth. Ozone levels are projected to return to 1980 levels by 2032 because of it.

“Information is power,” Katzenstein said. “It gives our kids some control and a sense of making a difference and an impact.”