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Interview with Harriet Shugarman

Author Harriet Shugarman

Today's author interview featuring our winning giveaway question is with Harriet Shugarman, the author of How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change: Turning Angst into Action.

How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change provides tools and strategies for parents to explain the climate emergency to their children, maintain hope in the face of crisis, and galvanize positive action by encouraging today's children to follow their passions in pursuit of a livable world.

When talking to kids, how can we as parents make the link between the climate crisis and the widespread inequality we are seeing, especially racism. And how can we as parents help our children to respond and take action?

Each of us deserves to be treated with dignity, respect and care. This isn’t, however, the world we live in. Our world is unjust, unfair and unequal—and it is becoming more so. Being born into a certain zip code, town or country shouldn’t define your chance at an education or your job success, nor should it be a marker of your ability to be able to be resilient in the face of our climate crisis. However, where you are born more often than not does define these outcomes, in disproportionate, unfair, and unjust ways. Sharing this reality with our children is part of how we as parents, show our children the importance of– telling the truth; even when it’s difficult, sad and complicated. So, as we talk about a range of climate solutions with our children, about using our passions to drive our input to creating solutions, and about how society, and communities will work to recover post COVID, be sure to point out how jobs in the new green economy, how infrastructure and public transportation placement, all have a connection to racial justice. Who gets these new jobs and where that new infrastructure is to be built and sited, matter. As the economic gulf between rich and poor is exacerbated, how we work to close this gap, how our elected officials create policy around this, is a way to build a new and hopeful future, one that isn’t built on resource-extractive, polluting industries that hurt certain groups worse and first. Helping everyone participate and benefit in this new future we envision, is a way to share the injustices around us with our kids, and at the same time as to show them how we can ensure that these are righted as we move forward.

Sharing as well, how, our moral and ethical responsibilities stack up with the practical implications of the growing and destructive impacts that - because of COVID19, and racial inequalities, are multiplying over there? What does "over there" actually is over there? We must open our eyes to the reality that over there is just as likely to be across town or down the block as it is to be in a country across the ocean. Pointing these facts out to our children, from my perspective, should become part of our job as parents. A big question to ponder is, are we willing and able to reconcile the importance of addressing climate justice, along each step of our journey?

What do you think about the message to kids that they can change small personal behaviours like changing their light bulbs and recycling plastic and everything will be okay. Does undertaking small achievable actions actually help kids feel better even if it doesn't really help climate change? Is this a good idea?

While doing our best to walk the walk, setting examples for ourselves and others as we reduce our personal footprint—we need to remind ourselves and our children, that no one is or can be perfect. We need system change at a grand scale. Who has the right or authority to be the judge defining what is the perfect example of individual bests? Having a zero ecological footprint is at odds with being a part of society and living amongst and with community—let’s work to make this the norm but recognize too that it isn’t currently possible in 99% of towns and cities. The problems we face are now so large we desperately need systemic change, and we need this urgently. Lowering our own ecological footprint is clearly something each of us should work toward; however, working for perfection is another thing entirely.

From where I sit, my message on this is: definitely continue to teach your children to recycle, to tread lightly on our planet, and to measure and reduce their personal and your family footprint; this is, and should be, part of our parental responsibilities. However, because society didn’t act soon enough, our climate crisis is already reaching tipping points and points of no return. Bringing our planet back to a state of balance will require collective and societal actions on a global scale. We need policies and laws that will impact us all and move all of us in these directions. We also need laws that require corporations to clean up their own messes rather than passing on their messes to us. At our current individual pace, we will not get to where we need to be in time. But this doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and do nothing. We must and can lead by example. Individual responsibility—changing our habits and reducing our personal footprint—is important. We can all be part of the solution; and by taking personal action this leads to expectations and demands for other to do the same. Those that can go by giant leaps and bounds must, those that can move forward by one step at a time must do so as well.

We see the huge restrictions and changes being put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but not the same urgency for Climate Change. How do we explain that to our kids?

As Climate Mamas and Papas, the similarities, the concerns and the understanding of impending and current climate disasters that we witness with increasing regularity and that we warn others about, seems to be playing out as a worst case scenario comes crashing down upon us in real time. COVID19 has opened a floodgate for many of us – we have been living with the knowledge that we have limited time to slow down our climate crisis, but this experience is showing us what NO time looks like. Certainly some of our children will be frustrated by this fact. However, we can hopefully also show them what we have learned, and how because of the huge actions, that a year ago would have been impossible to imagine, that should give us hope that we can also imagine, envision and work towards collective action that is takes on the seriousness of the climate crisis with the urgency it requires.

With our climate emergency as with COVID19, the beginning point is to tell the truth – keeping it simple and straight forward. There is so much we don’t know, but there are things we do know,

  • We know it’s happening fast
  • We know we are causing it to happen faster.
  • We know there are things we can do about it

Begin a list, big and small of what your family has learned, what we can do without and what we must have. My family list begins with compassion, with patience, with love, with humor and with active hope.

Winning Giveaway Question's

How should (for example) my child, who is scientifically rational, have a discussion with a scientifically irrational child i.e. one with parents who don't believe in the climate crisis?

Good question Chris, and I think for us as adults too, when we are faced with irrational colleagues, friends and family when it comes to that reality of the climate crisis, it can be incredibly frustrating and often a discussion that can't be "won." So, I would begin by helping your child understand that this too can be frustrating for you, that many kids first present the beliefs of their families, and accept that as reality - stepping away from the family beliefs can be difficult. However, some advice for your child to proceed. Suggest that your child share her concerns, what she is seeing in relation to extreme weather events and/or other areas where climate change is impacting you, your family , your surroundings directly. Then perhaps share some facts about the location you live in, how climate change has impacted your, your child and your child's friends home..more frequent heat ways, wildfires, sea level rise, increase in poison ivy, lyme disease, etc. And then perhaps good things that are being done to mitigate or adapt, as a community...if this is happening. Sometimes going "head to head" "fact to fact" isn't going to work, depending where the other person is coming from, and in this case, perhaps it's from a family who science isn't the driver of belief. I hope this helps. Let me know. Happy to continue the conversation!


Harriet Shugarman

Harriet Shugarman is Executive Director of ClimateMama, professor of Global Climate Change Policy and World Sustainability, and Chair of The Climate Reality Project, NYC Metro Chapter. She is a nationally recognized influencer and trusted messenger on solutions to the Anthropocene. She blogs and lives in New York, NY.

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