Rebecca Hill">

Talking to Your Teen About Climate Change

When Indianapolis resident Marta Heimlich Carter’s daughter watched the documentary “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” in her environmental sciences class, she was so outraged that she became a vegetarian. 

But she didn’t stop there. “My husband and I drastically cut our meat consumption to one to two times per week,” Carter says. “She was the one who influenced us to eat less meat.”

In the last year, Carter’s daughter joins thousands of other teens who are raising the specter of climate change. With the recent series of climate marches, young people are demonstrating the world’s lack of action on climate change and encouraging engagement. And though they are acting, they are scared too. After all, it is their future.

A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation study found that most teens surveyed said that they were afraid, angry and felt helpless in the face of what 97% of all climate scientists are now telling us. Climate change will forever change their world — not our world, but their world. The good news: Like Carter’s daughter, teens are doing something about it.

Iowa State University’s Kathryn Stevenson, author of the study “Children can foster climate change concern among their parents,” found that children can be influencers when it comes to climate change. They can even change their parents’ and other’s minds. “I think that kids are wanting to be more activist and are trying to figure out how to contribute,” Stevenson says. “Having these conversations at home is one thing that they can do.”

But they are also doing other things, says Melissa Widhalm, operations manager for the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. In the past year, Widhalm has received more requests from youth groups interested in making changes in their own community for climate change reasons. Seven cities in Indiana have passed youth-led climate resolutions in their local city councils.

At school and in their communities, teens are leading recycling efforts, efforts to reduce cafeteria food waste or waste in supplies used at their schools, or even introducing vehicle idling programs to reduce emissions in school parking lots. Kids are talking to scientists, city councils, mayors and writing resolutions to make these changes in their communities, Widhalm says.

So how can parents encourage their teens when they have strong views on climate change, especially if they as parents don’t necessarily agree?

First, parents can educate themselves about the facts on climate change, Widhalm says. For a good starting point, Purdue University’s Climate Change Center shares on its website the current assessment of climate change in Indiana: ag.purdue.edu/climate. Other sources with basic facts include NASA’s Global Climate Change site: climate.nasa.gov.

Parents can also listen when their teen comes to talk to them about their concerns about climate change, remembering that their teen may be feeling emotional about what’s happening. “We need to listen to our kids when they come to us with information about climate change,” Widhalm says. “We can start by talking about what we can do in our own households and community to make a difference.”

For teens who want to be part of making changes, environmental volunteerism is a great way to get involved. “There are a growing number of student groups to get involved in,” Stevenson says. Kids can start small with projects that they feel called to do, like starting a home garden, or making a list of plastic items that families can avoid buying, or using reusable water bottles in place of plastic single-use bottles. They can start a club at school, too. Climate change affects every aspect of our lives, Widhalm says, and teens are motivated and want to know what they can do about this.

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