“Kids would have to be living under a rock” not to know or be anxious about climate change. So says Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist who researches young people’s feelings about the climate crisis.
And if that’s the case, parents can help them get ready, recommends journalist David Pogue in his new book, How to Prepare for Climate Change: A Practical Guide to Surviving the Chaos. David Pogue is a science and technology writer and a CBS Sunday Morning correspondent.
Preparation can come none too soon, for a trio of reasons that all fall under the category of “Protecting Kids’ Health.”
The first reason, says Pogue, has to do with the growing health effects the warming climate is having on youngsters whose immature immune systems leave them more vulnerable. “They have faster metabolisms, their body sizes are smaller, and their nervous systems are still developing,” says the author, all of which magnifies the impact of heat, pollution, and bug-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease from ticks and West Nile disease from mosquitoes.
The second reason is directly connected to the hurricanes, fires, floods, and other extreme weather events that used to happen once in a lifetime and now seem to occur more than once a year. Not only do these disasters put children physically in harm’s way, but “there’s also trauma afterward, which leads to higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.”
Third, he writes, “A child doesn’t have to live through a weather disaster to be affected by climate change; the news that their future is uncertain is enough” to put them at risk of PTSD, phobias, sleep disorders, and even substance abuse.
Children of all ages are susceptible. Consider the blast furnace-level temperatures much of the country sweltered through this year. “Babies die more often as the heat rises,” Pogue reports. At the current climate change rate, “infant mortality rates will rise 5.5% for girls and 7.8% for boys by 2100.” At the other end of the age spectrum, the CDC reports that emergency room visits by high school students soared over 130% between 1997 and 2006; the number of young US athletes dying from heatstroke has doubled since 2009.
Thickening air pollution is another potential child killer. Moms already know that their kids’ asthma is getting worse. The 9% of children who suffer from hay fever are struggling as well, because longer warm-weather seasons mean longer ragweed-pollen seasons—and that means “your nose runs 27 more days a year than it would have if you were growing up in 1995.” Twenty-seven more days!
Floods wreak their own vengeance on our little ones. It’s common for flood water to be contaminated with animal (and sometimes human) waste, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and whatever crud gets picked up as water rampages over farm lands and feed lots and through cities and towns. Diarrhea is the second biggest killer of kids under five worldwide, and the most frequent cause is unclean water and food—“just the sort of things that follow the ferocious downpours and hurricanes in the new climate.”
“Bacteria love warmer weather. Planet warms, bacteria thrive, more kids get sick. Put it all together, and you’re looking at 48,000 more children dying each year from diarrhea by 2030.”
How can parents help kids cope with their feelings about climate change?
For starters, parents need to understand climate risks well enough to be able to explain them to their offspring in understandable terms that convey how serious climate change is, but also, that there’s a lot we can do to slow it down. This “Illustrated Guide to Climate Pollution” will help.
Next, parents need to talk about it. As Harriet Shugarman (Climate Mama) suggests, ask your kids what worries them. Acknowledge what worries you too. Highlight the many solutions that are being worked on by good and smart people all over the world, and then involve your kids in solutions you can adopt at home (like walking or bicycling rather than driving, wasting less, and turning off lights and electronics when they’re not needed).
Be prepared. Make sure to have a heavy-duty water filter available or at least a three-day supply of clean water for your family. Kids could pack “go bags” with their favorite pajamas and stuffed animal in the event you need to evacuate. Figure out now where you’ll all be going if you do need to leave. If an evacuation looks imminent, leave earlier rather than at the last minute so your children know you’ve got a plan.
Day to day, keep an eye on the heat index and air quality index, and bring your kids inside during the hottest, most polluted parts of the day.
Finally, help your kids connect with nature. The more they love it and value it, the more they’ll fight for it. And we parents need all the help we can get!