ESSAY: Parenting in an era of climate change

by Jenn McKee | November 27, 2019

Metro Detroit writer Jenn McKee explores the landscape at the intersection of climate change, parenting, and the truth.

Nobody can hold your feet to the fire quite like an eight-year-old.

Seriously. My youngest daughter’s been pushing me on some pretty hard questions lately.

And I’m not talking about death (we covered that ground pretty thoroughly two years ago) or Santa (in whom she likes to believe, so she just doesn’t go there). 

I’m talking about how, after I drove Neve to a day camp this past summer, and we heard an NPR story about a heatwave in Europe making its way to Greenland, she quietly asked from the backseat, “Is something bad happening to the earth?”

I mean, how do you, as a parent in 2019, respond to that?

You start with a lot of throat clearing.

“Well, temperatures around the world have been rising a little in recent years, because of climate change, and it’s having all kinds of effects on weather, and hurricanes, and things like that,” I told her, trying to not burst into tears at the realization that even my third grader is now sensing that her future has already been compromised.

I went on tell Neve (sheepishly, hollowly) that many of the worst natural disasters were happening far from our home in Michigan; I assured her that lots of people were working hard to figure out ways to slow down or combat climate change; and I said that we needed to do our small part by recycling as much as we can, and using as little gas and other fossil fuels as possible.

What I didn’t mention, of course, was that many people out there still deny the existence and importance of climate change, and are working just as hard to block policy that prioritizes that as a consideration. (These omissions made me feel guilty, of course, but from a parenting perspective, it felt like the right call.)

Then this past weekend, I gently scolded Neve for barely using a napkin before grabbing for another one, explaining that we should create as little trash as possible.

“Where does the trash go?” she asked.

I briefly explained what a landfill is and that compactors crush trash so that it takes up less space, and that sometimes, we pay another town or state, or another country, to take our trash and figure out what to do with it.

“Why don’t we just burn it?” she asked.

“The problem with that,” I told her, “is that if you burn things like plastic, it puts bad chemicals into the air, so you can’t rely on that method, either. That’s one reason why there’s a push to use less plastic now. But when it first became commonly used, it seemed like this miracle material. It’s hard to change after it’s been so heavily used for so many years.”

Neve’s serious expression, made more intense by way of her just-prescribed eyeglasses, didn’t flinch as she slowly repeated like I wasn’t quite getting it, “So where, does the trash, GO?”

I shrugged. “Honestly, sweetie, this is probably something I should know more about. I don’t really know more than what I’ve told you. I’d have to look into it.”

Neve looked skeptical like she knew we were all bullshitting her.

And she’s not wrong.

Indeed, in that moment, Neve put me in mind of Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, who seems equally baffled by adults-in-power blathering while staring down a direct global threat. 

“Please save your praise,” Thunberg brusquely told a Senate climate crisis task force recently. “We don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to just tell us how inspiring we are without actually doing anything about it because it doesn’t lead to anything. … I know you are trying, but just not hard enough. Sorry.”

She’s absolutely right, too, of course. At a moment when we desperately need unity and collective brainpower to assess how we might best survive a crisis that threatens all life on this planet, we’re more divided and hostile and distracted by nonsense than ever.

And that must be utterly bewildering for a child who’s always been told to trust adults to BE adults – people who will know and do what’s right for the greater good. 

Yet that’s the big lie. When resources (read: financial security) are scarce – and let’s face it, no matter what the talking heads are saying about the economy, most “regular people” feel like they’re both constantly working and struggling just to get by – people shift from being community-minded to “Every man for himself!” mode. And social media only enhances our sense of isolation from each other.

So I don’t hold out much hope that political parties and governments will ever get over themselves and focus on the big picture, no matter how cataclysmic things get. (I mean, won’t we just be too busy blaming each other for climate change – presuming we all actually agree it’s a thing by then – to solve any problems?)

I have, though, attempted to soothe my parental anxiety by doing the small things that I can for the cause (driving a small, fuel-efficient car, using cloth shopping bags, walking and biking around our small town, etc.), and by telling myself that Michigan is better-positioned to withstand the scary environmental future we face than other, more vulnerable places. 

But that’s only partly true; and being less awful than the most awful place is still, well, awful.

When I really take a hard look at what the scientists have to say about our state’s future – which I often only do when my eight-year-old is asking me questions I can’t answer – I get a big, sobering dose of reality. The many lakes that I’ve always assumed would provide our state with the water we’ll need may be regularly contaminated by poisonous algal blooms (which often thrive in warmer water temperatures). The heavy rainfall that visibly flooded so much farmland in Michigan earlier this year will likely be even more of an issue in the future, as will fertilizer runoff and crop-destroying pests. Our beaches will continue to disappear as water levels rise. And even as soon as twenty or thirty years from now – when my kids could be starting families of their own – the air quality in Michigan could be compromised by ozone.

It’s chilling and so, so depressing to read these things, which is probably why I don’t do so regularly. 

But at some point, you have to meet the gaze of your inquisitive, stern-faced eight-year-old, who seems to be channeling the Ghost of Michigan Future and do your damnedest to answer her all-too-on-point questions.

Given how much we’re messing this up, it seems the very least we can do.