The Climate Change Boogeyman

Is talk of climate change damaging for children?

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Those monsters under the bed? Well, they're no scarier than dust bunnies now. According to Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," children are more frightened by a different sort of boogeyman - climate change. Lomborg writes in the Guardian that telling our children about climate change is " grotesquely harmful," citing pre-teens who cry about polar bears ( maybe it's this kid?) and children who think the world is going to explode.

"Children believe that global warming will destroy the planet before they grow up because adults are telling them that ... The current debate about global warming is clearly harmful. I believe that it is time we demanded that the media stop scaring us and our kids silly. We deserve a more reasoned, more constructive, and less frightening dialogue."

Another recent study cited in Treehugger, though, states that fear-mongering is exactly the way to go (for grown-ups, at least). In their post, "Hope May Be Harmful For the Environment," an essay by John Vucetich, assistant professor of animal ecology at Michigan Technological University, and Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics at Michigan State University, claim that donning rose-colored glasses about environmental issues can be misleading, and cause apathy.

Though Lomborg and Vucetich/Nelson fall on different sides of the rhetoric debate, it seems that they both believe the same result comes of the mixed messages we're often bombarded with - namely, the exaggerated message that we need to clean up our act, but that everything is hopeless anyway. Says Lomborg:

Exaggeration also wears out the public's willingness to tackle global warming. If the planet is doomed, people wonder, why do anything? A record 54% of American voters now believe the news media make global warming appear worse than it really is. A majority of people now believe – incorrectly – that global warming is not even caused by humans. In the United Kingdom, 40% believe that global warming is exaggerated and 60% doubt that it is man-made.

But back to the kids. If we're really scaring the bejeezus out of them about climate change, what's the best way to teach a child environmental awareness? One popular method: the classroom video " The Story of Stuff," which was featured in the New York Times last month. The cartoon, created by a Greenpeace activist, encourages children to think about consumerism and waste in ways that don't spell out certain doom. Debi Gliori's book, " The Trouble With Dragons," is also a child-appropriate allegory for humans' planetary impact.

 When - and how - should children be taught about climate change? Guardian writer Leo Hickman tackled that topic last month, talking to a number of educators and child psychiatrists. Some say that any age is ok, depending on how you present the information, while one activist pinpoints 10 and 11 years old as the ideal age to teach climate change. Giving children responsibilities, such as making sure that the lights are turned out when they're not in use, is a good way to teach them about energy use and climate change. Scholastic recommends different tactics for different ages: for younger children, encourage a love of and connection to nature, while older children can discuss current events. But whatever you do, says Gliori, the author, be upfront with them. "Children don't like being lied to," she says. "This is their world, too. They will inherit it. It isn't a Disney movie."