Last February my kids loved the huge snowfall we had. Snow rarely falls in north Texas, let alone enough to build snowmen and have snowball fights. But within days, the novelty wore off as the state grappled with its lowest temperatures in nearly a century. Millions had no power; Hundreds died.
“Climate change,” my 11-year-old replied promptly when I asked if he knew what caused the storm.
Whether they’re stuck in one of the country’s hottest states due to Arctic temperatures, breathing smoke from raging wildfires in the west, or enduring a record-high heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, children today are growing up in a world where the reality of climate change is inevitable. Most of them know – or soon enough will – that things are only going to get worse. What they don’t know is how to process this reality or what to do about it. Child-oriented media plays an important role in the preparation, but the issue of climate change is largely absent from most children’s programmes. That needs to change.
“We want to create some awareness without overwhelming or scaring children. The real message for children is, ‘Yes, it happens, but through ingenuity and cooperation, we can solve problems.’”
“It will become increasingly clear [climate change] is an issue that we need to address with our programming,” says Sara Poirier, Science Communications Advisor. “Where [the industry] lacks the goal of making it personally relevant to children and showing that it influences things that they actually experienced or that are important to them.”
There are a few notable exceptions to the lack of climate-related media for children: Nature Cat, Wild Kratts, The Octonauts, She-Ra aand the princesses of powerand Paw Patrol have touched on all issues related to climate change. A few podcasts, like NPR’s wow in the world and Great Britain Fun Kids Science Weeklyexplore aspects of it every now and then, as well as occasional movies, like the last one Bigfoot family, in which children work to protect a wildlife sanctuary from an oil company. (The film drew the ire of Canadian energy lobbyists, who called it “full of lies and misinformation.”) However, children’s programs have largely avoided the subject.
Of course, climate change is politically charged, but that alone doesn’t explain its absence from child-focused media. After all, the children’s program has dealt with controversial social issues before. Amid the white backlash against racial integration, Mr. Rogers famously invited the local black police officer to bathe his feet in a children’s pool next to him Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. As schools debated whether autistic students should remain in mainstream classes or be segregated, Sesame Street introduced his first autistic character – and not long after he added a homeless character.
So why not tackle the climate crisis?
One obvious reason is that climate change is scary. It is difficult to present an existential threat to humanity in a way that is emotionally bearable for children. “For decades, we’ve shown alarming images of melting ice caps and polar bears showing climate impacts in remote locations,” says Poirier. By not realizing what a complicated, emotional issue it is, “we scared people to death or overwhelmed them so much that everyone emotionally distanced themselves from the issue for a couple of decades.”
But the lack of quality youth programs on climate change can actually increase young people’s climate anxiety. “By the time they get into their teens, kids are wondering if there’s going to be a world they can grow up in, if there’s any point in dreaming or in going to college,” says Jacquelyn Gill, paleoecologist and associate professor at the University of California the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine. “Now the question arises: How do we fight climate desperation and climate fear in our country? The children see that the adults have not done anything about climate change. They have to know that there is still something that can be done and that’s the point, the big gap is right now.”
Fortunately, there are ways to get young audiences emotionally engaged on climate change without inciting fear or provoking undue anxiety. California filmmakers Talleah Bridges McMahon and Jim McMahon demonstrate this in Episode 2 of the four-part Sesame Workshop docuseries Through our eyes. the consequence Uprooted, is about two US families displaced by climate change. The story follows two sisters, ages 11 and 9, whose family may have to leave their farm in Iowa due to the unpredictable weather, and a nine-year-old in Texas who lives in a motel after her home was badly damaged in Hurricane Harvey. through our eyes which explores four social issues from children’s perspectives, began streaming on HBO in July.
Bridges McMahon says she keeps telling people about climate change as “an issue that’s going to affect us sometime soon” and something “we really need to do something about before it happens.” But it’s happening now, she says. “And people really need to understand that. That was the impetus for us.”
Since they were making a film aimed at a young audience, with the goal of sparking questions and family conversations — and not scaring viewers to death — the two filmmakers wanted to avoid thinking about how bad things could get, and focus instead on how children adapt. Coping with and developing resilience to the impacts of climate change.
“One thing that we grappled with was that climate change is not ending,” says McMahon. “It’s easier to leave a child in a good place when you know the problem is behind us, and it’s not.” The challenge of evoking an emotional response in children who aren’t yet feeling the effects of climate change experienced (but inevitably will experience) without weakening them with fear might discourage other filmmakers from exploring the subject. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean producers shouldn’t do it, says Poirier, and there are ways to do it well.
An April 2020 episode of the animated PBS Kids Show Molly from Denali is a typical case. The main character Molly and her friends hike to their clubhouse in the Alaskan wilderness, only to find that it has sunken several inches. Molly, an Alaskan Native whose heritage includes a mix of Indigenous tribes, is dejected. “What happened to our clubhouse?” She asks. She and her friends later learn online that the permafrost beneath the clubhouse and other buildings is thawing and the ground is collapsing. Molly’s grandfather informs them that the planet is warming but reassures them that humans are working on solutions. The kids then set about repairing their clubhouse.
In just 11 minutes, the episode ticks all the boxes Poirier recommends for communicating effectively and appropriately to young audiences about climate change: it shows how the impacts of climate change are relevant to children’s lives, offering a visual representation of the problem , explains science in plain language, relies on trusted messengers (Molly’s grandfather) and avoids the negativity of fear and helplessness. Most importantly, it promotes agency. The children learn that they can do something for their clubhouse even if they cannot solve the much larger problem of thawing permafrost.
“We want to create some awareness without overwhelming or scaring children,” says executive producer Dorothea Gillim. “The real message for kids is, ‘Yes, it happens, but through ingenuity and collaboration, we can solve problems.'”
Molly from DenaliSkilfully weaving climate change issues into children’s programs remains an exception. Thankfully, there are signs that other producers are finally turning their attention to the issue. Nickelodeon’s Nick News has premiered a special episode ‘Children and the Impact of Climate Change’ for Earth Day 2021 and the upcoming reboot of Fraggle Rock on Apple TV will likely feature climate themes given its history, says Jamie Donmoyer, an Orlando-based professional puppeteer and producer. The original Fraggle Rock— a 1980s show in which subterranean creatures sought wisdom from a compost heap and called humans “stupid creatures” — tackled environmental issues like pollution in amazing ways, says Donmoyer.
Just as it is not too late for humans to take meaningful action to mitigate the effects of climate change, it is not too late for producers to get involved and create meaningful media for children. “We have to start answering the children’s questions,” says Poirier, “and we also have to make them feel like they can make a difference … because they’re the ones who are going to carry the burden of the climate crisis that we are going through.” to let.”
This article appeared in the Winter Quarterly issue with the headline “Time to Tell the Kids.”