When — and how — should you talk to your kids about climate change?

Canary turns to the producers of the kids’ show Molly of Denali and beloved children’s-entertainer-turned-climate-activist Raffi for insights.

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Farewell, Friday Social. Say hello to Climate Meets Culture. What started as a column focused on social media has over time evolved to feature artists, authors, satirists and more, while also, of course, covering online culture. In a sense, this is more of a renaming to better reflect the way the scope has broadened over time than a reshaping of the column itself.

Canary Media’s Climate Meets Culture column explores the intersection of energy, climate and culture at large. Canary thanks Silverline Communications for its support of the column.

I first became aware of global warming as a kid, specifically during my teenage years in the early 2000s, as a local battle raged around the ultimately failed offshore wind farm planned near the coast of Cape Cod, known as Cape Wind. Twenty years later, now a parent myself, I’ve begun wondering when and how I should talk to my children about climate change.

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One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, my six-year-old son was running around in our backyard, over what was once a lush mix of grass and clover but is now a crispy field of yellow-brown plant matter. The yard had succumbed to the drought we’re facing in southern New England.

Was this a good opportunity to talk to him about the changing climate? I decided not to be a Daddy Downer” and instead just joined in the fun of his imaginary battles.

Later that day, my son and younger daughter were in the living room watching the PBS Kids show Molly of Denali. To my surprise, I overheard the characters discussing how solar panels work and how they are part of a solution to the heat wave that the show’s Alaska Native characters were facing.

It’s not often that I hear animated characters discussing how solar cells work, so I immediately opened my computer and emailed the creators of the show to see if they’d be willing to chat about the episode, aptly titled Heatwave,” and their approach to messaging climate change to children.

Molly of Denalis Executive Producer Dorothea Gillim and Creative Producer Yatibaey Evans were happy to hop on a call and answer my questions.

The show’s main character, Molly, is an Alaska Native and video blogger whose family runs a trading post in a fictional small Alaskan town. The show is known for being the nation’s first widely distributed children’s program featuring an Alaska Native as the lead character.

Evans, an Alaska Native herself, specifically Ahtna Athabascan, noted that the show has over 88 different indigenous contributors, even including her nine-year-old son, the youngest of her four boys. It’s amazing when we look at just one episode and see pages of different indigenous people that were a part of that creation,” said Evans. Changing the media industry to be one of inclusivity and authenticity for Alaska Native and Native American people has been really incredible,” she added.

When we set out to make Molly,” Gillim said, we wanted to create an authentic portrayal of not only Alaska Natives, but Alaska. And you can’t really do a show about Alaska and not talk about climate change.”

According to a 2019 report, Alaska is the fastest-warming state in the nation, and that has had disastrous consequences for humans and wildlife. Evans pointed to Christmas Day last year: Instead of snow, four inches of rain fell, and an ice layer formed. It was devastating for us as people, but can you imagine what it did to all the animals and how difficult it made for caribou, for example, to scratch through the ice and attain their food?”

Evans went on to describe the Yukon River being closed to fishing for the last few years because of declining salmon runs, which most agree is likely a result of climate change. It’s been a food source for people along the Yukon River since time immemorial,” she said.

With climate change bearing down on Alaska and around the globe, I asked about how they incorporate the topic into the children’s show.

We always work closely with advisers on stories that involve climate change because we don’t want to overwhelm kids,” said Gillim. The advisers say to meet kids where they are. So if kids are noticing or experiencing extreme weather, assure them that people you know are actively working on this, just like in the Heatwave” episode, when they made a solar-panel-[powered] fan.”

Along with presenting technological solutions to climate change, the show highlights Indigenous values, like the importance of taking care of the natural world. 

Throughout all of the episodes, Evan said, we often share our Alaska Native values of respect and gratitude. We have Molly and her friends giving thanks to the plants that are providing, whether it’s medicine or food. When you give thanks to a being besides a human, it generates a different feeling of connection for you.”

When we teach our children the respect of their home and their place,” continued Evans, they’re able to continue on in that relationship with the larger environment.”

Baby belugas

Shortly after my conversation with the Molly of Denali team, I learned (perhaps quite belatedly) that children’s music sensation Raffi, famous for songs like Baby Beluga” and Down by the Bay,” has been an ardent climate activist for decades. He wasn’t available by bananaphone, but I was able to get a hold of him through email to ask a few questions about climate messaging for kids.

First, though, I asked him about how he got involved with the climate movement. He replied:

In 1989, I heard David Suzuki in a CBC Radio Series, A Matter of Survival. I heard it loud and clear that a too little, too late” response to global warming might risk passing tipping points that can become irreversible. That word, irreversible,” sent shivers through me. I took a sabbatical, and in 1991, I released an ecology album (for older audiences) entitled Evergreen Everblue.

In more recent years, Raffi wrote Young People Marching,” which he notes was inspired by Greta Thunberg and the millions of young climate marchers worldwide.” He told me that the song both praises young climate activists and also rails against the decades of lies, decades of denial’ by fossil fuel giants such as Exxon who’ve known about the climate threat since the 1970s and yet deliberately deceived the public.”

When I asked him what his advice was for parents about how and when to talk to their children about climate change, his response was similar to that of the Molly of Denali team and its advisers:

Wait. Wait until the child asks you about climate change. And then, depending on the child’s age, your response can be brief and not alarming. You don’t want to get into a long climate-data talk. Keep it brief, don’t say too much. If and when the child returns for more, then say more. We want to comfort, not add to the child’s anxiety. Comfort comes in knowing that many are engaged in climate action, and we’re in this together.

I then asked Raffi if he has a message for Canary’s audience of energy and climate professionals, many of whom are likely what he calls Beluga grads,’ former children (i.e., adults) who grew up singing his songs. Here’s his response:

I’m in awe of the work of professionals devoted to climate science and reporting. In my 30-plus years of climate engagement, I’ve been inspired by climate authors such as James Hansen, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in New York. Two current books that are must-reads are A Good War by Seth Klein and Generation Dread by Britt Wray. We’re beginning to see an epidemic of climate trauma among young people, as Wray has outlined. And the needed response is systems change, as Klein urges in his book. He calls for a World War II–style mobilization of resources for a multinational war on the fossil fuel era: a bold, rapid shift to a decarbonized economy.

The birds, the bees and the trees

I had one more person to talk to about messaging climate change to kids — someone equally invested in my (our) children’s future, and with a lot more experience (years of teaching and a master’s degree in education) in how the brains of children tick. Of course, I’m talking about my wife, Mary.

One fun fact I recently learned about her is that while Mary has no interest in reading Canary or similar publications (I take little offense), she has a secret climate-nerd side. Given the changing nature of this column, we recently rewatched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which is perhaps the inception point of climate intersecting with culture. Despite not having watched the movie in a decade or more, I was surprised to see that she had so many lines and scenes memorized!

When I asked Mary for her thoughts on how we should be talking with our kids about climate change, she quipped, We already are!”

Before writing this article, I’d been picturing a solemn birds and the bees”like sit-down with my son to dive into the topic. That’s exactly what Raffi warned against. Oops.

Mary agrees with Raffi and with Evans and Gillim about meeting kids where they are at. She noted that we’re constantly talking with our kids about the importance of turning off lights, preventing food waste (although that’s pretty much a lost cause if you have toddlers), the solar panels going up on our neighbors’ roofs, and, to an extent, my job. It’s these bite-sized conversations and teachable moments that add up to telling a bigger story about a changing climate, but also about the millions of people working on solutions.

Our children are counting on us. Securing their futures is a moral imperative. It must become our highest priority,” Raffi writes.

Molly of Denalis Gillim takes it one step further. It’s not only about protecting the planet for our children — it’s also about teaching them a way forward. The children are our future,” she said. So we really want to equip them with an awareness and the tools they need to work together and be part of a solution.”

We have a responsibility as stewards of the land and of sharing positive messages of our responsibility and role — and that is an age-old responsibility,” added Evans. If we can all work together as stewards, then I think our trajectory as humans on a planet will hopefully change to be more positive.”

Silverline Communications, the supporter of this column, is a climatetech and sustainability communications firm with deep experience in all facets of the clean economy. Learn more about how Silverline connects clients with stakeholders on social channels and beyond.

Mike Munsell is director of growth at Canary Media.