The Big Talk

I WAS GOOGLING MYSELF recently (in an attempt, if you must know, to locate an essay that I had published somewhere), and I managed to misspell my own name. So I was directed to the one source that had mangled my name in the same way. And that is how I was confronted, in an obscure blog, with the question, “Why isn’t Sandra Steingraber [with dyslexic spelling] talking about climate change?”

It was unsettling. As the days went by, I began an imaginary argument.

Look, I first wrote about receding glaciers in 1988. I was assigning Al Gore to college students in 1992. Not long ago, I made climate instability the centerpiece of a commencement address I gave at a rural college in coal-is-king Pennsylvania. And if you think all the trustees were pleased with that theme, I invite you to give it a try. So the question is not “Why is S.S. not talking about climate change?” The question is “Why is S.S. not talking about it AT HOME?”

Okay. Why don’t you talk about it at home?

Because I have young children and because I believe that frightening problems need to be solved by adults who should just shut up and get to work.

So, how long are you going to keep hiding the truth from your kids?

That’s as far as I got before three other notable things happened. First, Elijah asked to be a polar bear for Halloween. As I pinned the chenille fabric, it occurred to me that his costume might well outlast the species. I decided not to tell him that.

A month later, Elijah asked his sister for a weather report. Faith walked out onto the porch, spread out her arms in the manner of Saint Francis, and came back in. “It’s global warmingish,” she said and went back to her cereal. No comment from me.

And then I overheard a conversation on the playground. One child said, “I know why it’s hot. Do you?”

Another said, “It’s because the Earth is sick.” They all nodded. I said nothing.

IT’S TIME TO SIT DOWN with my kids and have the Global Warming Talk. I carried off the Sex Talk — and its many sequels — with grace and good biology. Surely, I can rise to this new occasion.

On the surface, procreation and climate change seem opposite narratives. Sex knits molecules of air, food, and water into living organisms. Climate change unravels all that. The ending of the sex story is the birth of a family. The climate change story ends with what biologist E. O. Wilson calls the Eremozoic Era — the Era of Loneliness.

But then I realized that the two stories share a common epistemological challenge. Both are counterintuitive. In the former case, you have to accept that your ordinary existence began with an extraordinary, unthinkable act (namely, your parents having intercourse). In the latter case, you have to accept that the collective acts of ordinary objects — cars, planes, dishwashers, iPods — are ushering in things extraordinary and unthinkable (dissolving coral reefs, daffodils in January). So, I reasoned, perhaps the same pedagogical lessons apply: during the Big Talk, keep it simple, leave the door open for further conversation, offer reading material as follow-up.

Of which there is no shortage. In fact, a veritable cottage industry of children’s books on climate change has sprung up almost overnight. These range from the primer, Why Are the Ice Caps Melting? (Let’s Read and Find Out!), in which lessons on the ravaging of ecosystems also offer plenty of opportunities to practice silent e, to the ultra-sophisticated How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming, by foremost environmental author Lynne Cherry, in which middle school readers are cast as coprincipal investigators. This new literary subgenre is impressive. Reading its various offerings, I found myself admiring the respectful tones and clear explanations. These books describe global warming as a reality that no longer lingers in the realm of debate. And yet, they are not, for the most part, scary. Indeed, the first sentence in the inside flap of How We Know What We Know is “This is not a scary book.”

And here is where the pediatric versions of the climate change story depart from their adult counterparts. The recent crop of books on global warming intended for grown-ups focuses on the surreal disconnect between the evidence for rapidly approaching, irreversible planetary tipping points (overwhelming) and the political response to that evidence (mostly zilch). The children’s books profile heroic individuals fighting to save the planet — in ways that kids can get involved in. To read the children’s literature is to see the world’s people working ardently and in concert with each other to solve a big problem . . . and enjoying a grand adventure while they’re at it.

Is this the fiction we all should be laboring under? I don’t know. I do know that a fatalistic mindset, which afflicts many adults but almost no children, is a big part of what’s preventing us from derailing the global warming train that has now left the station. On this, I wholly agree with sociologist Eileen Crist, who argues that fatalism, masquerading as realism, is a form of capitulation that strengthens the very trends that generate it. I do know that we grown-ups need visions of effective challenges and radical actions that can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.

I also know that I needed something to say to my six year old when we walked home from the library in April — no leaves to offer shade, the bank’s LED sign reading eighty-four degrees — and he turned his ingenuous face to mine to ask, “Mama, is it supposed to be so hot?”

So I am working on my talk. For inspiration, I have arranged on my desk three documents. One is an essay that Rachel Carson published in Popular Science in 1951 — eight years before my birth. It’s entitled “Why Our Winters Are Getting Warmer,” and it includes a drawing of Manhattan deluged by seawater. Another is Carson’s essay “Help Your Child to Wonder,” published five years later. The third is a book by poet Audre Lorde that includes the sentence: Your silence will not protect you.

My talk features a story about a boat in which we all live — people, butterflies, polar bears. A storm starts to rock the boat. The waves are chemical pollution, habitat destruction, industrial fishing, and warfare. Now along comes a really big wave. Global warming. The already-rocking boat is in danger of flipping over.

Then what happens? I don’t know. For the first time in my life, I have writer’s block. Somebody help me out here.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. Forgetting

    Forgetting on beached visions,
    Succulent findings winding their way home,
    Caring still through darkened beech forested hillsides
    That bleed fresh water toward the salt,
    Marshes rejuvenate the wombs of life,
    Tides return with caressing vengeance
    Pushing the fresh water back and to itself.

    We live alone by the millions
    In concrete city so pretty,
    Regardless of our inability to love,
    Lethargic in our need to hold to heart,
    We forget.

    But we also remember,
    Still hopeful the dominance of human beings flowers
    With as much dignity as the dinosaurs the children love,
    Who lived top food chain for millions of years,
    As do the trees which reach for the light
    And push their feet down upon and into the darkness.

    You have forgotten the bottom line, Life wants to BE. Help your children understand and appreciate; save your pessimism
    for your editors who pay you it. Give your children hope. Give yourself hope too.

  2. The flood metaphor is intriguing! Remember the Noah Ark story? – have we learned anything useful? What are the consequences of the Tsunami, the New Orleans’ flood, the Quebec Ice Storm, the Ike storm? In my practice over 40 years as a land use planner/environmental planner, I deal with regulatory standards, guidelines, conditions of approval, monitoring, and mitigation measures. You ask, what happens? Very few people, particularly political decision-makers think about consequences of actions. There is fear in quantifying risk and certainly the precautionary principle is not a tool that is in the book. Furthermore, politics is a short-term venture. We older people have the means and the ability to take action, but we won’t be here in 2050 to see the consequences. Our young children and grandchildren do not have the means and the ability to take action now and they will be here in 2050. Your question is a start. We need to deep think the solution in terms of the triple bottom line. The question is not valid since it begs complex and complicated answers. Unfortunately, we need to find ways to change behaviour rather than beating up ourselves trying to change values. How do we undertake the “big walk”?

  3. Back when nuclear weapons was the big scare, a Seattle teacher asked her third-graders whether they thought there would be a nuclear war. All but one did. She complimented the hold-out on her bravery in voicing a minority-of-one opinion, and asked why she held it. “Because my parents are working to stop it,” the child answered.

    This is the story we tell our children about climate change too. Washington elementary school where I volunteer got solar panels installed over the summer, and this fall I will be teaching the kids a song I wrote with the line “And Washington is part of the solution.”

  4. Efforts at bringing environmental education into the public school systems is slowly progressing, as it is in my state of Washington, including an outdoor experience as part of that education. Our first challenge is to get our kids outside and removed from their electronics so they can connect with what is happening outside. I would strongly recommend you all read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv for research on this problem and ways to get kids outside. Also, click on to see how rapidly this movement to reconnect children with nature is happening.

  5. My mother never told me about how money came to rule the house – what is money? Why can’t we just trade?

    My mother didn’t tell me about our rulers: the government. We just knew that policemen must be obeyed, laws followed, and that once in a while there was a thing called “an election”.

    Money & power is what caused our animals to die and oil to ooze.

  6. This is a really good piece. I like her comparison of the Global Warming talk to the sex talk and it shows a couple of things. One, the piece shows that children can understand a very complex issue at a basic level. Two, it’s really never too early to begin to educate children on the world around them. As soon as they ask question we as parents should engage them on those questions.

  7. Wow. Amazing article. I’ll admit I wouldn’t have seen the connection between sex and environmental devastation, but you nailed it. I found the article profound and heart-warming at the same time. Keep it up!

    Being an uncle and not a parent per-se, I often make jokes about global warming and capitalism around my four-year-old niece, but I don’t think she’s really getting it and I haven’t had the time to sit down and really give her “the talk”.

    Again, loved the article!

  8. So rather than teach children to think for themselves and instill the lesson that life is and ALWAYS has been unpredictable we’re going to drag them down into the dread? NO ONE knows the true extent of changes that MIGHT be brought around by global warming in this century and beyond. In our rush to eliminate what little our screwed up culture has left of childhood we’ve found the ultimate bummer we can all wallow in together. Sorry, this is crap.

  9. Clearly somebody in the boat must learn to fly. Above the little waves and above the big, big wave.
    To the land of the wave-makers, where your heroic flyer can talk to the Wave-makers and find out why they are making such big waves.

    Already, some amongst these powerful creatures have felt that it is time to change their way. It is a message that has come to them in dreams and in songs. And because these seers are expecting a traveler, they will welcome the one who flies to them, and will take this bold individual to see their Decider.

    But then what happens? That is for your children to decide.


  10. This a letter in response to an email from a AGW supporter in the Canadian Civil Service.

    By Lord Monckton

    Dear Sir Humphrey – The “Abundance of scientific statements” that you mention is no sound or logical basis for deciding or believing anything. The question is whether the scientific statements have any rational justification, and whether those making them are in effect making statements that are political rather than scientific, rent-seeking rather than objective. After all, this is the age of reason (or it was).

    Therefore, one should not accord to “scientists” the status of infallible high priests merely because they mumble a hieratic language with which one is unfamiliar. There is clear, compelling evidence that many of the major conclusions of the IPCC, your new religion’s constantly-changing Holy Book, are based on evidence that has been fabricated. The “hockey stick” graph that purported to abolish the mediaeval warm period is just one example. So let me try to lure you away from feeble-minded, religious belief in the Church of “Global Warming” and back towards the use of the faculty of reason.

    Let us begin with the “devastation of New Orleans” that you mention. Even the High Priests of your Church are entirely clear that individual extreme-weather events such as Hurricane Katrina cannot, repeat cannot, be attributed to “global warming”. Even the Holy Book makes this entirely plain. There was one priest – Emanuel (a good, religious name) – who had suggested there might be a link between “global warming” and hurricanes; but he has recently recanted, at least to some extent. Very nearly all others in the hierarchy of your Church are clear that ascribing individual extreme-weather events to “global warming” is impossible. Why? Well, let’s take the question of landfalling Atlantic hurricanes such as Katrina. The implication of your attribution of Hurricane Katrina to “global warming” is twofold: that “global warming” is happening, and that in consequence either the frequency or the intensity of tropical weather systems such as hurricanes is increasing. Neither of these propositions is true. Yes, there has been “global warming” for 300 years, since the end of the 60-year period of unusually low solar activity known as the Maunder Minimum (after the celebrated Astronomer Royal who studied it). But there has been no net warming since 1995, and Keenlyside et al, in the theological journal Nature a few months ago, say they do not expect a new record year for global temperatures until 2015 at the earliest. If these theologians are correct, there will have been a 20-year period of no net “global warming” even though the presence of the devil Siotu in the ether grows inexorably stronger. And, secondly, the number of Atlantic hurricanes making landfall has actually fallen throughout the 20th century, even as temperatures have risen. Indeed, some theologians have argued that warmer weather actually reduces the temperature differential between sea and sky that generates hurricanes, reducing their frequency, and that the extra heat in the coupled ocean-atmosphere system increases wind-shear in tropical storms, tending to reduce their intensity. Certainly the frequency of intense tropical cyclones has fallen throughout the 30-year satellite record, even though temperatures have increased compared with 30 years ago. Also, the damage done by Hurricane Katrina was chiefly caused by the failure of the Democrat-led city administration to heed repeated warnings from the Corps of Engineers that the levees needed to be strengthened.

    Next, you mention the recent earthquake damage at Galveston, and you imply that this is something new and terrible. Perhaps you would like to do some research of your own to verify whether the High Priests of your Church, some of whom have blamed the Galveston incident on the wrath of the devil Siotu, are likely to be telling the truth. And how, you may ask, may a non-theologian such as yourself argue theology with your High Priests? Well, the Galveston incident will give you just one indication of the many ways in which a lay member of the Church of “Global Warming” may verify for himself whether or not the Great Druids of his religion are speaking the truth from their pulpits in the media. Cast your eye back just over a century, to 1906, and look up what happened to Galveston then. Which was worse – Galveston 2008 or Galveston 1906? Next, check the global mean surface temperature in 1906: many theology faculties compile surface temperature data and make it publicly available to the faithful and to infidels alike. Was the global mean surface temperature significantly lower or significantly higher in 2008 than in 1906? What implications do your two answers have for your proposition that Galveston 2008 can be attributed to “global warming”?

    Next, you mention fires in California. Once again, you can either sit slumped in your pew, gazing in adoration at the Archdruids as their pious faces flicker across your television screen, or you can do a little research for yourself. It may, for instance, occur to you to ask whether droughts were worse in the United States in the second half of the 20th century than they were in the first half. Once again, you may want to check with your local theological faculty to obtain the answer to this question. Or you may like to pick up a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. And you may want to verify whether temperatures in the second half of the 20th century were warmer than in the first half. Once again, what are the implications of your two answers for your proposition that “global warming” is causing forest fires? You could also talk to the Fire Department in California and obtain its data on the causes of forest fires. You might be mightily surprised by the answers you get.

    Next, you talk of beetles in your forests destroying natural resources. Here, you could ask the Druids just a couple of simple questions. What evidence do they have, if any, that whichever species of beetle you have in mind has not wrought havoc in the forests before? And, even if your clergy think that they have evidence that the beetle-damage is new, what evidence do they have, if any, that the beetle-damage is greater because of “global warming” than it would otherwise have been? Of course, you could ask them the wider question what evidence there is that anthropogenic “global warming”, as opposed to solar warming, is the reason for the temperature increases that have occurred over the past 300 years. The more honest parish priests will admit that for 250 of the past 300 years none of the inferred warming can be attributed to human industry. They will also be compelled to concede, if you press them, that the warming of the most recent 50 years has not occurred at a rate any greater than that which was observed before, so that it is in fact very difficult to discern any anthropogenic signal at all in the temperature record.

    Next, you talk of people migrating from one place to another because in some places water has become scarce. Once again, it is easy for a layman, whether a true believer such as yourself or not, to verify whether such migrations are as a result of “global warming”. For instance, you could ask whether there have been changing patterns of drought and flood before in human history. Once you have collected some historical data – most theological faculties have quite a lot of this available, though you may have to dig a little to get it – you could compare previous migrations with those of which you now speak. And you could also ask your local parish priest whether a theological phenomenon known as the Clausius-Clapeyron relation mandates that, as the atmosphere warms, the carrying-capacity of the space occupied by the atmosphere for water vapor decreases, remains static, or increases near-exponentially. Once you have found the answers to these not particularly difficult questions, you may like to spend some of your devotional time meditating on the question whether, or to what extent, the changes in patterns of flood and drought that have occurred in the past give you any confidence that such changes occurring today are either worse than those in the past or attributable to “global warming”, whether caused by the increasing presence of the devil Siotu in the atmosphere or by the natural evolution of the climate. During your meditation, you may like to refer to the passage from the 2001 edition of the Holy Book of the IPCC that describes the climate as “a complex, non-linear, chaotic object” whose long-term future evolution cannot reliably be predicted.

    If you are willing to reflect a little on the questions I have raised – and, with the exception of the Clausius-Clapeyron relation, I have done my best to avoid anything that might be too technical for a layman to find out for himself – you will perhaps come to realize that there is very little basis in scientific fact for the alarmist, hellfire preaching in which your clergy love to indulge. And you may even find your faith in your new religion beginning to weaken a little in the face of the truths that you will have unearthed by the not particularly difficult process of simply checking those statements of your clergy that you can easily and independently verify. There are, of course, many environmental problems posed by the astonishing recent success of humankind. If you were concerned, for instance, about deforestation, or the loss of species whose habitats have been displaced by humans, then your concerns would have a good grounding in fact. But, given the abject failure of global temperatures to rise as the Druids had forecast, it must surely be clear to you that the influence of the devil Siotu on global temperatures – your theologians call this “climate sensitivity” – must be a great deal smaller than your Holy Book asks you to believe.

    Finally, you may wonder why I have so scathingly described your pious belief in your new religion as founded upon blind faith rather than upon the light of reason. I have drafted this email in this way so that you can perhaps come to see for yourself just how baffling it is to the likes of me, who were educated in the light of TH Huxley’s dictum that the first duty of the scientist is skepticism, to see how easily your hierarchy is able to prey upon your naive credulity. I do not target this comment at you alone: there are far too many others who, like you, are in positions of some authority and whose duty to think these things through logically is great, and yet who simply fail to ask even the most elementary and blindingly obvious questions before sappily, happily, clappily believing in, and parroting by rote, whatever the current Establishment proposes. I do not know whether you merely believe all that you are told by the Druids because otherwise you will find yourself in conflict with other true believers among your colleagues or, worse, among your superiors. If you are under pressures of this kind, I do sympathize. But if you are free to think for yourself without penalty, may I beg you – in the name of humanity – to give the use of reason a try?

    Why “in the name of humanity”? Because, although the noisy preachers from the media pulpits have found it expedient not to say so, there have been food riots all round the world as the biofuel scam whipped up by the High Priests of your religion takes vast tracts of agricultural land out of food production. Millions are now starving because the price of food has doubled in little more than a year. A leaked report by the World Bank says that fully three-quarters of that doubling has occurred as a direct result of the biofuel scam. So your religion is causing mass starvation in faraway countries, and is even causing hardship to the poorest in your own country. Can you, in conscience, look away from the sufferings that your beliefs are inflicting upon the poorest and most helpless people in the world?

  11. Great article!

    How about those in the boat talking to each other and deciding that perhaps instead of the big coal engine in the one huge boat, they all get busy helping each other build small safe life boats powered by wind in the sails, oars, pedals, paddles, solar cells, and other solutions we have, all surfing the big wave of climate change. The life boats could have small gardens which would produce food and habitat until they all reached land and used the lessons they learned in the life boats to take care of the land and each other for ever after.

  12. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, Sandra. It seems wise to take the cue from your children.

    As an educator, I wonder often about this issue. David Sobel says “no environmental tragedies before grade 4.” An acquaintance who lived and worked in Africa for 20 years once asked, “Why are our children so precious? African children are overwhelmed with tragedy after tragedy, day after day, year after year.”

    The great educator Maria Montessori believed that children need to learn the “great story” of life in order to be able to understand everything else they learn in life. She taught them five great lessons: how the Universe began, how life began, how humans began, how literature began, and how mathematics began.

    My sense is that once children learn the story of evolution, they will be able to understand ecology and the interconnectedness of all life. Once they’ve learned ecology, they’ll understand how valuable biodiversity is. And once they “get” biodiversity, then they will understand all the ecosystem services or “nature’s gifts” that we receive from the rest of nature.

    These are vital stories and lessons for our children — but most youngsters don’t learn them. If they did learn them, I wonder if we’d have to have that “climate change talk” with them — or would they just trust their own observations of a rapidly changing climate (in their short lifetimes!) and know that this can’t be good for all the life around them?

    At the very least, they’ll be on the path to scientific and ecological literacy (something most of us can’t claim), and will just know what we adults should be doing. (Behaving like we want our kids to behave!!)

  13. Dear Sandra,
    You mentioned my book that I co-authored with photojournalist Gary Braasch, How We KNow What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming, and I wanted to share some wonderful stories with you. As I was researching the science in the book, stories about kids doing the science began to serendipitously fall into my lap and they continue to find me. So I have been interviewing kids who are reducing the carbon footprint of their schools, their communities and, in the case of school kids who got a ban on school bus idling, even their states.
    Obama’s “YES WE CAN!” is appropriate for the issue of kids and climate change. Kids can do things today that reduce their carbon emissions immediately. Millions of kids doing these things, mindfully, can prevent hundreds of thousands of tons of co2 from entering the atmosphere.
    Just take a look at the pie chart in the back of the book which shows how seemingly small actions can have a big effect… just as all those VOTES cast by millions of individuals have gotten us a leader who, I hope, will tackle climate change (as long as he realizes the folly of “clean coal”.. That’s 1984 doublespeak– for dirty coal.)
    The take home message: Kids can make a difference as long as they have a vision of what’s possible. As a parent, a teacher or a friend of children, you can encourage kids to make changes in their consumption habits; and you can be willing to make changes in your life when they ask you to.
    Lynne Cherry

  14. to Sandra Steinberger… Living Downstream of Climate Change…in Illinois… is easy when the polar caps are melting and the melting physics generates a cool breeze that drifts to the mid latitudes and breeds a false security when a sense of utmost urgency is most needed. Our culture revolts against anyone with the audacity to save the planet with the cultural simplicity that has been the time honored, time-proven balm of a healthy planet, but charms to most any instance of anyone with the audacity to transform the the planet with a suite of ecologically unproven technological salvations. Savage/Galesburg, IL

  15. I’m about three years behind. I hope the author and most of the commenters have learnt more in the meantime about the shoddy realities of modern ‘climate science’ and the shameful propagandising for which it has been used as a support.

  16. Susan –

    Global Warming / climate change / AlGorythm
    whatever label you wish to assign this event is not a new change. We (the masses) are merely witnessing a “speed up” of a natural series of events.
    Perhaps we have hit “fast forward” on the great scene of life on Earth ; there have been several warming cycles throughout Earth’s history ( the fossil record is clear ); the violence was tremendous.
    OK … here comes the next warming trend. What can we do? Absolutely nothing ! Haven’t we proven we cannot manage our little worlds? Our own lives?
    Man is the intelligent animal … where is the proof ? “We have met the enemy & they is us.”

Commenting on this item is closed.