Climate change threatens sweltering global temperatures, rising seas, catastrophic storms and disappearing wildlife. Many of us worry about the data climate scientists generate—about the future we are leaving to our children. Yet many of these experts are parents themselves. Scientific American asked six climate scientists who have young or school-age children to answer the same question: “What do you tell your children about the future, considering how climate change might impact their generation?”
The responses surprised us. There were no fatalistic warnings, no instructions about the need for panic or extreme action. Instead these parent-scientists presented honest, compassionate words of encouragement—about how, despite challenges, Earth is a beautiful place where people and nature can thrive.
[Edited submissions follow, presented in order of the youngest children to the oldest.]
Parent: Jacqueline Austermann, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, who wrote a letter her child will read in a few years
One thought: Earth is beautiful, and it will continue to be beautiful in different ways.
Climate change will be a major challenge for your generation. While it is already impacting my generation, you will feel the effects with increasing frequency and strength. Unfortunately, my generation is not doing enough to slow down these changes, and it will fall on you to further advance technology and ideology to tackle them. We’re all in the same boat, so international agreements will be key. Also, always keep in mind that efforts to mitigate climate change are inextricably linked with social justice. People who are sick, hungry or unsafe will not have the privilege to act on climate change.
As you grow up, there will likely be a lot of fear about Earth’s future. But every generation has challenges, and it will require smart people like you to rise to the occasion, find solutions and change people’s minds. In Earth’s long history, temperatures have both been much warmer and much colder than today, so don’t worry about Earth changing. But if we change it too fast (as we currently are), humans won’t have time to adapt, so slowing change is crucial—not for Earth but for us. Earth is beautiful, and it will continue to be beautiful in different ways and different places.
Children: One toddler; one baby on the way
Parent: Rosimar Rios-Berrios, National Center for Atmospheric Research
One thought: Play outside and appreciate nature.
My son was born in 2020, during a record-breaking hurricane season that threatened my home island, Puerto Rico. He likes to ask me hypothetical questions such as “When I’m five years old, can we go back to that beach I liked in Puerto Rico?” I take a deep breath before answering, “If that beach is still there in years to come, then for sure we can go back, and you can go swimming there.” More than talking about climate change and what it may do to the places and people we love, my husband and I try to teach our son good practices to mitigate climate change. We encourage him to play outside and to appreciate nature. We go for walks, and we bike or take public transportation whenever we can. We involve him in air-drying clothes, and we explain why we must turn off the lights when we are done playing. We read books about nature and weather.
When the time comes for him to start asking the tough questions, I plan to be honest. I will tell him that our planet is warming because we have put a blanket of pollution in our atmosphere. I will tell him that climate change is real, and it is already causing our weather extremes—such as wildfires and hurricanes—to be more impactful than when I was growing up. I will also tell him that we can slow this down with our everyday actions and with our life choices, such as when we chose to buy an electric vehicle when he was a baby or when we turned to solar power. Above all, I will keep the conversation open, and I will encourage him to talk to his friends and teachers about how our climate is changing and how we can stop it.
Children: One toddler; one baby on the way
Parent: Falko Judt, National Center for Atmospheric Research, who is Rios-Berrios’s husband
One thought: Every small action we take can contribute to a more sustainable future.
I take a holistic approach in our conversations about being good stewards of our planet and society. I want my child to understand that our actions have consequences, not only for the environment but also for our broader community. For instance, I explain to my car-loving son that our electric vehicle is powered by solar panels on our roof, which makes it “better” than cars with exhaust pipes that harm the environment, particularly the trees he loves.
Additionally, we make conscious choices in our daily lives to conserve resources. I highlight the importance of xeriscaping and using native plants in our garden to save water, especially considering that water scarcity may become more prevalent in the future. I want him to understand that every small action we take can contribute to a more sustainable future.
The challenges posed by climate change are real and pressing, but I believe that the apocalyptic views dominating these discussions lack a strong scientific basis. Much of what we see represents the most dramatic studies. It’s essential to consider that there are numerous studies showing a much less dire future that are overlooked or underrepresented in the media. By acknowledging the complexity of the issue and taking a balanced approach to the available scientific evidence, we can better understand the challenges ahead and work toward a more optimistic and solution-oriented outlook.
Child: First grader
Parent: Gunter Leguy, National Center for Atmospheric Research
One thought: You have the power to positively impact the world and other people.
One day my son had a playdate with a friend, and they came to my wife and said, “When we grow up, we will want an RV, a dog and not have kids.” When we asked why, they responded, “Because kids contribute to climate change!” There was a lot for us to process here, not only to teach our son what climate change is but also to explain why his existence was not the reason our planet was undergoing the most drastic climatic changes humanity has been facing in the past several decades.
We explained to him that Earth has undergone a changing climate since its formation. This one is special, however, because it is mainly driven by humans’ fossil fuel emissions. We continued by saying his future will likely be different than the one we have known, and there is still hope to enjoy a happy life on this Earth. It might imply a change of behavior and culture. Coming from the U.S., consumption and excess drives our way of life. It does not have to be this way, and at a personal level, we can change our mindset, adjust our behavior and improve our way of life.
As citizens of this Earth, we have the responsibility to stay informed with the best available data and knowledge. Our actions have consequences beyond our house, city or country. I remind my son of Earth’s connectedness by having him look at his spherical globe. We need good governance of our country as it impacts rules that both private citizens and industries have to follow, and this has a much bigger impact on society and the world, compared with our individual efforts.
We finished by telling him that as a child, even though he thinks he is contributing to the chaotic situation, he has the power to positively impact the world and others with his actions. Perpetuating this legacy is important so that ignorance does not govern this world. At the end of the day, we will adapt, and his generation will live a life that is different than ours. By keeping in mind that what matters most in the end is happiness and the community that surrounds you, life is worth living.
Parent: Melissa Burt, Colorado State University
One thought: It’s okay to feel scared or anxious; we feel this way because we care.
I have always exposed my daughter to nature. I wanted her to have an affinity and connection with our planet. I hope through this that she will be a good steward of Earth, so we talk a lot about animals, plants and weather. Now that she’s a school-age kid, she has become increasingly more curious, asking questions about why things are the way they are. One of our favorite things to do is to go to the beach, especially when visiting family on the East Coast. I grew up spending summers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which are impacted by sea-level rise. I’ve been reflective and sentimental with her about this, knowing that this place, my place, will be different for her and the future. Sea-level rise, beach erosion, changes in the seafood industry will all be impacted.
Living in Colorado, we are always experiencing drought, and the prevalence of wildfires is steadily increasing. In her lifetime, the scariest one was the Cameron Peak Fire. We had friends who had to run from the fire, and it impacted our ability to go outside—lots of smoke, soot and eerie skies.
We talk about how the weather and climate are different from when I was kid and that they will continue to be different in the future. It’s important for her to understand that it’s not just about the future, that things are changing now. We talk about the science behind climate change and the fact that the warming is because of humans—that we have to be part of the solution and that we will have to adapt. We talk about how this makes her feel. Is she scared, nervous, anxious? I say that it’s okay to feel these emotions. We feel this way because we care.
The way to help relieve these emotions is to do something about the situation. So we think about actions we can do as a family. And by including her in the decision-making, we help ease some of the feelings. We talk about ways that we can decrease the amount of carbon pollution we make. She was very excited when we purchased our electric car. (She “helped” pick the color.) We talk about using different modes of transportation and making different food choices (eating local, swapping out meat for vegetables). I also give her hope by saying that we are doing things about the problem. As a scientist, as a mom, I am doing all I can. And I know her generation will also do what they can.
Children: One in elementary school; one in middle school
Parent: Kris Karnauskas, University of Colorado Boulder and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, who wrote a letter to his children
One thought: You can definitely help solve this problem
It takes energy to drive cars and fly airplanes, turn lights on, cook our food, and heat and cool our buildings. When people use energy that comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal or oil, it puts something in the atmosphere that makes it harder for the planet to release heat back into space. Those are called greenhouse gases, and a big one is carbon dioxide, or CO2. We’ve put enough of those gases into the atmosphere by now that the planet has started warming up. If we keep doing this, it’s going to warm up even more. When the planet warms, other things happen, too, such as melting polar ice caps, rising oceans, more wildfires and stronger hurricanes.
Here’s the part that is hard for me to tell you. All the people who are adults today (including me) share some of the blame for this problem that we are going to leave you with. Scientists have been trying to warn everyone about this problem for many, many years. If we really started trying to fix it 30 or 40 years ago, it would be easier to fix, and some of the bad stuff could be stopped. But we didn’t, and here’s one big reason why. Some businesses, such as those who make and sell the energy, would not make as much money if we stopped using their energy. So those businesses hired people who are really good at arguing and tried to confuse people—especially the ones who make decisions. They said things like “Global warming isn’t really happening,” “The scientists are lying” or “Maybe it’s happening but not because people are burning fossil fuels.” Unfortunately, those tricks have been working on many people.
That’s not the only part of this that’s not fair. The people on Earth who will be most negatively affected by this problem live in countries that are not burning as much fossil fuels. For example, the U.S. burns the second most fossil fuels in the world, but lots of people in the U.S. have enough money and other resources to avoid being impacted personally. People who live in many smaller countries with less money are feeling the impacts more directly, and it might get much worse for them before it gets better.
It’s okay if this makes you feel sad, angry or nervous. Many of us adults who do understand the problem are also sad, angry and nervous about it. But you don’t need to be scared because you can understand this.
You’re going to hear a lot of people saying extreme things about this like “We’re all doomed” or “The world won’t be able to support life in 20 years.” But science has shown that it’s not too late to solve this problem before it becomes unmanageable. There are a lot of people who do understand the problem and are working really hard to solve it. There are great ideas out there for fixing this, such as how to use less energy and, for the energy that we must use, how to get it from the sun or the wind instead of burning more fossil fuels.
Even if you don’t become a scientist, you can definitely help solve this problem. In fact, I don’t even think scientists will be the ones to solve it. You just have to find your passion and work hard, lead by example and listen carefully to what people say when they ask for things (such as your money or your vote). That way, they can’t trick you. If you do that, then you will have a beautiful, safe world to enjoy for your whole life.