The Climate Crisis Is A Parenting Problem
No hero arrives at 3 a.m. to wash sheets and comfort our child when the stomach flu hits, and no one else is going to show up to save our kids from climate chaos.
Relax — this isn’t another light bulb list. It’s not another overwhelming pile of parental “to dos” designed to shrink your family’s carbon footprint through eco-superheroism.
In fact, drop that light bulb. Stop recycling. Get off your bike, stop gardening, leave your cloth bag in the SUV, and bring hamburgers to the family picnic. Let your faucets leak, leave your windows open with the heat on, and for heaven’s sake, don’t hang your laundry.
Busy parents — along with everyone else — have been told for years that individual lifestyle changes can stop the climate from spinning out of control, but the truth is they can’t. Not by themselves, anyway. Let's kick that great myth aside so we can refocus our efforts on actions that can accomplish what those lifestyle actions intend: to build a future in which we can all thrive.
Parents are hardwired to protect our kids. To do so, we sacrifice sleep as we rock colicky babies; we sacrifice money to put food in children’s bellies and fillings in their teeth; we sacrifice time to help with homework and cheer at recitals. We’re downright heroic in countless ways. Any parent I know would donate a lung or take a bullet for even the crankiest teen — and that’s what this moment calls for, climate-wise: people willing to do what it takes for our kids’ long-term well-being.
Parents already step up and take responsibility in difficult times. And just as no hero arrives at 3 am to wash sheets and comfort our child when the stomach flu hits, no one else is showing up to save our kids from climate chaos.
We have to do it. You and I and the millions of change-makers worldwide. And the window of opportunity to turn things around is now.
First, though, let’s get clear on the core problem and solutions: The buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is dangerously heating our Earth. So, we need to stop adding more gases and reel back in the ones already out there. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions isn’t complicated. It’s not easy, but it’s do-able.
We simply cease burning fossil fuels. Stop deforestation. Stop farming and ranching in ways that unleash carbon. Stop releasing refrigerant gases and methane. Those are the big-ticket items. We massively expand solar, wind, and wave power, conservation, tree planting, carbon farming, methane capture, local resilience, and more. And we sequester, price, and regulate carbon.
That’s it. At least to stop the biggest harm and reverse our course, it’s really that simple. But like drunken teens, adults who should know better — political and corporate decision-makers — don’t want their carbon kegger to end.
Right now, we need to do more than just assert our rightful authority. What’s required is full-scale climate revolution.
Most parents, when it comes to their own kids, know how to close down an out-of-control party. They assert authority. They shut off the tap and make everyone clean up and go home. We should have done this decisively when the public found out in 1988 what oil companies had known since the 1960s: that burning coal, oil, and gas was cooking our planet. Instead, we let the party continue. We didn’t powerfully confront the self-serving denials and lies — the people who said, and still say, “Global warming isn’t real, and even if it were, it’s certainly not our fault.”
We’ve been permissive with Uncle Sam and Exxon for way too long, and things have gotten so far out of hand that we’re facing our own — or, worse, our children’s — annihilation. And yes, I mean that word. It’s really that serious.
That means that, right now, we need to do more than just assert our rightful authority. What’s required is full-scale climate revolution.
Revolution may sound extreme, but I’m not suggesting we grab our muskets for armed insurrection. The climate revolution I’m talking about seeks fundamental political, cultural, and technological changes. And it’s already going full steam. It’s also fun and rich with potential for personal connection — which is the only kind of revolution that’s going to work, frankly. Plus, this revolution is taking place everywhere, all over the world, which makes it easy to join.
What does this climate revolution look like?
- It’s solar farms in Nevada, Danish bicycle highways, and thousands of students worldwide striking every Friday for climate justice.
- It’s fracking bans, mayors helping fifth-graders pass climate laws, and New Yorkers paid to reduce their electric use.
- It’s biogas composters in refugee camps, grandparents moving retirement funds from frackers to wind farmers, and Pacific Islanders in canoes blocking coal shipments.
- It’s college students designing sustainable police stations, climate literacy in public schools, and nuns building chapels in the path of pipelines.
- It’s South African clerics marching with indigenous leaders, zero-waste apartment complexes, and parents peacefully blocking oil trains running past their homes.
- It’s politicians battling for a climate-friendly infrastructure bill, and water protectors fighting Line 3.
- It’s our collective reckoning with the legacies of colonialism, patriarchy, and racism that undergird all of our current crises.
Parents have a unique role in accelerating all of these global initiatives and solutions.
Millions of people worldwide are giving their hearts and souls to ingenious inventions, cutting-edge building design, investigative journalism, environmental entrepreneurship, pioneering litigation, pro-planet artwork, good old-fashioned rabble-rousing, every manner of research, and centering the voices of those most impacted by climate injustice. Countless caring people are launching municipal compost programs, challenging oil companies in court, testing solar roadways, pushing for wind farms, building better energy-storage systems, teaching environmental democracy, experimenting with soils and seeds, and sharing indigenous science.
Meeting and learning about these people and efforts in recent years has heartened me beyond measure. Though our climate situation is dire, I don’t lie awake worrying over my children’s future as I did a decade ago — partly because I’m more actively engaged in solutions, but mostly because I don’t feel alone anymore.
Parents have a unique role in accelerating all of these global initiatives and solutions. That’s because we’re the bridges to every sector of society. We link the worlds of family and work, of private and public, and of young and old. We parents link our ancestors with our descendants. We’re everywhere, and we’re raising tomorrow’s leaders, who have more at stake than us — they’ll live longer and inherit all the problems we’ve left them.
Furthermore, other adults trust parents. Parents have unique access to people’s heartstrings, and it’s time to pull them — hard — for our kids’ future.
Effecting the kind of real change we need requires people to get together. This is the community-building part of the climate revolution, and it’s another way families are a perfect fit: Families come together naturally all the time to share birthday cake and stories, carve pumpkins, and play basketball or charades. Who better to gather the global village than families? We’re already gathering — and inventing new ways to do that safely under Covid — and we’re fun.
Though our climate situation is dire, I don’t lie awake worrying over my children’s future as I did a decade ago — partly because I’m more actively engaged in solutions, but mostly because I don’t feel alone anymore.
Moreover, parents are natural leaders. We manage family finances, calendars, ethics, education, safety, and everyone’s mental and physical health. We run all departments in our mission to protect family and home. And more and more of us have expanded our definition of “home” to include the Earth — and Earth’s atmosphere.
So, yes, revolution is a lot to ask, but like tending to our feverish child at 3 am, that’s what this moment calls for. Revolutions are usually successful when people agree with the goals, though, and survival’s a pretty easy goal to rally around.
I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to raise healthy kids while also protecting their habitat. When my children were little, my husband and I rocked green family living — voting, recycling, insulating, fixing leaks, biking, and “living simply.” That’s what all the experts said would help halt climate change.
But as global warming worsened, I grew increasingly anxious. I kept asking: How can we parent well in the short run — keeping our kids happily connected to a good community, education, and experiences — and also in the long run, which means stopping the planet’s destruction? So often, I felt like I had to choose one or the other.
Environmental books, experts, and Earth Day events kept singing the praises of living and buying green, but year after year, the temperature kept rising. Few books proposed structural fixes, such as stopping polluters or reforming an electoral system that lets billionaires buy politicians. Yet, at some point around 2011, it became clear to me (and many others) that climate chaos wasn’t some future catastrophe. It was making landfall in our lives. I stopped worrying so much about shrinking my family’s carbon footprint and started to focus on shrinking industry’s. I wrote articles, displayed political artwork on my front lawn, and co-founded Eugene’s chapter of the international climate action group 350.org.
How can we parent well in the short run — keeping our kids happily connected to a good community, education, and experiences — and also in the long run, which means stopping the planet’s destruction?
One thing I learned in that process is that people — especially parents — won’t join the climate revolution if all it means is piling on guilt or adding more to-do items to an already packed schedule; cramming in more is neither a fun nor a sustainable way to parent. But if we begin to see family life through the lens of climate justice, we can revise the things we already do so that our actions more skillfully, efficiently, and effectively help create a thriving future for all kids.
That’s what I and countless others try to do, by channeling our worry into community building and our anger into protest and performance art.
For example, in 2014, when we learned that frackers were trying to export gas to Asia by forcing a pipeline through Oregon, my family, friends, and several 350 Eugene members dramatized the process unfolding in our state with a neighborhood art protest — plastering homes with huge “condemned” signs and running a black, block-long, three-foot-wide pipeline across all of our lawns.
The project united us. Suddenly, I got to know all 50 neighbors living on my block. College kids created hashtags and posted pictures on social media. Middle schoolers hammered pipeline stakes into their own front lawns. Preschoolers drew postcards that people could send our governor in protest of the real pipeline.
Because it was large-scale, a little desperate, and done in conjunction with an international environmental law conference in our city, our protest made the front page of the county-wide daily newspaper. My teenage neighbor — who helped hang a 12-foot-long, bright red “CONDEMNED” sign on her own house — was interviewed on the evening news. The story of our pipeline played statewide on public radio stations for the six days of the installation. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of Oregonians learned about the proposed export pipeline, and 350 Eugene began to coordinate statewide resistance to the project. And every kid on the block was thrilled to play a part.
What I learned then — and have continued to learn during various art installations, protests, and lectures I’ve led — is that most people welcome such conversations. Most people are delighted — or at least intrigued — by a disruption in business-as-usual, especially when it’s creative, playful, and nonthreatening. Most people, in some way, embrace the idea that “home” includes the rivers we drink from, the soil that feeds us, and the climate that shields us.
Most importantly, what I have learned is that a sustainable ecosystem and climate requires sustainable parenting. To me, sustainable parenting means that we don’t just pour our loving attention into our own children for 18 years, preparing them for success in college and the job market. It means putting on the climate lens for every interaction so that we can prepare them to thrive in the natural world that sustains their lives — and in the democracy that shapes the quality of those lives. Sustainable parenting means taking the well-being of all children into account — not just our own — when deciding how to live in the world. Finally, to me, sustainable parenting means loving our children for their whole lives. That requires acting in ways that let them feel our love now and that ensure they’ll feel it after we’re gone, when they are thriving in the world we’ve pulled back from the precipice.
Despite my earlier “drop-that-light-bulb” remark, I do suggest replacing light bulbs and doing all the little things to shrink our personal carbon footprints if you can. However, to me, the main reason to do the “little things” is that they are part of being a climate-conscious parent: They model for our kids that we care about the Earth and other living beings. Also, more than we sometimes realize or are aware, everyday actions — such as biking to school or buying palm-oil-free pet food — can be just as easy to do as to not do. Kids need to get to school and we have to feed Fido, anyway, so if time and money allow, we may as well make Earth-friendly choices.
The main reason to do the “little things” is that they are part of being a climate-conscious parent: They model for our kids that we care about the Earth and other living beings.
That said, I write from the deep conviction that, if all you have on any given day is three minutes to aid the climate revolution, and our choice is either to scrub out our empty peanut butter jar (for recycling) or to call our senator about a key climate decision, it’s much more effective — and more important at this point in the climate crisis — to make the call and throw the dirty jar in the trash. If you have to make a choice, try to prioritize system change over light-bulb change. If you’ve got energy left after taking a revolutionary action or two, go right ahead and wash that jar.
If parents do nothing else but raise their children to feel inspired and empowered to make systemic change, then they are putting a firm shoulder to the climate revolution. And isn’t that what all parents want, anyway — empowered children? We want children unafraid to learn, question, make connections, help others, speak out, lead, and take responsibility. Children brave enough and supported enough to fight for their vision of a better, fossil-free future: one defined by electric school buses — not diesel fumes and cities choked with smog. One without oil trains snaking through communities like ticking bombs. One without fracking toxins that poison our air and our drinking water. One without oil spills on beaches or fish too polluted to eat.
If all we have on any given day is three minutes to aid the climate revolution, and our choice is either to scrub out our empty peanut butter jars for recycling or to call our senator about a key climate decision, it’s more effective to make the call and throw the dirty jar in the trash.
None of these things are necessary because burning fossil fuels isn’t necessary, not with the clean and renewable energy solutions we already possess, which are only becoming cheaper, safer, and more effective. The main thing standing in our way is uncertainty about our power to wind down an industry that is literally killing our children, destroying every natural life support system they need for survival.
Ours is a time of anxiety over the future, but it’s also an extraordinary time to be alive and raise the next generation. We’re seeing unprecedented international climate efforts and acts of great courage and imagination, as well as countless opportunities for families to help accelerate our transition to the just, thriving future scientists insist is still possible.
And, as it turns out, pretty much everything that’s good for the planet is also good for children, which is why philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore says that “Although environmental emergencies call on us to change, they don’t call on us to give up what we value most. They encourage us to exercise our moral imagination and to invent new ways of lifting the human spirit and helping biological and cultural communities thrive.”
I’m not downplaying the scale of the changes we need or pretending there’s any guarantee of success. I am saying, though, that even if we don’t know how things will turn out, climate-wise, we can gather our children — the sooner the better — and join countless other families actively and lovingly doing what they can to build a just and fossil-free future.
Let’s give it a try. Let’s show everyone — and especially our children — how fun, unifying, and empowering it can be to save the world.
This essay is an edited and updated excerpt from Mary DeMocker’s The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids, and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep.