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How Do You Educate Climate Change Skeptics? Empower Their Kids to Teach Them

A new study shows that educating children may be the best way to reach parents who don’t seem to care about climate change

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To help parents to understand climate change, their kids may be the most effective teachers, new research suggests.

The study in the journal Nature Climate Change looked at the impact of climate education on 238 families in coastal North Carolina with children between the ages of 10 and 14. Students participated in four classroom activities exploring climate change and one service learning based activity. The parents of the children were then invited to explore the projects and were interviewed by their children who asked them about any changes in the climate they’ve seen during their lifetime, like sea level rise or changes in the weather.

The parents volunteered information about their demographics and political ideologies. They were also asked to rate their climate concern before and after the project on a scale from -8, least concern, to +8, high concern. Sebastian Malo at Reuters reports that on average, parental concern increased 23 percent, or 3.89 points. For certain groups, the increase was higher. Parents who considered themselves conservative increased an average of 28 percent, or 4.77 points. Parents of daughters saw an increase of 4.15 points and fathers on average saw an increase of 4.3 points. All of those groups went from a score of “moderately not concerned” to “moderately concerned.”

The study suggests that the best way to get unconcerned adults to care more about climate is to educate them through their kids.

“This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit,” lead author Danielle Lawson, a graduate student at North Carolina State University tells Lydia Denworth at Scientific American. “[It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”

The study is encouraging because it shows that there is a pathway for communicating with people who stubbornly resist believing the facts on climate. Julia Rosen at the Los Angeles Times reports that, at least in the United States, dismissing climate change is tied up with people's identities and ideological perspective. That means that for many, being concerned about climate change is more than just accepting facts—it’s overturning their personal identity.

“If you change your mind on something where all of your tribe believes the same thing, you risk social alienation,” climate communication researcher John Cook of George Mason University tells Rosen.

But having a conversation with their own children, with whom they share a level of trust, is not as polarizing as arguing with someone in Facebook comments. The conversation lacks the ideological element, making parents more likely to assess the information with a non-political lens.

A notable case of this intergenerational learning took place in 2009, when Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, began having discussions with his son who took a course on environmental economics in college, Rosen reports. He changed his stance on climate change and even proposed a bill to limit emissions.

The authors of the paper, however, say the technique of having children broach the subject is not some sort of political plot.

“This is about education, not activism, and children are great educators,” co-author Kathryn Stevenson also of NC State says in a press release. "They seem to help people critically consider ways in which being concerned about climate change may be in line with their values.”

In recent months, young people have tried to jumpstart the climate conversation with the wider world as well. A series of School Strikes for Climate have taken place in 70 countries, with more walkouts and demonstrations still to come.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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