A greener world for our kids

Three climate change experts share their hopes and worries for the planet our kids will inherit.

When my son is really angry, he juts his neck forward like a pigeon. That’s the look I remember from a spectacular tantrum he had when he was three years old. I can’t recall the injustice meted out by his evil parents, but I know he was filled with bloodlust. Summoning his deepest rage, he hollered, “Oh yeah? Well I’m going down to the basement and I’m gonna turn on all the lights!” He went straight for his environmental-activist parents’ jugular — wasting energy.

Apparently, all our planet-friendly parenting is sinking in: My preschooler had clearly received the message. But turning off the lights for the rest of their lives won’t be enough to save our kids from the social, economic and health impact of global warming. The freak weather patterns of climate change forecasts are already here: Japan’s tsunami, record flooding in Quebec and Manitoba, a devastating tornado in Goderich, Ont. It is unnerving to consider the world into which we’ll soon be sending our innocent babes.

So how do we raise a generation prepared to deal with the crises we can assume are coming? For answers, I talked to Rick Smith, Tzeporah Berman and Chris Turner, three leading environmental thinkers who also happen to be parents of young children; the future they are trying to change has a very real, rosy-cheeked face.

RICK SMITH is director of Environmental Defence, one of Canada’s most effective environmental advocacy groups. He is also a leading advocate behind behind Ottawa’s ban on bisphenol A (BPA) and the co-author of the bestselling Slow Death by Rubber Duck. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Jennifer Story, and their two sons, Zack, seven, and Owain, five.

GD: What do you think a climate-changed future will look like for our kids?

RS: It will be a more volatile, less hospitable world. According to the latest UN population projections, there will be a billion more people on earth in 10 years. That will make eight billion of us — and we’ll all be like explorers on a new planet. We’ll see more flooding and also more water shortages, which will be good for some crops and bad for others.

GD: How do you feel about your kids living in that world?

RS: I like to think of biologist E.O. Wilson’s theory that we are passing through a turbulent period, shifting through significant changes in how we produce and consume energy. It’s like the neck of an hourglass, and the hourglass opens up again on the other side. I see on a daily basis that we can move public discussion and political action to a better place.

We got BPA banned in Canada, and we’re the first country in the world to take that huge step. That’s the most important message for kids, to help them feel a sense of hope. My son is an animal lover, so we’ve been talking about endangered species that have made a comeback, such as the black-footed ferret. Kids need to believe in the power to effect change.

GD: What do you do as a parent to help prepare your kids for that change?

RS: We try to live as sustainably as possible while still letting our kids be kids. We live close to their school, so we walk every day; we bike together as a family; we eat locally whenever we can. We took our boys foraging for ramps (wild leeks) in Haliburton, Ont., last summer, to share with them the excitement of eating with the seasons.

TZEPORAH BERMAN, co-founder of ForestEthics, was featured in Leonardo diCaprio’s environmental documentary The 11th Hour and is the author of This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge. A year ago, she and her husband, Chris Hatch, and their sons, Forrest, 12, and Quinn, eight, left Cortes Island, BC, for Amsterdam, where Tzeporah is co-director of Climate and Energy for Greenpeace International. They now live in Vancouver.

GD: What kinds of challenges will our kids have to deal with that we never had to?

TB: Scientists from MIT predict that, by the time my oldest son is 20, there will be a 50 percent increase in violent storms. The United Nations predicts a 50 percent increase in global refugees and skyrocketing costs for many food staples as a result of floods and droughts. There will very likely be increased violent conflict, as well, due to scarcity.

GD: How much do you talk about these issues with your kids?

TB: I am very careful to talk to them about hope and opportunity. In the last two years, new investment in clean, safe, renewable energy exceeded investment in coal, oil and nuclear energy combined — for the first time in human history! We are living at a great turning point; if we engage, we can shape the future. We need to remind our children that the world has changed entirely in their parents’ lifetime — when I started working, there were no cellphones or Internet — and it will change again in theirs.

GD: What kinds of things do you do at home to instill sustainable habits?

TB: We buy organic food, compost, garden and recycle. This year, we lived without a car. Most importantly, we engage with our elected officials and encourage them to support renewable energy, to tax polluters and to design livable cities with bike lanes and affordable transit. My sons joined me at the polling booth as soon as they could walk, and I am proud that, at eight and 12, they both engage in debates about the issues and the people that we put in positions of power every day.  

CHRIS TURNER is an award-winning journalist and author. His 2007 bestselling book, The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, is an inspiring study of communities that have successfully embraced sustainability or developed effective solutions for climate change. He lives in Calgary with his wife, Ashley Bristowe, and two children, Sloane, six, and Alexander, two.

GD: How did having children influence your work?

CT: I used to try to scare the crap out of people, to talk about how bad it could get. I basically peddled apocalypse porn. But my daughter was born as I was planning a new book project, and I realized I owed it to her to focus on hope. Sloane learned to walk on the research trip for that book. Imagine if I’d taken her to places that were doomed — “See the photo of you taking your first steps, honey? That island’s been swallowed up by the sea!” I feel a moral responsibility to the future that I didn’t before I had kids.

GD: How worried are you about their ability to adapt in such a complicated world?

CT: I think kids become prepared through osmosis. In  my generation, not littering and recycling were accepted parts of everyday citizenship. We came of age well acquainted with extinction, resource exhaustion and the ozone hole. We knew almost subconsciously that the earth is not here just for our benefit. I think our kids will feel the same way about carbon dioxide and environmental footprints. They will understand that responsible citizens are careful about energy use and emissions. And they’ll be better at it than us.

My generation grew up being lied to about how things will work out (“The world’s getting smarter; you’ll live even better than we did, kids”). That plowed headlong into recession, resource depletion, global political chaos, student debt, astronomical home prices. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a thirtysomething who feels their world is materially richer than their parents’. And I think that makes us uniquely prepared to have conversations with our children without glossing over the hard parts.

GD: Have you started those conversations with your kids?

CT: I explain political issues to my daughter. I don’t think she’s too young to care. She knows I write about climate change, that it’s something important and there are still people who need convincing. And she’s started doing her part for the cause: She helped us set up for the Green Party federal candidate’s coffee chat in our dining room.  

Broadcaster and environmental journalist Gillian Deacon is the author of the national 2011 bestseller There’s Lead in Your Lipstick: Toxins in Our Everyday Body Care and How to Avoid Them.