With the Cold War ever present in my childhood, is it any wonder that I spent a good part of it terrified by the thought of nuclear war? To be fair, I’m anxious by nature, but I do remember the particular terror that snaked through my body as I sat with my parents at some point in the 1980s and listened to pundits discussing Russian armaments on the evening news. To summarize: The Russians could obliterate us many times over, and we could do the same to them. “Mutually assured destruction” was a phrase that kept me up at night.
I wonder if my 10-year-old daughter feels the same way now as she hears about and experiences the haunting effects of climate change. From the raging California wildfires that left us sheltering in place for a week last fall to the polar vortex that gripped the Northeast this winter, climate change is no longer a hypothetical situation, it’s our reality, no matter how much President Trump tries to deny it. My impulse is to shield my daughter as much as possible, to withhold knowledge lest the specter of death-by-climate-change ruin her sleep, but this can’t be the right path forward for either of us.
And how much can I reasonably shield her from anyway? We already lived through the downstream effects of those wildfires. She’s seen the images of emaciated polar bears hauled out onto glacial shards, heard the sad statistics about the plummeting numbers of monarch butterflies migrating this year, and watched Greta Thunberg’s powerful appeal at the UN Climate Summit in Poland (the Swedish 15-year-old’s climate change–induced trauma so readily apparent).
According to an October report from the UN scientific panel on climate change, we’re at real risk for food shortages, massive wildfires, and coral reef die-offs as early as 2040. My daughter will be 31 in 2040, the prime of her life. And yet that prime may be shadowed by political upheaval and economic fallout precipitated by mass migration, as huge swathes of humanity flee rising sea levels and the civil unrest that ensues in a fight for scarce resources. The worst part isn’t just that dramatic climate changes are likely to occur—it’s that we could prevent them but lack the political will to do so. Mutually assured destruction once again.
Psychological studies of children who grew up during the atomic era found widespread disruptive thoughts about a possible nuclear war, with a percentage of kids experiencing more severe nightmares, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. One contributing factor to this sense of unease had to be that the adults in their lives weren’t talking openly about those feelings either, much less allowing their kids to experience them.
Those anxious kids are the parents of today, and they’re reliving their fear of nuclear annihilation as they face the potential for climate-fueled annihilation. Never before has psychological resilience been more important. Nor too has it ever been more important than now for people to come together, and that begins with an open exchange about what’s going on around us. Fatalistic thinking isn’t going to help, nor is Pollyanna thinking. We must fight our impulses to flee and pretend it’s not happening on the one hand, to despair and shrug our shoulders with the assumption that nothing can be done on the other. As always, the truth will lie somewhere in the grey area, a place of uncertainty that makes no one comfortable.
Parents naturally want to fix things for their children, but when your kid expresses fear about climate change (or other scary stuff, for that matter), seek less to allay and more to acknowledge. By letting the authentic feeling linger a little longer, your child can learn bit by bit to tolerate the discomfort of it. That in turn will give her the courage to keep looking at the scary situation—and, God willing, find answers. We need the next generation, everyone really, both to feel the fear that will spur them to action and to cultivate the calm required to move through it productively. We don’t have to feed catastrophic thinking but we can support an honest response to crisis.
It sounds funny, but we did manage to avoid blowing ourselves up in the 1980s. Perhaps if we help our kids learn emotional resilience now, they’ll have the wherewithal to see us through the climate crisis and make mutually assured destruction a thing of the past.