Parenting and Climate Change

, , Peter Hutchinson, Somewhere. 2017, Watercolor, photo collage, drawing and text. 31 22/25 × 21 22/25”. Courtesy of the artist and Freight+Volume.

The following panel was held at n+1’s office in Brooklyn on September 26, 2019. It was organized by n+1 contributor Christine Smallwood in cooperation with Sunrise Kids, a group for parents, babies, and young children that works within the Sunrise Movement to fight for climate justice and to take on the politicians and corporations who are driving the climate crisis. This transcript has been edited and condensed for publication.


Christine Smallwood: Thanks, all of you, for coming. I’m guessing there are some parents here, and I know how hard it is to get out on a weeknight, so we will make this worth your while.

I’m going to quickly introduce our panelists in the order they will be speaking, and then they’re each going to give some opening remarks. After that I’ll ask questions, they’ll talk to each other, and we’ll open it up to group discussion.

Kate Marvel is a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. She uses satellite observations and climate models to observe present-day climate changes and explore possible climate futures. Kate writes the Hot Planet column for Scientific American, has appeared on Meet the Press and NPR’s Weekend Edition, and has given a TED Talk. Tomorrow she is speaking at the United Nations.

After Kate we’ll hear from Jill Kubit, the director and cofounder of DearTomorrow. Jill’s work has been recognized by the MIT Climate CoLab, Grist 50, TED, Vox, Public Radio International, and Yale. She is a founding member of the Our Kids’ Climate global network of climate parent groups.

Jedediah Purdy is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene and This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth, which just came out. Jed is also a new dad, so we are super lucky that he is able to be here tonight.

Katy Lederer is the author of three books of poems and a memoir. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker online, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. She writes regularly about climate change for n+1.

And Mari Tan is an attorney and a member of Sunrise Kids.

Let’s start with Kate.

Kate Marvel: I’m going to start out by talking a little bit about the science. As a scientist, I love talking about things that we don’t understand. I want to be clear, though, that uncertainty is not ignorance. We don’t know everything, but we don’t know nothing.

We know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. We know that it is the inevitable by-product of combustion. And we know that we have increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by about 45 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We know that carbon dioxide traps heat within the atmosphere, and we know that the temperature has risen about one degree Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We know that this has consequences beyond just increasing the global average temperature. We know that heat waves are increasing in frequency and severity, and that’s something that is robustly attributable to climate change. We also know that we’re affecting precipitation patterns. Warm air holds more water vapor, and for every degree Celsius of warming, you can hold about 7 percent more water vapor in the atmosphere. That means that when it rains, it pours. The deluges and downpours, like what we saw in Houston during Hurricane Harvey, are very, very unlikely to have happened without that additional boost from the water vapor in the atmosphere.

We also know that warm air is thirstier air, and it drives more evaporation away from the surface of the planet. A paper that came out last year argues that we have already seen the human fingerprint in drought risk, and can actually see that as early as the first half of the last century.

We know that warmer sea surface temperatures are basically hurricane food. And so as oceans warm, we expect to see stronger hurricanes on top of rising sea levels. We know that sea levels are rising both because water itself expands when it warms and because ice that used to be safely parked on the land is now melting and rolling into the ocean.

That’s what we know for sure. But nobody can predict the future. When we talk about the future, we can list the things we’re fairly confident about, but there will always be some uncertainty. That uncertainty comes from three sources. The first is weather—climate is not weather. Even on a warming planet, you can still have cold days. You can even still have cold years, you can have bad winters, but you can’t say exactly what the weather is going to be in five, ten years from now. What really matters is the long-term trend.

There’s a lot that we actually don’t understand about how Earth reacts when you kick it so hard. What feedback systems will be triggered on a warming planet, and how can those intensify climate change? That’s a second source of uncertainty. But the primary source of uncertainty is that we don’t know what human beings will do in the future, particularly with our emissions.

You may have heard that supposedly we have twelve years to stop climate change—though I guess it would be eleven years now. We don’t have eleven years. We have negative thirty years to stop climate change. It’s already happening. We’re already seeing it, and it’s already hurting people. I don’t have a lot of patience for blind hope, but I have no time at all for nihilism. The truth in this slogan is that the decisions we make in this next decade matter—very, very, very much.

Jill Kubit: I’m the cofounder of a storytelling project, DearTomorrow, which I came to largely out of frustration about how we were communicating on climate. I have worked in climate since 2006, and for the first eight years or so I did traditional climate education for labor union leaders, bringing in a scientist or a policy maker to talk about climate. Although some people were moved by the scientific message, most went away with this idea that it was still very distant, hard to understand, and that it didn’t matter in their own lives. They couldn’t see themselves as either being impacted or being really active on the issue.

In 2013, the same year I became a parent, I took a break from that work to think about how we engage people. Then these two parts of my life merged—my reflections on engagement and strategy and the experience of bringing a young person into the world. I shifted from thinking about the years in a scientific way, in decades, to thinking about my own child’s life and the milestones he would experience.

I started working with Trisha Shrum, a behavioral scientist who also was studying climate communication, and in 2015 we launched DearTomorrow. For this project, we invite people to imagine yourselves in the year 2050, having a conversation with your own child or grandchild about what you did, now, in regard to climate change.

I’m of the mindset that the work to be done needs to be deeper, more creative, and engage people in ways they haven’t been engaged before. And I believe legacy and the idea of parental responsibility are huge motivating factors that we have not fully tapped into.

Jedediah Purdy: This is my first time out of the house since our child was born twenty-seven days ago—I’m really tired and disoriented—so I am here in two capacities, as a new parent and as a student of environmental law and politics.

I study the history of environmental mobilization, politics, and lawmaking over the American longue durée. I try to understand the ways that transformations in the human relationship to the nonhuman world have been connected to the broader themes and stakes of their times—to how social order works, to what people owe one another, to how people fit into a state or nation or landscape, and to what it means to lead a good life.

It seems to me that the history of the American natural and built environment has been deeply involved in political struggles and political mythmaking. Some pernicious, some morally and socially productive, and most double-edged.

The way climate change was talked about when I started this research twelve or thirteen years ago was predominantly liberal rationalist despair. “Look at how people are, we’re just not built to solve problems like this, too bad! We were built to make markets work really well for a while, but it turns out that we are not built to solve problems of externalities.” If there is going to be a politics that can address climate change, it will have to be a politics that takes the notion of the human being and their place in the world as part of its stakes. Looking back, it turns out that what we might call environmental politics has actually often had those stakes, in different ways at different times.

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