Can children make their parents care about climate change?

22 Feb 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 22 Feb 2022

Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash
Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

A survey of NI parents found, for the first time, that climate change is an emerging worry. This could change attitudes across all of society – and lead to action.


Tipping points are an important part of climate change.

After certain milestones are hit, specific bad things are locked in over the medium- and long-term. Sea rises, melting permafrost, permanent shifts in local climates.

The tipping point, as a cliché, is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is the final small change or changes that lead to something broad and significant and which may have its own cascading effects.

Northern Ireland, like the rest of the UK and Ireland, has been battered by a series of storms over the past week.

Amidst all the damage to property, the worst of the news is that several people have died. The fact that those deaths are in London, Wexford, Hampshire and Liverpool indicates that not only has the weather been severe, it has been severe across a huge swathe of these islands.

And the bad weather is not over. Storms Dudley and Eunice are now behind us (with Eunice possibly setting wind-speed records), but Storm Franklin is getting into gear and Storm Gladys may well be imminent.

It isn’t possible to point at a single weather event and say it has been birthed by CO2 emissions. Climate and weather are not the same thing – however, climate sets the terms for the weather.

UN Secretary General António Guterres said late last year that an increased number and ferocity of severe weather events is a result of climate change. “We now have five times the number of recorded weather disasters than we had in 1970 and they are seven times more costly. Even the most developed countries have become vulnerable.

“These events would have been impossible without human-caused climate change. Costly fires, floods and extreme weather events are increasing everywhere. These changes are just the beginning of worse to come.”

Big Parenting Survey

The climate is not the only thing at the mercy of tipping points. They can also be involved in social change.

One example is public attitudes to homosexuality. In the UK, society (largely) claimed to be appalled by people being gay. This persisted for centuries, including through the liberalising social change of the swinging sixties, until late in the 1980s. Then things began to change.

A similar process, on the very same issue, took place in the USA.

It’s important to note that these tipping points are not momentary flips of public opinion. Instead, a tipping point is passed and then the major transformation of public opinion begins in earnest.

With regards to homosexuality, the shift took a couple of decades – which is a swift turnaround of views that held for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Part of the process is the effect that the opinions of some people have on the views held by others. It is sociological change as percolation.

Earlier this month, Parenting NI published their latest Big Parenting Survey. The survey is a major piece of work and is full of interesting details about local parental concerns.

One of its findings, tucked away in the relative weeds of the report, is about the climate. Concerns about climate change have emerged as a new theme for parents – including the impact climate change will have on their children.

Respondents said things like “Society doesn’t seem to tackle climate change,” and, “There is a lot more pressure on today's children about climate changes and [they are] more aware of what the future is going to be like.”

The report itself states: “Changes on the horizon – climate change, Brexit and new technologies – promise to revolutionise the realities of parenting.”

Driving change

Is this possibly the sign of something significant? Could children sway their parents’ thinking about climate change?

A study published in the journal Nature in 2019 suggests this is possible. Children can foster climate change concern among their parents (yes, that is literally the title) looked at the effects of schools climate lessons on the parents of schoolchildren in North Carolina.

The paper’s abstract sums it up like this: “Parents of children in the treatment group expressed higher levels of climate change concern than parents in the control group. The effects were strongest among male parents and conservative parents, who, consistent with previous research, displayed the lowest levels of climate concern before the intervention. Daughters appeared to be especially effective in influencing parents. Our results suggest that intergenerational learning may overcome barriers to building climate concern.”

It turns out daddy doesn’t want his princess to burn to death in a million-hectare fire.

Some scientists think this could be very useful indeed. Responding to the North Carolina study, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University (who was not involved in the research) said: “These encouraging results suggest that not only are children increasingly engaged in advocating for their future, they are also effective advocates to their parents.

“As a woman myself and someone who frequently engages with conservative Christian communities, I love that it’s the daughters who were found to be most effective at changing their hard-nosed dads’ minds.”

Nicole Holthuis, a researcher in science education at Stanford University, who was also not a researcher on the study, said this is “a promising avenue for those of us in climate change education.”

“With this study, they’re addressing a critical need to acknowledge that the sociopolitical aspects of climate change make it very difficult for people to take [the facts] in. Maybe we can leverage these intergenerational relationships in ways that can be very productive.”

The raw materials are, for want of a better word, abundant; our children and young people are worried about their planet.

Driving change

Tipping points in public opinion can be difficult to predict. Moreover, this would not a tipping point between believing and disbelieving that climate change is a problem. That has long since passed.

Instead, the tipping point would be between wanting to see action on climate change and demanding it.

The closer the effects of climate change feel, in both space and time, the greater the world feels like one huge, burning platform.

If people are looking out their window, seeing disruptive storms queuing up to batter the UK and Ireland - where the climate and, thus, the weather is normally so prosaic – the reality of climate change will feel closer and be harder to ignore.

And when that is in combination with their children and grandchildren asking questions about the future of the planet, people’s views may clarify, and may harden.

Whether that means we act in time, or act well, or that ultimately the collective sacrifices we have to make are not subject to too much compromise to avert disaster all remains to be seen.

However, a tipping point between wanting some abstract measures to demanding concrete action would provide impetus for change.

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