We’re Failing Our Kids
May 10, 2019
Below is the video and transcript of an emotional talk I gave to parents and teens in my hometown, along with the list of 10 recommendations I made.
Normally when I’m asked to give a talk on climate change, I spend all my time trying to deliver the facts and the information to the audience. But I don’t want to do any of that tonight. Tonight, I just want to plea with all of us in this room to take action. We know that there’s a problem, but we’re not doing enough to address it. And, specifically, I’m talking to you as a parent. My sons are here tonight. And I’m talking to you as a community member and as a human being who’s really concerned about the future that my boys and all the other kids that are in this room and around the world are inheriting.
When I first started doing this work, 13 years ago, it was just after my first son was born and An Inconvenient Truth had just come out. I was running a leadership program for teens at the time. And I decided I would take them to see the film. And, I think like a lot of people, the film really blew me away. Even more, seeing the looks on the faces of those teens walking out of that theater really hit me hard. And that’s what sent me on my path. But I’ll be the first to admit that probably on its own that wouldn’t have been enough. It took having my oldest son, who I would hold and care for and who’s big brown eyes I would look into every night. It was about his future and his safety.
Every parent our number one concern is about providing for our kids. We want them to grow up happy and healthy and safe, and with as much opportunity as they can possibly find. And so having him in my life at that time, being so young and so vulnerable, was obviously a huge difference maker for me. But even with that, I think if I’m totally honest, it would have been easy to just fall back into the routine of daily life. You know, the work that I had, the responsibilities of being a young parent. But my wife and I, we had this amazing opportunity land at our feet soon after An Inconvenient Truth came out. It was funding for one year to work on climate change, and we were given a lot of freedom to try to figure out what we could do.
So I’m here to tell you that I’m inordinately lucky. If I didn’t have those things, those pushes in the back, I wouldn’t be here right now. I was given the motive and the means and the opportunity to act on this climate crisis. What I wasn’t given was the foggiest idea of how. And when I think back on where I started 13 years ago, I’m sort of embarrassed sometimes because I think of it as kind of swimming in the shallow end of the pool. I was really focused, I was caught up in this fixation at the time with all the headlines that we saw, the newspaper articles, all talking about “the 10 green things you can do to save the planet.” You know, those top 10 lists.
And I was a believer in that. I thought, “If we just brought canvas bags to the grocery store… We changed a little bit how we’re eating, and drove less, flew less… Maybe we got a Prius and maybe went so far as to not fly so much… Get solar panels on our house… This thing would be licked.” We’d have this problem solved. But as I started digging into this problem more and more, and learning more and more, and as I spoke with people who were far more wise and knowledgeable than I was, certainly at the time, about this crisis, I learned that climate change is a symptom. You know, it’s a fever that we’re experiencing, that’s a result of too many of us consuming too many things. And having divorced ourselves from our relationship with each other and with nature.
And I started realizing that these attempts to find these quick fixes, they were like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. They weren’t anywhere near enough. I think the real kicker for me was when I was asked to be on this advisory board for John Edwards, who was a senator at the time running for president. This was in 2008 and I was asked to be on this sustainability advisory board for him. And I remember being on this call with all these other people who had been working on sustainability issues for far longer than I had, debating whether or not he could use the word “conserve” in his climate change talks. And the vote sort of squarely fell down on the idea that it was a lot more politically smart to do away with that word and focus on trying to make it seem just like an opportunity or that it wasn’t going to be that difficult to address. And I realized that we had to go a lot deeper. So 11 years ago I was fortunate enough to join Post Carbon Institute where we’ve been working to try to help people understand the deeper root causes of this crisis that we’re facing.
And then nine years ago, almost exactly, my younger son was born. I was really torn about whether or not to have another kid, knowing what I did. And the decision for me, for us, was really about redoubling our efforts. And then two years ago my family moved here to Corvallis. We made that decision in part because we felt that this was a community that was more prepared. It was in a better position to act on the climate crisis and was better able to withstand, and hopefully to adapt to what was coming. And I’m very glad that we made that choice. But I have to tell you… When I say the word “we” here, I shared the story about my journey because I’m very aware that I am inordinately lucky. And in even with all the opportunity that I’ve had to work on these issues, I put myself first on the list when I say…
We are not doing enough. We are failing our kids. We’re failing them. I don’t want to say that and you don’t want to hear it.
You know, every parent sees their responsibility as a parent as their top priority. We are dedicated to making sure that our kids are thriving and that they’re healthy and they have the education they need, and they have the security that they need, to have everything that they need. And we spend a lot of our daily life focused on providing those things in the immediate term, but we’re failing to address the biggest threat that they face.
If you were to get a call… You are at work and you got to call on the phone and, God forbid, you were told that your son or your daughter got in an accident, they were hurt at school and they were being rushed to the hospital… What would you do? You would drop everything, right? All the practical considerations, all the reasons why we’re distracted. These are all valid reasons, you know. It may not be that we’re asleep at the switch, that we’re sleepwalking through this crisis. I mean, if you’re in this room, you are obviously aware that we have a crisis and if we’re not acting enough it may not be because we’re selfish and we don’t care. It may be that we’re too scared, we don’t know what to do. This is an uncertain, scary, existential thing that we’re dealing with here. And we have those daily pressures. And I think that, more and more, that’s what we’re really wrestling with here. You know, we are living in a world that’s still mostly functioning and we’ve got these, these responsibilities, to our jobs and to our kids that we put squarely on our plates. But if you got that call, none of that would matter, right?
You’d hang up the phone. You would rush to the hospital. You’d do whatever you needed to do. Believe it or not, this crisis — God forbid something like that would happen to one of our kids — but in some ways this climate emergency is a more difficult thing to even know how to respond to. If you got a call that your kid was being rushed to the hospital, there’s a whole infrastructure in place to support that. You would know where to go. You had a working cell phone. You’d have a car or get on the bus or whatever way you would get there. We have people at the hospital that are trained to care for people that are in need. All that is there for that horrible situation. The climate crisis is a completely different issue. Its source comes from the actions of billions of people. The harm that it creates is sort of “death from a million cuts,” not a single blow. Knowing how to do triage and respond to it is much more difficult. And so I get it. I’m right there with the rest of us as to why it’s so difficult to respond to this. But at the end of the day, that’s still no excuse. It’s no excuse not to act. It’s no excuse not to treat this like the emergency that it is. Now, I will say one thing, as maybe a means of hope and good news and that is we’ve been through emergencies before as a nation.
If you think back at World War II, that was an existential threat as well, and there were millions of Americans, many of them actually paid the ultimate price to respond to that threat. Millions of Americans were mobilized for the war effort, but many tens of millions of Americans were mobilized in all kinds of other ways as well. It wasn’t just the men and women were sent overseas. It was the men and women and kids at home who were mobilized as part of the war effort. And a lot of the things that they did then are actually some of the things that we need to be doing now. They conserved everything. They conserved food. They planted gardens in their yards. They focused on reducing the number of trips they took and commuted together with other people. They were recycling steel and tin and all kinds of things. And they didn’t stop and think, “Well, this is too much of a hardship,” or “I can’t do this. This is too hard.” They did it. They were part of that effort. And we can be part of an effort, too. We have to be. We don’t have a choice.
I know that it can be overwhelming to stare at this threat in the face. And believe it or not, even in my job I feel like there’s parts of it that I can’t even look at, or regularly look at, it because it’s too scary. It’s too horrifying. But we need to look at it. And we also need to take advantage of the resources that are out there. Thankfully we happen to live in a community where there are a lot of resources that can help each of us take action in our own lives. The fair right outside these doors. There are a lot of great resources that you can find there. And there are lots of other resources that you can find out in the community or online as well. I talked about the top 10 list of things that you could do, that was so simple and simplistic before. I guess I want to offer maybe a revised one now, based on where we are and what I’ve learned.
I’ll start by just again saying that we have to recognize this as an emergency. We need to be using that language in our own minds. One of the dastardly things about climate change is that it’s slow going, but it doesn’t mean it’s not an emergency. So please always try to keep that in your thoughts.
Next is to own this, but not all on your own. And by owning it, I mean, I think you have to be present with the fear, the anxiety, the dread, the uncertainty. All of the emotions that we feel as individuals when we really look at this emergency. Honestly. I think if we’re not present with that, we’re not being real with ourselves and not being real with our kids. And if we to mobilize more people — because we need to — that starts by being real with them, as well. But we can’t do it on our own. It’s not fair to ask of yourself to carry that burden alone. And it’s certainly not fair to ask our kids to carry that burden. I think too many of us walk around with that sense of fear, that dread. It’s in the back of our minds. So we need to be speaking about this, and we need to be speaking with our kids specifically. You may not have your own kids, you may have nieces and nephews, you may have grandkids. There are kids in your life. So if you have kids of your own, talk to them and find out how they’re feeling about this. They’re more aware of this than you might realize. And they think about this. Probably more than you might realize, and they need to know that you do, as well. And if there are not kids in your own life, there are kids in the lives of people that you’re close to. Talk to them and ask them how they’re talking to their kids. And if they are. We need to be communicating and communicating regularly about this.
Here’s a practical thing, and it might sound strange, but I’m going to challenge everyone in this room to set aside an hour a week to work on this emergency. On one level that might feel like a lot. On another level that might feel like a joke. You know, one hour? What? That’s, I think, 1/168th or something hours in a week or, if you want to think about it in terms of the work week, it’s 1/40th of a work week. You know, that’s not a lot of time. But it’s something, and I think it’s so easy to slip back into the day-to-day grind. So if we don’t set aside time to work on this, we’re not going to necessarily make progress. So when I say that, I mean it. Put it on your calendar. Set it aside. Make it part of your routine, like working out or making dinner, or whatever tasks you have for work.
The big thing here is shifting our behaviors. It really does come down to the choices that we make. Most of the greenhouse gas emissions that you and I are responsible for have to do with our consumption. So it is across the board. It’s not just getting an electric vehicle, if you can afford that. Or taking fewer trips on an airplane or buying, you know, Blue Sky credits. All these things are really, really positive and important steps. But it’s really looking at this as a systemic thing. Addressing this climate crisis at the speed we need to address it and putting ourselves on a path where we’re actually going to be able to live sustainably on this planet means transforming every aspect of the way that we live, especially those of us in countries like the United States. So, as I mentioned, there are resources out this door that can help you get started there. Lots of other resources online as well. And I would say think of all of the inconveniences as opportunities. If it bothers you, if it’s a pain in the butt, good! See that as a gift. That is an opportunity for you to recognize that you’re doing something and that you need to do more. The old adage: “no pain, no gain.”
Together we also need to put this community on emergency footing. We are just simply not acting aggressively enough. And that means letting your mayor, your city council know that this is a priority for you. Anyone that is in a position of power, let them know that this matters to you. Tell them that you have their back to do something more aggressively than they’re currently doing. Communicate to your neighbors, the people that you work with. If you go to church or any congregation of any kind, talk to those folks. This is an emergency and we need to act together in that regard. And if people who are in leadership are not leading enough, then become a leader yourself.
And that means also engaging politically here in Oregon and nationally. There are things that are actually happening right now in Salem. HR 2020. There are other bills that are being considered right now. HR 2020 is a bill that would put a price on carbon and create a cap and trade system. I’m not going to get into the particulars of those things. I will say that we need to be working on all these levels, the household, personal level… the local level, the state level… county level, state, national, and international. So we need to be engaging politically. That means who you vote for. That means letting our elected representatives know that this is the number one priority for us. So use your voice, use your voice as a constituent and as a citizen.
And we need to build resilience here in Corvallis. No matter what happens, there are changes afoot. You know, as Julie mentioned earlier, we passed 350 parts per million years ago. We’re well past now 400. We’re over a degree Celsius of warming. We’re on our way to two degrees. There are changes already. We’re seeing them. We’re already experiencing those. There’s going to be more of them and the impacts of climate and the changes that we need to make to mitigate, to keep us from going past that two degree threshold, require us to relocalize where our food is coming from, to relocalize where our energy’s coming from and to ensure that that energy is renewable, to really build a thriving and resilient community where we are working together to make sure that we can withstand and respond to crises that we’re inevitably going to be facing. And also putting us on a path to slash our emissions the way that we need to. The climate science community has told us we need 45% reduction in 10 years. So we need to mobilize today and we have to do that at the community level. There are a tremendous amount of opportunities right here where we live to do that. Just a huge amount, and a lot of people working on these issues. A ton of them. So we’ve got no excuse for not doing this here in Corvallis.
And I would say engage your kids in the decision making. It’s not just about giving them some sense of agency. It’s also being honest about the fact that they’re smarter than we are and they probably have great ideas and are maybe less rigid and set in their ways than we might be. So please harness their creativity, their talent, their energy, and help them feel like they’re part of this.
And the last thing I’ll say is that ultimately this crisis, this emergency, has to do with the fact that we have broken our bonds with the natural world and broken our bonds with each other. And the only way that we’re going to get through this emergency and the only way that we’re ever actually going to be able to live as a species with other species on this planet sustainably is if we are reconnected to place, to nature, and to each other. It sounds kind of Kumbaya, but it’s really true. And so I said, spend an hour a week at least working on this emergency. Maybe, similarly, spend that same amount of time being out in nature and take your kids with you.
I did put up this list for folks on the Post Carbon website. You can see the URL there. We’ll all go home tonight and we might forget some of this, so if this is helpful, please feel free to go to the website.
The last thing I guess I want to say is something to the kids here. I’ve been talking so much to the adults and the parents in the room. The first thing I want to say is that I’m sorry. And that if you are scared, you have every right to be scared. It’s okay to be scared. And ultimately the responsibility, as Julie said earlier, rests on the shoulders of those of us who’ve contributed most to creating this crisis. And the ones that are in a position right now to have the power to do something about it. It’s not your responsibility to fix this. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have power. You have a lot of power. Just think about Greta Thunberg. If you don’t know who she is, she’s a young woman, a Swedish teenager who has inspired millions of other kids around the world to strike from school, to go on a climate strike, to try to force the adults around them to take action.
And just recently the UK Government declared a climate emergency in no small part thanks to those kids who had been going on strike and Greta, herself, who went to the Parliament in the UK and called them out for not doing what was required. So you have a lot of power and you don’t even have to look across the pond. You can look right here. We’re going to be hearing from Kelsey [Juliana] momentarily about the amazing things that young people right here in Oregon and around the country are doing to exert their power and make their voices heard. So you can join in those efforts. You have a lot of power. Use it. And if that means kicking us in the butt sometimes, because we’re not doing enough, you’ve got my permission to do that. And I say that to my kids too. Thank you.
10 Things Every Parent Should Do to Respond to the Climate Crisis
1. Recognize that this is, in fact, an emergency.
2. Own this, but not on your own.
Let yourself feel the fear, the sadness, the anxiety, the dread. Let yourself be imperfect. But then act. And don’t go it alone. Start or find a support group of neighbors, friends, family, congregation members, that meets regularly to offer peer support.
3. Talk to your kids.
If they are old enough or, if you don’t have them, talk to the parents of the kids in your life — grandkids, nieces, nephews, whomever. They are scared. And they need to know that you are, too, but that you’re committed to them and their future.
4. Set aside 1 hour a week to begin with to work on this.
That’s only 1/168th of your time, or 1/112th of your waking hours, or to be even more generous, 1/40th of a full-time job. I’m serious. Put it on your calendar. Set it aside. See it as part of your job.
5. Shift your personal and household choices.
Remember… we need a 50% reduction in the next ten years. It’s not realistic to get there overnight, but that’s the target we have to work towards. Part of this is a shift in mindset: Embrace every inconvenience — walking/biking instead of driving… what you buy… where and how you travel — because it provides you with an opportunity to be part of the war effort. And part of it is acknowledging that what’s required is not a matter of tinkering at the edges… it’s a wholesale shift in how to we live, move, eat, work, and connect.
6. Put Corvallis on an emergency footing.
Our community took an important first step a few years ago by adopting a climate action plan that sets an ambitious target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. But we have yet to mobilize. Our city council needs to hear from you that you recognize this is an emergency, that you want the City to dedicate more resources to climate action, and that you are committed to supporting and working towards implementation of that plan.
7. Engage politically at the state and national level.
A lot of the levers that we need to push to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions will require state and federal policy. That means supporting state bills like HR2020, which puts a price on carbon, or potentially even a national Green New Deal. It means making sure that our elected representatives also recognize the climate emergency and are committed to taking bold action.
8. Build resilience here in our community.
As we experience the effects of climate change and undergo the dramatic shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels, our community’s ability to provide more of its own food and energy — and to provide housing and mobility that’s not car dependent — will be key, as will our preparedness for the inevitable environmental and economic shocks to come.
9. Engage your kids in decision-making.
Partly to give them a sense of agency, and partly because, c’mon, they are smarter than us and hopefully less encumbered by practical matters. This climate emergency is anything but practical.
10. Connect to nature and each other.
Ultimately, this climate emergency is a result of our disconnection with the planet upon which we depend. We must relearn how to live in balance with the natural world, and that begins with spending time in nature. It also means reconnecting with one another and our community. Our ability to work together with the natural world and one another is going to be critical to navigating the way ahead. I can’t think of experiences or skills more important to provide to our children.
- Enroll in PCI’s Think Resilience online course to better understand the sustainability crises we face and how to build community resilience.
- Check out resilience.org to keep up-to-date on sustainability news, read thoughtful perspectives on the crisis, and find inspiration.
- Read “Raising Children to Thrive in a Climate Changed World”, by the Australian Psychological Society.
- Read Mary DeMocker’s great book, The Parent’s Guide to Climate Revolution.
- Read the Corvallis Climate Action Plan.
- Email the Mayor and City Council to let them know that you want the climate emergency to a top priority for the City.