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Why Children’s Stories Are a Powerful Tool to Fight Climate Change

The power of children’s stories resides largely in its audience: in how open young people are to new ideas. Their drive to experiment is familiar to any parent: Children invent new words, do things differently, and ask “why” about pretty much everything we adults take for granted.

For teachers, children’s noncompliant curiosity is at once a source of delight and frustration. We know this curiosity lies at the heart of learning, and we strive to keep it alive by pushing against educational systems built on factory-model standardization. And while some dismiss youth “rebelliousness” as a stage—something to grow out of—what if it is really a refusal to comply with the wrong ways of doing things that adults have acquiesced to?

In this time of climate change and biodiversity loss, children’s ability to imagine alternatives to the way things are may be the most powerful force for the socioeconomic transformation we need. It is childlike curiosity that allows youth climate activists like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Greta Thunberg to imagine that people like you and me, together, can change the system to work for the planet. It is childlike honesty that empowers young climate strikers to say, much like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” that adults are caught up in self-serving illusions about eternal growth in the market economy. And it really takes a childlike power to believe that a sustainable, equitable, and multi-species future is achievable even as corporations are fracking like there’s no tomorrow.

I have studied children’s, adolescent, and young adult literature for 25 years. I believe it is the most diverse, innovative, and dynamic technology for social transformation we have at our disposal. I believe that young people are the most diverse, innovative, and dynamic audience. Put these two together, and you have a formula for achieving the impossible, for crafting visions that become reality. As we look for ways to tackle the climate emergency, stories for young people—in books, films, games, and other narrative media—emerge as a crucial tool for building universal climate literacy. This is how we transition to an ecological civilization.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

To offer a broader context, I want to make two suggestions. First, climate change is not primarily a scientific or technological challenge, but a challenge to our imaginations and story systems. Science explained climate change more than 50 years ago; the basic hows of climate science can be grasped by any middle schooler (even though most adults are still climate illiterate). Likewise, climate change is no longer a technological challenge: We have practical solutions, and we have all the technologies we need to stop burning fossil fuels. But try to imagine the 52.4 gigatons of CO2 the world emitted in 2019. Or the 3 billion animals that perished in Australia’s fires in 2020. Much harder, right?

The point here is that our brains are hardwired for narrative understanding, not numbers. Our most advanced technology for meaning-making and processing information is called the story. We use stories to grasp and evolve abstract concepts like justice, we use stories to create and maintain societies, and we use stories to guide our sense of agency and understanding of everyday reality. As Indigenous societies have known all along, “Let me tell you a story” enables us to grasp the workings of the world through narrative examples. Vanishing habitats and other aspects of climate change can be presented in numbers and charts, but the message gets compelling when it’s told as a story. Say, in Sir David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet, Mordicai Gerstein’s The Boy and the Whale, or Paolo Garcia’s “Dream.” To tackle climate change, we need a broad spectrum of stories that allow our imaginations to creatively engage with the many specific challenges of a climate-changed world.

My other suggestion is that literature and other narrative media for young audiences are not additional but the most important avenues for raising climate awareness. There are two reasons for this: depth and scale. Stories that move us do so on a personal level and change us from within in ways that facts alone never could. This is especially true of young people, most of whom respond to stories with emotional intensity.

For example, as one of my graduate students wrote last year, after reading We Are Water Protectors, her 5-year-old son declared, “I would help save the people and the animals from the snake. I want to be strong like a tree. Even if the snake scares me, I want to carry [the feather (representing resistance)] and be brave.” Stories help keep such commitments alive through college and beyond.

Scale matters too. The 52 million K-12 students in the U.S. alone read millions of books each year, for school and for pleasure. Stories in other modalities—films, apps, and games—engage even wider audiences: One estimate suggests that nearly 3 billion users play computer games every day. Imagine if even 1% of these stories inspired climate action!

Dispelling Myths about Climate Literacy

The need to center stories in climate literacy education faces two key challenges. One is the mistaken assumption that people can be scared into climate action. This idea was behind the explosion of dystopia in literature and film starting in the 1990s and has since proved to be a false promise. Dystopias offered compelling visions of the future we dread but left little space for imagining the futures we want. Although meant as warnings, even cute dystopias like WALL-E have instead programmed a belief that ecological collapse is inevitable. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a growing realization that tackling the climate emergency calls for stories that inspire activism and mobilize hope.

The other mistake—one that has driven most of environmental and climate education so far—was to assume that climate literacy is solely a matter of communicating facts. This “knowledge deficit paradigm” in conceptualizing climate education was part of the naive “information deficit” framework that also drove climate science until quite recently: hoping that scientific facts is all that governments, corporations, and the public need in order to act. Sadly, the fight over climate change is not about scientific rationality but about the power of the fossil fuel industry.

In education, the “knowledge deficit paradigm” made us approach climate change and biodiversity loss as if they were STEM issues. But they are worldview issues. And the most advanced tool we have to change worldviews—to transform people’s attitudes, values, and structures of perception—is called the story.

Toward Universal Climate Literacy, One Story at a Time

Our global, technologically advanced, and market-driven civilization is a climate illiterate civilization. Its modes of being were designed on stories of conquest and exploitation. We’ve been at war with the planet, and we’re winning. To turn this around, we need universal climate literacy: an understanding of anthropogenic climate change that includes numbers and facts but centers developing attitudes and values aligned with how we should live to respect our planetary home. We need an understanding that we are part of nature and that acting as if we’re separate from it is a crime against life. Classrooms are ground zero for this effort. And stories are the technology that makes climate literacy accessible to every student everywhere.

Climate literacy should be front and center in 21st-century education systems, because our children have a right to choose the future they want. Climate education cannot be dumped on parents, even those deeply committed to raising climate literate kids. We, parents, educators, and public officials, need to do it together, systemically. This urgency is starting to be recognized in policy petitions, statements by educational organizations, blueprints for implementing climate action projects in every school by 2025, and polls showing massive support for climate education. Given this momentum, I expect that climate literacy will become the focus of our K-12 education frameworks within the next 2–5 years. We and our students are the generations that can become climate literate in time to make a difference for the planet’s future.

Imagine that we teach climate literacy from kindergarten all the way up to high school and across all subject areas. Imagine we give our students story-rich examples to help them understand what is at stake and how they can be agents of change. Imagine we also empower them with vocabulary and concepts to articulate visions of sustainable, equitable futures. And imagine we give our teachers a resource where they can find books, films, apps, and other formats—including lesson plans—for teaching climate literacy effectively.

This is the vision for Climate Lit, a collaborative resource hub for K-12 teachers I co-founded with my friend Lara Saguisag in May 2021. We’re in a pilot stage, assembling a team of contributors, editors, and advisers. With support from the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, we want Climate Lit to be part of Earth’s commons, offering a database, glossary, pocket journal, events, trainings, and anything else teachers may need to do climate literacy work. One story at a time.

We do this because we recognize that in our current socioeconomic system, any meaningful action on climate change is indeed a childish dream. But if this childishness—its audacity, directness, and hope—is the only way forward, addressing climate change is eminently a job for children’s stories.

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