A changing climate means the frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires has become a common occurrence. Temperatures are increasing on the land and in the ocean, the sea level is rising and amounts of snow and ice are diminishing, as greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations have increased. Unfortunately, children and young people are taking the brunt of climate change and this will continue into the future.
Doctors are seeing the serious effects of global warming on children’s health and are concerned that it could reverse the progress made over the past 25 years in reducing global child deaths. Not only that, children are at risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to natural disasters caused by climate change.
A UNICEF survey of children aged nine to 18 in 14 countries showed that children are deeply concerned about global issues affecting their peers and them personally, including climate change. Children across all countries feel marginalised because their voices are not being heard nor that their opinions considered.
Given the enormity of the climate challenge, it is surprising how limited coverage of our changing climate receives in current children’s fiction. The children’s publishing sector is booming. UK sales of children’s books rose by 16% in 2016 with sales totalling £365m. Globally, children’s book sales have risen steadily across all age categories.
Some picture books do explain climate change (such as The Magic School Bus and Climate Change by Joanne Cole and Bruce Degen). And there are plenty of young adult novels that feature dystopian climate futures (such as Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd). But few fiction books for eight to 11-year-olds discuss the issue.
In my view, the lack of “environmental diversity” in children’s literature is just as important as the debate about the lack of cultural and social diversity. After all, children will be responsible for the future protection of our fragile planet, and so their knowledge and engagement are critical.
Stories not only develop children’s literacy but convey beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality. They allow children to move from a position of powerlessness to a position of possibility. Through fiction, children are able to explore different perspectives and actions beyond what they know by living in the story world of characters for whom they care.
Through literature, children can develop a better understanding of global issues and engage in critical inquiry about themselves in the world. And so combining narrative structure with factual information has the power to take children beyond what is on the page. This could allow them to expand their understanding of difficult scientific concepts such as climate change.
As children engage in the printed word, they can be inspired to make a difference in the real world. This is what a group of Portuguese children is doing after watching their district burn because of the worst forest fires in their country’s history. The fires that occurred in June 2017 have been linked to climate change, and killed over 60 people. The children are now seeking crowdfunding to take a major climate change case to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the states’ failure to tackle climate change threatens their right to life.
When I decided to write my first children’s novel, I never intended it to be an eco-themed book. But given that I am an environmental researcher, it seemed the most natural thing to do. The result is My Dad, the Earth Warrior, a funny story about the relationship between a boy called Hero and his dad who have grown apart since the death of his mother. Then one day dad has a freak accident and wakes up claiming to be an Earth warrior sent to protect Mother Earth. This plunges Hero into an increasingly bizarre and dangerous world.
Climate change can be a dark, apocalyptic issue to discuss in a story to overcome this, I did not make it a central topic but used the changing weather as an underlying theme throughout this book. The persona of the Earth warrior provides an alternative perspective on our relationship with the natural world. At the end of the book, I encourage readers to join the tribe and become Earth warriors. I hope by taking a humorous approach to a serious topic, I can not only engage and entertain children but also inspire them to think beyond the book. This is something that writer and illustrator Megan Herbert has done by teaming up with climatologist, Michael Mann, for their crowdfunded picture book The Tantrum that Saved the World.
We need children to care about the planet if they are to the tackle climate challenge that lies ahead. Storytelling can play a part in raising awareness and inspiring children and young adults to take action and become the next generation of Earth warriors.
Gary Haq, SEI Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.