What my kids taught me about the climate crisis

My kids found out about climate change one morning while I slept in, and I will never be the same.

Cary Ritzler | March 8, 2022 | Climate Change, Energy Justice, Georgia

I learned about climate change in my second grade science class. I never denied any of the science, but even after I grew up, I ignored the truth of it. If a scary thought bubbled up, I pushed it away. If a frightening headline appeared, I scrolled past. I lived with a mild and constant sense of dread, but I never really turned to face the facts until my kids forced me to, one Saturday morning about eight years ago.

My two little boys, aged 7 and 4, had woken up, as they always did, before dawn. Like most weekend mornings, I told them to go downstairs and turn on a show. “Make it a nature show!” I hollered at the older one. “You know, something educational.” I went back to sleep.

About an hour later, I came downstairs. They were sitting side by side, staring wide-eyed at the TV screen when I said good morning.

“Mama!” said my seven year old, breathless and scared, “Something terrible is happening!”

My four year old started to cry, “The ice is melting!”

They had turned on a show about orcas, one of their favorite animals. But this one was about how orcas were traveling farther and farther into the warming Arctic, and threatening narwhals. Scientists were on the screen in front of a dripping glacier, explaining their research and their ominous predictions.

It’s hard to deal with an existential crisis before coffee, but I did my best. I took my four year old to the freezer to show him some ice that was not melted. It was an irrational action that did not fool the older one at all. I had always explained every truth to him, even the hard ones. I had explained how seeds grow and how disease kills. When you start out telling your kids the truth, they expect you to continue. So I made him breakfast and told him how almost everything we had or did was created, delivered, lit up, and powered by fossil fuels, and how when those fuels burn to create electricity or spark an engine, a colorless, odorless gas goes up into the atmosphere, where it hangs like a blanket. 

I explained it the way I had first heard it as a kid: “You’ve been in a car that’s been sitting in the sun, right? You know how it’s so much hotter inside than out? The heat is trapped; it can’t escape. That’s what is happening, but to the whole planet.”

“Well, then why are we using fossil fuels? Why don’t we stop? We have to stop, right?” he asked. My four year old started turning off the lights. 

How do you explain to a kid that the adults know that the whole world, his world, is like a house on fire, and that they know why it’s burning, and that many of them have known for decades, but they are not running for water? He thought no one had heard because, surely, if they knew… 

I spent the rest of the day talking to him about what we could do, in our family. We could walk to school. We could grow tomatoes on our patio and take cloth bags to the grocery store. But I already knew these were not sufficient. I had been reducing, reusing, and recycling since the 1980s, and I had only seen the predictions get worse and more urgent.

That morning, my boys jolted me out of my denial and forced me to face what I really knew all along. They were right. Something terrible is happening! This is an emergency! We have to do something about it, this very day! I told my worried kids that it was my job as a grown up to take care of them, that caring for them meant caring for the world they live in, and that I would do everything I could to protect the planet so it would be healthy and vibrant for their whole lives.

That day set me on a path that I am still walking. I wanted to learn what would be sufficient, what we could do collectively to meet the crisis, so I began reading, listening, and talking to people. 

I learned that some of the most effective climate solutions come with all kinds of side benefits: walkable cities with cleaner air, better education for girls and women, quality low-income housing. I learned that racism and climate change were so closely linked that if you pursue solutions that address both, the benefits are compounded for all of us, but if you do not address them together, the same problems will persist in a cycle. I found out that the majority of people in the US believe in climate change and support policies to address it. And, I learned that bold and persistent action was the antidote to the fear and dread that had been gnawing at me for years while I hid from the truth.

I also learned that a handful of powerful people had been at work for my entire life to block progress, capture politicians, and confuse the public, delaying action in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s when there was ample time to change the trajectory.

I learned that even though it is late, there is still time to save much of what we all love and value. And, most importantly, I learned that it only takes a small percentage of the population to change history, if they mobilize and work together. This was the story of democracy, the story of breaking apartheid and colonial rule, and the story of the civil rights movement. This can be the story of the climate age too.

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I am thrilled to be joining SACE at the perfect time to help catalyze this movement in my home state of Georgia. Along with dozens of other organizations and individuals in the state, I am ready to stand up with my neighbors and demand a just and equitable transition to clean and renewable energy. In 2020, Georgia turned the tide by electing candidates who are committed to climate action. The forces that have been fighting for the status quo persist, but ultimately, the people hold the power.

We are, as President Obama said, the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last that can do anything about it. And the most important thing we can do is stand up together against the small handful of people who are blocking progress toward a clean and renewable energy economy. We can lift up the needs of the vulnerable among us and around the world and call for a just transition to secure a more equitable future for all. We can tell our leaders at every level of government, from the town hall to the White House, to place climate–which is central to our very survival–at the center of the agenda. Every single action makes a difference. It can be as quick as adding your name to a petition, sending an email, making a phone call, or going to vote.

We have so much to gain by working together: stronger communities, more responsive leaders, and a livable future for ourselves and our children. We owe this to ourselves and to the kids of 2022, who simply do not have time to wait.

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Cary Ritzler
Cary Ritzler joined the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) in 2022 as Georgia Organizer and is now the Climate Advocacy Manager, working with volunteers and leaders to promote the…
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