Traumatising children for a global cause

2007-12-05 00:00

The discourse on global warming, such as this week’s talks in Bali, needs to look at its impact on children. How, for instance, might an eight-year-old react to the United Nations secretary-general’s depiction of one prediction in the latest climate-change report: “As frightening as a science fiction movie”?

Ban Ki Moon didn’t stop there. He said the UN’s predictions, such as one about the Amazon turning into a savannah, are “even more terrifying because they are real”. They’re not real yet. Not by a long shot.

But many children may not know that, just as they may not fathom the nuanced qualifiers between scientific predictions and watertight truth. Use of such talk to scare up tough actions by adults on greenhouse emissions must be more measured. Youth cannot be traumatised for a global cause. A number of youth counsellors have noticed a new despondency among children about global warming. A recent United Kingdom survey found that half of children age seven to 11 feel anxious about climate change, notably the forecasted poor health, rising seas and disappearing animal species. Many children see themselves as victims, the poll found, and have lost sleep over their fears.

No wonder. The apocalyptic rhetoric of many of the Cassandras is often arched beyond belief. Take the words of environmentalist James Lovelock: “Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”

Or the words of Prince Charles, who recently wrote that climate change means “floods, droughts, rising sea levels, spread of disease and poverty will be with us forever”.

Not even during the Cold War, when school children practised for atomic war by hiding under desks, has such a discourse of catastrophe been so carelessly spread so far — even further than the peals of pessimism over avian flu, killer bees, or Y2K.

Some climate-change activists justify the grim talk as ostrich-outing: “A little doom-and-gloom despair is called for at this point and a few nightmares would probably be good for us as Americans because we have been living in la-la land about this,” says Stephanie Meeks, head of The Nature Conservancy.

In October, a British judge ruled that the film An Inconvenient Truth contained a “context of alarmism and exaggeration” and had “errors” (or deviations from UN predictions). He said it is a political film, not a science film, and that teachers must warn pupils about the specific “errors”. (Note: Al Gore’s latest book, The Assault on Reason, decries the politics of fear in the United States.)

Good causes often try to rally the next generation. But doing so requires an extra measure of viable solutions to overcome horror with hope and fear with faith. For every tale of a lost polar bear, there must be a polar-opposite tale of how to save Arctic ice.

This Great Fright of children, as Franklin Roosevelt might say, is what must be feared. Pop that balloon and children will more easily turn green than blue.

— The Christian Science Monitor.

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