How Do I Tell My Kids What We've Done To The Climate?

Kids learn what's normal from us. But now there's no normal.

What Will Be Lost is a series of reported stories and essays exploring the ways climate change is affecting our relationship to one another, to our sense of place, and to ourselves. 

The snow was piled in a perfect square on the grass lawn, not far from the eucalyptus trees. It was 60 degrees out, but my son, Otto, wore a puffy jacket and mittens. He yanked on my arm, pulling me over to build a snowman with the fluffy white pile that had been trucked to our West Los Angeles preschool for the annual Snow Day event. Needless to say, it doesn’t snow on its own in L.A. 

“Angelenos have a really strange relationship with the natural world,” said Katharine Davis Reich, associate director of the UCLA Center for Climate Science.

“Humans have a problematic relationship with their natural world in general,” she said, but here, it’s particularly confused.

As the city developed, it did so with an East Coast or Midwestern view of what a city should look like. Now we’re surrounded by grass lawns and gardens that have no relationship to the native environment.

The hills surrounding the city give us a sense of what the native ecosystem should be: a mixture of low brush, sage and shrubs. And unless you explore these natural places, “you can totally not understand what the nature of Los Angeles is,” said Reich. To prevent that, and have unstructured play outside, she and her daughter spend their Saturdays with a Free Forest School group. “Where I’m trying to start with my daughter is to really give her relationship with this place.” 

Even with its weird relationship to nature and its bouts of smoke and smog, Los Angeles can be a stunningly beautiful place to raise kids. You can see dolphins jumping in the waves offshore, and a drive north or east will take you straight to the sage-filled mountains. In the summer, creamy Yucca flowers burst toward the blue sky. 

But I’m scared. As climate change worsens, scientists expect we’ll see more pockets of extreme heat in Los Angeles’s inland neighborhoods and already-hot valleys, more extreme fluctuations between wet and dry periods, more rain, and more burning. They call this ”climate whiplash,” and it means that the region may no longer be a very safe place to live.

Flames spread on a moonlit night at the La Tuna Fire on Sept. 2, 2017 near Burbank, California. 
Flames spread on a moonlit night at the La Tuna Fire on Sept. 2, 2017 near Burbank, California. 


My kids’ schools have closed twice in the last few years because of fires, sometimes for three or four days. Otto, who is 4, has asthma, and I worry about his lungs. Last October, when 745 acres burned nearby, the air smelled of smoke and ash floated down like snow. 

Just a few blocks away, homes were evacuated, streets blocked with orange cones and traffic cops. Otto told us he wanted to be a dragon for Halloween, one that breathed water to help the firefighters. 

When Reich was pregnant in 2017, the La Tuna fire burned 7,194 acres in L.A.’s Verdugo Mountains. 

Already my kids haven’t got the same planet that I had.

“I drove up the road and I could really clearly see the fire line and I pulled over and I was like, ‘Oh my god. This is the world I’m bringing my child into,’” she said. “I work in climate change for a living. It’s in my face every day. But that was one of the moments where it became really visceral — to watch this hillside burn.”

Like with many places, living here means forming relationships with our children as the climate crisis looms in the background. We want to empower them to fight, but not scare them too much.

My friend Michelle Horowitz thinks about this too. “I don’t know if I’ve actually scared my children or made them just completely anxious and neurotic about the situation,” she said. We were sitting at airy organic juice cafe with a view of the ocean just off the Pacific Coast Highway. Our 9-year-olds were drinking smoothies and reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” 

Horowitz is Australian and grew up in Warragul, a small town in Victoria, a region touched by the massive wildfires that have been devastating swaths of the country. When she was a kid, her mom made shampoo out of lemon juice and olive oil, and hung their laundry to dry in the sun. She felt a deep connection to the natural world around her.  

Like her mom, Horowitz said she only uses natural products at home — no bleach, just vinegar and lavender. She’s been on a mission to get the neighborhood gardeners to stop using gas-powered leaf blowers, to teach her kids to not leave the water running when brushing their teeth, to consume less stuff, and to learn how to garden. 

She told me about her grandmother, who’d lived on the coast. “Kookaburras would just come to her balcony and eat from her hand.” When her grandmother moved to a nearby town, she refused to pay a garbage tax, “because she didn’t have any garbage.”

“Already my kids haven’t got the same planet that I had,” said Horowitz. 

Her son and my daughter, Olive, told us they were both aware of global warming. They know not to litter, and they want to drive electric cars.   

But I know that recycling and driving electric cars cannot get at the severity of the problem, and that our kids see our hypocrisy. Olive has asked me why we drive a car at all. I don’t have a great response, but maybe it’s time to tell her that our society is built on fossil fuels, that L.A. needs better public transportation, that organizing matters. 

Or, as Reich said, “To stem climate change, we need political leadership who will lead [us] there, and we need people to vote for that leadership.” 

The buildings of downtown Los Angeles are partially obscured in the late afternoon on Nov. 5, 2019 as seen from Pasadena, Cal
The buildings of downtown Los Angeles are partially obscured in the late afternoon on Nov. 5, 2019 as seen from Pasadena, California. 

For Andres Ramirez, understanding climate change is a lesson about actions, and the consequences for our actions. He’s told his two young daughters that our generation, and the ones before ours, have done a bad job of caring for the planet. As the policy director at Pacoima Beautiful, a nonprofit that works toward local solutions to environmental pollution, he’s committed to trying to right some of our generation’s wrongs. 

He grew up in southeast Los Angeles in the shadow of Vernon, an industrial city home to the now-closed Exide battery plant that polluted surrounding neighborhoods, backyards and schools with lead. His sister died from complications from lupus, which can be triggered by pollutants in the air. 

Maybe it’s time to tell her that our society is built on fossil fuels, that L.A. needs better public transportation, that organizing matters.

As a ’90s kid, “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” affected Ramirez. “Our world is in peril,” the show’s narrator intoned. “Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, can no longer stand the terrible destruction plaguing our planet.” 

Whoopi Goldberg was the voice of Gaia. Even Jeff Goldblum had a role. “The power is yours!” the show told its young viewers, a message that resonated for Ramirez, especially as he saw the daily effects of pollution on his neighborhood and his family.    

I think about my own childhood participation in this magical vision of caring about the planet: beach cleanups, Earth Days, a poster contest we entered to tell people how to conserve water. None of it was enough. 

When he went to college at UCLA, in a neighborhood with more breathable air, with classmates who had come from richer parts of the city, Ramirez realized that not all communities were like his. This underlined the connection between the environment and social justice for him. 

“Some communities are burdened more than others, but at the same time, we’re all still benefitting and utilizing the things that are toxifying our own planet.”

The pile of snow at Otto’s school took a few days to melt. The kids lost interest in the slush and turned swiftly back the slide and sandbox, resuming their regular play, interacting with their immediate environment. 

They learn what’s normal from us — what nature should look like, how the air should taste, the way we should live. We parents have a lot of work to do.