Parents Coming Out on Climate Change

I used to think "I'm gay" were the hardest words I could say aloud. But that was 25 years ago, before I grew up, as it were, got married and had kids. More recently, the toughest truth I've had to come to terms with is, "I'm a Mom who is worried about climate change." And as world leaders prepare this month for the UN Climate Summit and activists for the People's Climate March, I'm struck by the similarities in these experiences and the changes they could unleash.

Recognizing that my personal story is not everyone's story, this is what I know: It begins with denial. When I first found myself attracted to women, my reaction was so automatic, I wasn't even conscious of my feelings: I denied them, even to myself. I was that afraid of what this new reality could mean for my life and my relationships with the people I loved. But important truths have a way of insisting upon coming out, especially if they cut to the core of who we are. So one day, I told a friend. She accepted my revelation without judgment and a great weight was lifted, allowing me to take another step toward living a more authentic life.

Many people have asked in recent years why Americans don't care more about climate change. It is, after all, widely understood to be one of the greatest threats to the stability of life on earth since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Rationally, you'd think it would get our attention. And, in fleeting moments -- when the snow fails to hit the slopes, or the rain fails to hit the fields -- it does. More routinely, polls reveal that at least 40 percent of Americans are concerned about our changing climate. But most of us are not as concerned as we are about the state of our government, health care, and immigration -- nor concerned enough to take action.

In recent months, there has been a heightened focus on climate action. President Obama introduced a number of executive actions to reduce carbon pollution and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Billionaire philanthropists Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg called on businesses to lead the charge on climate action. Professional organizations, such as American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have come out in support of climate action.

But back here in everyday life, climate change remains a conversation killer. Bring it up at a barbecue, or some other ordinary social gathering and you're likely to be met with one-word responses, dead silence, or a quick change of topic.

Why? Why, in particular, don't more parents like me talk about how we feel about the threat climate change poses to our kids or grandkids? Is it possible that the words themselves have taken on the power that "gay" had not so very long ago? Are we afraid to mention global warming because it might stop a conversation in its tracks, or turn an amiable exchange into something unpleasant?

In this moment, that's a reasonable concern. When I first woke up to climate change, I felt the need to tell everybody about it. I brought it up while waiting to pick up my son from school, standing on the sidelines during Saturday morning soccer games, and enjoying barbecues with friends. Routinely, I was met with one-word responses; dead silence; or, as one mom said, "Oh, I just can't go there."

Scratch the surface of denial, after all, and we come to fear: fear of what a certain reality means for our own lives, or of what others will think of us if we speak about it. And when something makes us fearful, it's human nature to do something or look away. But with climate change, the fact is that most of us suspect that what we can do will not lead to a meaningful solution. And so we think we are left with silence. Distraction. The wish to not "go there."

When I finally came around to allowing myself to be openly gay (or, rather, more confusingly to some, bisexual) it was because my first relationship had fallen apart. My defenses were down, and it didn't matter much what anyone thought. I said what I felt. And to my astonishment, many people responded with "Me, too," "So is my sister," or "So is my Dad." That feeling of connection, established through the singular offering of a shared reality, emboldened me to move on through the bigger challenges to come.

When I later genuinely fell in love, it was worth all the angst and struggle I'd endured. But a big surprise came when my partner and I had children. Suddenly, sexual orientation, or any other form of difference for that matter, felt largely irrelevant because being a parent is the greatest equalizer. Straight, gay; white, black; Christian, Muslim; rich, poor; Republican, Democrat -- we all care about our children more than anything else, and we all want the best possible future for them.

That's why a small but growing number of parents (organized by Moms Clean Air Force, Climate Parents, Mothers Out Front, and other groups) now feel compelled to do or say something in support of climate action. And that's why many plan to be at the head of the Climate March.

Acknowledging our concerns is frightening, to be sure. To paraphrase something I once heard ABC-TV correspondent Bill Blakemore say: If you haven't felt daunted by this issue, you haven't been paying attention.

But this I know for certain: There is power in coming out. To family members, neighbors, teachers, coaches, coworkers, doctors, ministers and rabbis, the guy at the gas station -- and, yes, elected officials. Sure, it's likely to surface disagreements. And no, it won't reduce carbon in the atmosphere, stabilize temperatures, or stop the Arctic from melting overnight. But it is an essential step to create the political pressure to force government and big business to address this issue with the serious attention it deserves.

Without that kind of public pressure, nothing will change. But with it? Just consider how things have changed for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people over the past 25 years. Good legal work, of course, had something to do with the rapid changes in our laws, customs, and culture. But none of it would have happened without everyday people standing and speaking their truth out of genuine love for another human being.

The history of the gay movement is proof that coming out is one of the most powerful forces for change we have in America. And if a minority could achieve so much so fast as a result, surely the majority of us can do the same for our kids.


(An earlier version of this post was published on Medium.)