INSIDE THE GREENHOUSE | Re-telling climate change stories

Making It Happy: Kids Re-Imagining Climate Change Communication


Meridith Richter

“What are those black clouds with sad faces on them?” I ask an eleven-year-old participant of the SHINE: A Musical Performance for Youth Authored Resilience CU Science Discovery camp. We’re looking down at the massive, hand-painted timeline the kids at the camp have created to illustrate the history of the Earth. It starts 300 million years ago in the Pennsylvanian Period, where the kids have painted trees and vines to portray a lush, vegetation-covered planet. The timeline moves through each subsequent period all the way to the present, where the ominously dark clouds in question hover over towering smokestacks and sputtering cars. “Oh that’s the present day. It’s kind of sad because we have a lot of carbon in the air and it’s not really that happy. But then we have the future,” she says, pointing to just beyond the gloomy scene, “which is happy if we can make it happy.”

In complete contrast to its neighboring present-day image, the kids have represented the future as colorful flowers under fluffy white clouds and a smiling sun. “It’s a lot of windmills, happy flowers, and a lot of solar panels,” she goes on to explain. It’s a wonderful visualization of the camp as a whole. These kids have been asked to imagine solutions that will make their cities and their world more resilient to the inevitable and foreboding effects of climate change. They’ve been asked to brainstorm sustainable methods of energy supply, food production, and consumption of material goods. That’s a difficult and scary enough task to make a room full of college-age students feel overwhelmed, let alone a room full of boisterous elementary-age children. Yet in response, these kids didn’t let the fear of the bad that could happen dissuade them from envisioning all the good that could happen. They weren’t afraid to paint a future that vibrantly prevails over the challenges we face today. And they know a future like that “is happy if we can make it happy.”

That’s a lot of personal responsibility for such a small person. It’s a powerful thing to witness as an adult, especially for the parents of these children who come to watch the kids perform the SHINE musical at the end of the camp. There’s no stronger advocate for global readiness and response to climate change than the kids who its effects will impact directly, and SHINE does an incredible job of giving those kids the knowledge and platform they need to speak up for themselves.

The eleven-year-old looks the timeline over once more and comments that this camp is “more fun” than she thought it would be. “I learned a lot actually,” she says, “I’m excited about everything.” With music, choreography, arts and crafts, and costumes, what’s not to be excited about? It makes me think that the approach we take towards climate communication has to be similarly energizing. We can absolutely visualize our future with climate change as red lines on a graph or threatening prediction models. We can also visualize our future with climate change as lively painted flowers, windmills, and solar panels, under fluffy clouds and a happy sun. If we are going to make our future as happy as all that, it helps to imagine what that kind of future looks like, and communicating that image can be equally uplifting and optimistic. The kids are excited about their call to action. How can we make everyone else excited about it, too?