Climate Change: A Parent’s Worst Nightmare?

By Sarene Marshall, The Nature Conservancy

As if parenting weren’t difficult enough, our warming planet presents additional challenges for keeping kids safe and healthy – and parents sane. Why? Quite simply, it makes it harder to reliably get kids outside. As my fellow parents know well, keeping kids cooped up in the house is a recipe for disaster.

Toddlers only have two speeds – “running fast” or “fast asleep.” Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather see them running in a park than around the kitchen table. School-aged kids also need plenty of fresh air and exercise to burn off energy. And studies have shown that contact with nature may improve kids’ ability to focus and concentrate, providing a good antidote for excessive screen time. When our daughters – 6 and 8 – get testy with each other after too much time around the house, I employ the tried-and-true technique of sending them outside.

But increasingly, getting kids away from electronics and out into nature can be stymied by weather disruptions. Summers are getting hotter, storms are getting wetter, and seasons are being thrown out of whack, with extreme events projected to occur more frequently in the future.

That’s because carbon pollution is not only warming the Earth, but also increasing erratic and weird weather. And we parents will feel the effects all year long.

While average temperature increases may seem small (the Earth has warmed 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 20th Century), the big fluctuations are difficult to manage around. Our lives – from school schedules to sports to crop cycles – are built around expected “normals,” and large shifts from those normals are incredibly disruptive, especially for kids who thrive on routines.

How might these changes impact us and our kids?

[Image: A casualty of summer heat. Credit: Flickr user Neil Fitzgerald, via a Creative Commons license.]

hot temperature

1. We’ll see more heat. As school students enjoy their first weeks of summer freedom, triple-digit temperatures are poised over the nation’s mid-section. For the fifth day in a row, Colorado sweltered with temperatures in the 100s, as wildfires raged northwest of Fort Collins and in Colorado Springs, and in Las Animas, the state tied an all-time high of 114. In 2011, too, there was oppressive summer heat (Texas, for example, saw over 40 days of 100-degree temps in a row). High temperatures, combined with high humidity, caused downright dangerous heat indexes. But, the heat itself is not the only danger. On the hottest days, air quality suffers as well. Young kids are much more sensitive on Code Red air days, when health advisories are issued for poor air quality. As if kids needed another excuse to be glued to the television!

Extreme heat is not confined to vacation days. Many schools and sports practices resume in August, when soaring temps can put kids at risk of overheating. And we’ve even seen unusually hot days creep deeper into autumn, making fall sports challenging as well. I recall vividly a late September day when my youngest had to endure 98 degrees on the soccer field. Little kids can’t regulate body temperature very well, and don’t necessarily think to drink water, so she and her teammates were wilting!

2. Expect more wet weather (not just in summer). Warm air holds more moisture and moisture feeds stronger storms. In the Northeast US, the heaviest rainstorms have gotten 67 percent wetter in 50 years.

In winter, too, severe storms that cause school closures, late starts, and miserable driving conditions are projected to increase. And, although storm-fed power outages may result in lots of TV-free family time, the 2010 snowmageddon in Washington, DC caused extreme stir-craziness in our house. Even a long hike to the nearest sledding hill – necessitated by impassable roads and a dead car battery – did not completely erase the cabin fever.

3.  Bottom line: it’s not always easy anymore to let your kids explore nature in their school-free summer days, or send them outside when they start bouncing off the walls.

So what can a parent do?

[Image: Dangerously high temperatures. Credit: Flickr user Mr. T in DC, via a Creative Commons license.]

1. Be prepared. Get educated about weather and heat risks, and tips for keeping kids cool and hydrated, such as the pointers offered by the National Athletic Trainers Association.

2. Shift your schedule. When temps soared this March, many farmers opted for warm-weather crops rather than see their cool-weather greens wither away. Last summer, we adjusted our schedule so that our girls got to the pool early and were back inside during the hottest part of the day – playing puzzles and games, or putting on impromptu plays. Creative activities, but unfortunately less physical than what they’d be doing outdoors (like riding bikes, playing hopscotch and chasing butterflies).

4. Reduce your own contributions to the cause. Visit the Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator to learn about steps you can take that help reduce carbon your carbon footprint and keep air pollution down on the hottest days.

5. Plant trees! Trees provide shade, help reduce the heat island effect in cities, and absorb climate-changing carbon dioxide.

6. Expect the unexpected. This year, we saw almost no winter weather in the mid-Atlantic and schools ended 3 days early. Time to pull out some “rainy day” projects!

Sarene Marshall is the managing director for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and an MA in International Studies from University of Pennsylvania, and is fluent in Spanish. Sarene, a mother of two, enjoys gardening and gourmet cooking.

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Magdalena J.
Magdalena C.about a year ago

Thank you!

Terry Vanderbush
Terry V.3 years ago


Betsy M.
Betsy M.3 years ago


Christeen Anderson

Children really do need the outdoors but in 100 degree heat with high humidity it is sometimes impossibe. Even the TV tells us to stay inside.

Miranda Parkinson

Children really do need to be outdoors more. They should only be indoors when the sun peaks. They need to develop all their muscle and motor skills. How can they do this if they spend too much time in front of electronics? We used to climb trees all the time and had so much fun doing it. It also makes you think as one has to consider the best branch to use to get to the top and back down!

Michael C.
Michael C.3 years ago

Jeremy, What we must do in the very NEAR FUTURE, is teach the deployment of a Tyvec Suit. that by which is our sole remaining barrier against the sun, and manmade pollutants.

I,for one, have a difficult time following the party line...Relax, we shall get to it. Those words were written at the turn of the century...the 20th century. Thomas Edison was running around at the time. You get it, Game Over and all the while, the devil was over there in the corner just laughing

Winn Adams
Winn Adams3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Florence Eaise
florene Eaise3 years ago

Im so frightened for my childrens children (when they have them) and what world they will be inheriting! How will we ever explain to them what we've done? Thanks

Walter G.
Walter g.3 years ago

Why worry about the inevitable? Instead, do something about it. No, do not race outside to your dieing lawn, due to water restrictions, Vote, and sign petitions against the politicians who are favoring the climate change sources, and do something about the way you and your family promote it. I know, great advice from an old man living on a Pacific Ocean Island, and yet just by doing that one thing, I am actively supporting the environment. Think it over.

laura g.
laura g.3 years ago

All the various components of this problem, which seems so complicated, are immediately solved once each individual "gets it" and starts genuinely RESPECTING MOTHER EARTH.. . . whatever that means to each person. . . it is the energy behind 'respecting' that is important and each one has to do it for one's Self . . .doesn't mean blaming or watching what some one else is doing, just turn inward and focus on one's Self. . .we can not hurt what we Respect, which is LOVE . . . we are all a part of Mother Earth so this respect starts with our Self and spreads outward. . .
Recognizing the very simple concept of CAUSE AND EFFECT is also a good step. . . I am responsible for my environment. . . I created these changes that are UNCOMFORTABLE to say the least. . and I am grateful for that as it will help me to change my wasteful ways, my addiction to comfort and rigidity and addictions. . . So let's get with it people - we are IN IT now, right now to each of us and we can do what is necessary to change - stay positive and be RESPECTFUL. . . your own comfort at the expense of Mother EARTH by turning up the a/c??? NO this is what is causing the reaction. . . so very very clear.....waking up in love and visualizing the same for all. . .