Conversations with Children about Climate Justice
Connecting the dots: Why do we need to talk to children about climate justice, and how can we get ready to do such work?
A few months ago, I came across this question by Ugandan academic and human right activist Sylvia Tamale: “Who will connect the ideological dots of racism, colonization, capitalism, sexism and heterosexism in ways our children understand?” (Tamale, 2020, p. 9). This question has been circulating on social media forums and attracted the attention of academics, educators, and parents who wonder how they can talk to their children about the world's injustices. It seems that many of these social media commentators devote their lives to working against social injustices, and yet they feel stunned by the idea of having these conversations with children. For us – adult educators, teachers, and scholars concerned about the climate crisis - Tamale’s question pushes us to consider whether it will be us who will connect the dots when it comes to talking about climate justice.
Adults may feel insecure about engaging children in these conversations for different reasons. You may be aware that climate change results from long-standing injustice: the ones who contribute the most are often the least affected, while the ones who contribute the least suffer the more pervasive consequences. However, you may believe childhood is too precious, and that unpacking climate injustice with children will pervade their innocence.
It may also be the case that since children and youth are experiencing daunting levels of climate anxiety, you may not be convinced that loading them with more bad news is the best idea. If they are going to deal with a precarious ecological future (Nxumalo et al., 2022), we need to make sure to keep their hopes as much as possible.
Perhaps, you are open to connecting those dots but in a more so-called age-appropriate way. You may also wonder whether connecting the dots of racism and, of all that, is too adult-centric. Even if you are convinced that children need to know more about our past wrongs, it is too overwhelming to figure out how to do the work with children now.
I’m writing this piece from my home, where I’ve been living for more than a decade with my daughter and partner in the ancestral and unceded lands of the Musqueam people. As an uninvited visitor to these lands and as a mother, educator and academic, I’ve been grappling with these questions for a long time. My research has focused on early childhood education and how young children’s relationships with place offer opportunities to engage in anti-racist and anti-colonial pedagogies that reconfigure human relationships, especially those with the more-than-human world. At the center of this work is the desire to transform education by revisiting the purpose of children’s education and learning, who is part of their education, and what pedagogies we need to engage with in current times.
Dr. Affrica Taylor shared her thoughts on these questions in an interview featured in my book Posthumanist and new materialist methodologies: Research after the child (Diaz-Diaz & Semenec, 2020). By the time of the interview, Taylor was an adjunct associate professor at the University of Canberra, an environmental and feminist scholar, and a member of the Common Worlds Collective.
We talked about her research on child-animal relations in early childhood settings in Australia and the need to approach difficult conversations with young children as a necessary pedagogical practice. In her interview, Taylor shared a compelling event that shows us what happens when adults engage with children in climate justice conversations. In one of their daily walks, children found a huge decomposing dead kangaroo body.
They had spent most of a year getting to know kangaroos and imagining what it would be like living in a kangaroo’s body, so the encounter had a big impact on them. This event challenged children’s educators to figure out a way to connect the dots – as Sylvia Tamale challenges us – with children about the life of kangaroos in a settler colonial society. Taylor acknowledged that engaging in such conversations was “tricky because you don’t necessarily want to drag all sorts of past settler atrocities into conversation with the children, make them feel guilty, and ruin their walk with the kangaroos” (Diaz-Diaz & Semenec, 2020, p. 215).
The children kept asking questions about the animals and wanted to return to that place to make sense of the event. As the educators followed the children’s inquiries, broader and deeper conversations emerged. Children shared their experiences of seeing other dead kangaroos due to car accidents leading to talk about their deaths at the hands of humans. They inquired why these animals came to live next to where their childcare was located and their migration patterns between the city and the countryside.
Taylor’s narration offers insights into what it means to connect the dots with children regarding climate justice and human-induced animal extinction. Humans –read white, male, middle-class, western humans – have played a major part in the unstoppable climate crisis founded on the grounds of social hierarchies, unsustainable consumption, and capitalist relationships that have depleted the planet. Without connecting the dots, it is impossible to imagine another future.
Connecting the dots is not in any way comfortable, prescriptive, or replicable. As Taylor reminds us, “it is much easier to discuss the historical detailed and trajectories of fraught settler-kangaroo relations in written articles than it is in a conversation with children” (Diaz-Diaz & Semenec, 2020, p. 215). But often, educators have only two choices either ignore or embrace those conversations. Taylor’s story offers an approach situated in a broader pedagogy that is relational rather than content-driven. Those relationships extend from children and their educators to the relationships between the children and the more-than-human world. When relational pedagogies are used every day, educators and children are led to connect the dots of climate injustice in ways that invite not only intellectual but also affective engagement.
Relational pedagogies also help adults accept that connecting the dots through difficult conversations is part of children’s everyday lives. As the incident of the dead kangaroo body illustrates, climate events are happening all around us. Children and adults cannot escape from fires, climate-induced migration, and children’s health, physical and mental problems due to climate change. If we accept children’s questions, we have better chances to embrace their responses with care and responsibility.
Taylor’s example demonstrates that educators of all sorts are already connecting the dots alongside children, but their work needs to be known because it seems we know little about how to start. The other 18 interviews in the book offer additional examples of how educators and children encounter a world in times of ecological precarity that amazes and unsettles us. Their experiences may give others – like you – a push to engage children with pedagogies without sugar-coating the current environmental crisis. As Taylor’s interview illustrates, downplaying the socio-historical and political causes of the current climate crisis not only does a disservice to children but also may not be an option. As we share the challenges of connecting the dots with children, we may learn a different way to live with others.
Diaz-Diaz, C., & Semenec, P. (2020). Posthumanist and new materialist methodologies: Research after the child. Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-2708-1
Nxumalo, F., Nayak, P., & Tuck, E. (2022). Education and ecological precarity: Pedagogical, curricular, and conceptual provocations. Curriculum Inquiry, 52(2), 97-107. https://doi.org/10.1080/03626784.2022.2052634
Tamale, S. (2020). Decolonization and Afro-feminism. Daraja Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Claudia Diaz-Diaz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada. Claudia draws on feminist and anti-colonial approaches to critical childhood and youth studies, climate justice education, and teacher education.