The Moms Who Are Battling Climate Change
A new initiative seeks to tap into mothers’ concern for the world their children are inheriting.
By Lizzie Widdicombe
New Yorker Magazine
April 12, 2021
Three years ago, I had a baby. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that she is extremely cute, and I enjoy being her mother. A few months after her birth, I was scrolling on my phone, and I came across news of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It described a future world that will have experienced 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. In this world, the oceans are acidifying, and most coral reefs have been bleached to death; hundreds of millions of people face severe drought, and even more face deadly heat waves. The kicker? This planet—the 1.5-degree-warmer one—was the best-case scenario. Scientists were using the report to argue that we should try to shoot for that. The Paris climate accord aims to limit the global-temperature increase to “below 2 degrees Celsius.” At present, both goals seem like a stretch. According to the U.N., all of the world’s current pledges would only cut carbon emissions by one per cent—a far cry from the nearly fifty per cent needed this decade in order to meet our goals. So, 1.5 degrees is coming. According to some researchers, we could get there around 2030, when my daughter will be entering middle school.
I did some further Googling: What will the world look like when she’s middle-aged? When her children are middle-aged? I found a Web site that lets you plot major events in your child’s life against the projected global-temperature increase. Even the “optimistic” scenarios show the world warming two degrees during her lifetime. The more realistic scenarios—the ones based on what countries are actually doing to reduce emissions, not what they’ve pledged—show it heating up to three degrees. There is a universe of difference between those numbers, but they are both awful, bringing rising seas, heat waves, food and water shortages, wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes, not to mention the loss of biodiversity. Naturally, this line of research prompted a nervous breakdown. I had always understood, intellectually, that climate change was an existential threat, but it was only after my daughter’s birth that it became real to me.
I’m not alone. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, twenty-six per cent of Americans report feeling “alarmed” about climate change, up from less than half that number six years ago. About the same number of people describe themselves as “concerned”—which seems like the way you should feel about your child’s “Animal Crossing” addiction, not the fact that the Thwaites Glacier could slide into the ocean during his lifetime, flooding coastal cities.
“It’s pretty bad,” a marketing executive named John Marshall told me, in reference to the public-opinion data. “If you were an alien looking at the planet, you’d ask, ‘Why are they not more worried about this?’ ” Marshall runs a nonprofit called the Potential Energy Coalition, which aims to boost awareness about climate change. The group recently conducted a series of randomized control tests to figure out who is most receptive to its messaging. They found that, for the most part, it’s women. Mothers and Hispanic women are especially persuadable. “Men are basically useless,” he said. This past January, the group launched a ten-million-dollar initiative called Science Moms. It consists of a Web site with bullet-point-length climate facts, and also an ad campaign that’s running in swing states. In the ads, which appear both on television and online, climate scientists—who are also moms—talk about their worries for their children. So far, the results have been promising. “What we’re most excited about is the engagement rate,” Marshall said, referring to the number of people who have been clicking and sharing.
Not long ago, I had a Zoom call with some of the Science Moms: Dr. Melissa Burt and Dr. Emily Fischer, both atmospheric scientists at Colorado State University, and Dr. Joellen Russell, an oceanographer at the University of Arizona. I wasn’t aware that I’d been carrying a “climate scientist” stereotype around in my head. But I must have been, because it was thrilling to see three very normal-seeming women on my computer screen. Fischer’s blond hair was in a messy bun, and Burt, who is African-American, kept ducking out of sight to attend to her four-year-old daughter.
They said that the stress I’d felt upon learning about that I.P.C.C. report was, for them, a daily occurrence. “You really can’t escape climate change when you’re a professor of atmospheric science,” Fischer said. “Every single grant proposal you write starts with, ‘The world is changing. . . .’ Every time you go to a NASA Web site, you see a headline like ‘2020 Tied for Warmest Year on Record.’ ”
These days, climate change isn’t just a concept in their research. It’s a harrowing presence in their daily lives. Russell lives in Tucson, the third-fastest-warming city in the U.S. Last year, she said, “We had one hundred and eight days above a hundred degrees—you can’t quite get your head around just how long that is.” (The average number of hundred-degree days that Tucson typically experiences is sixty-two.) COVID lockdowns were in full effect, too. Her kids are ten and fourteen. As the temperature climbed, cabin fever set in. They couldn’t visit their friends, and it was too hot to go to the playground—or even to play in the back yard. Russell started waking them up at 5 a.m. to walk the dog. “I had to plan ahead for harsh conditions, like a general. I tried to make it fun. Like, we’re on an adventure!” But she was worried about their mental health. “They need to see the sky!”
One day, she sent them out for a bike ride, wearing long sleeves and hats to protect them from the sun. Her ten-year-old daughter came home an hour later complaining of a headache. Russell recognized signs of heat exhaustion. She didn’t want to take her child to an emergency room, because of the potential COVID risk, so she treated her at home, making her lie down in a dark room and putting cold washcloths on her head. “It scared me to death,” Russell said. During this period, she was also trying to finish a research proposal for NASA. She wants to launch a satellite to track ocean winds around Antarctica—part of an effort to measure the carbon in the ocean. Carbon accounting is crucial to fighting climate change. But the heat wave was forcing her to put everything on pause, in order to deal with her kids. Russell sighed. “It was a collision of epic proportions.”
Meanwhile, Colorado, where Burt and Fischer live, was being ravaged by wildfires. Fischer and her family were on a hike when they saw smoke from a nearby fire and had to flee. Her five- and eight-year-old daughters were terrified. Fischer is an atmospheric chemist, and she studies wildfire smoke. She has flown into wildfire-smoke plumes to conduct her research. As the fire raged this past summer, her children began asking: “Mom, this will stop, right?” (Wildfires in the region usually last days or weeks.) This time, Fischer said, “I had a pit in my stomach from Day One. I know that terrain. I know what the weather is. I know what the moisture levels are.” Eventually, she told them, “Nope. This one isn’t going away. This will go on for months, until fuel is limiting. And we need to buy air-filtration systems and an air-conditioner for the house.”
As in Phoenix, there were COVID restrictions in place, so Fischer’s family was trapped inside, unable to enjoy the nearby national parks. The smoke made her children’s eyes itch and gave them headaches. Fischer was worried: “I know exactly what my kids are breathing. I know intimately what’s in that smoke.” She went on, “The scientist in me always says, ‘This one event is not climate change.’ That’s the official story. But I look around and say: ‘A fire season that extends into October. A burn area that is bigger than my home state of Rhode Island. There is smoke everywhere. It’s hot, and everything is closed. Yes. This is what climate change looks like. This is the feeling of climate change.’ ” She continued, “Every decision is so weighted. It’s, like, why is this so hard? When I was a kid, we used to just go outside and play. My parents used to put me outside for the entire day.”
“You can’t do that anymore,” Russell said. “I did that, and my baby came home with heatstroke.”
Burt talked about some of the sentimental things: landscapes that she loved and wanted to share with her four-year-old daughter. She grew up spending summers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which are threatened by rising seas. “That beach, for me, is a sense of home, where I’m able to renew and refresh,” she said. “It’s hard sitting in those places and knowing they will be so different for her.”
Russell feels the same way about Glacier National Park, in Montana. “I grew up boot-skiing down those glaciers,” she said. Now, many of the glaciers in the park have melted. “It’s going to be just ‘National Park.’ ” She brought up other natural wonders that she wanted her children to experience: California’s redwood forests, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. “I cannot stand it if my grandbabies look at me when I’m old and wrinkly and say, ‘Grandma, why didn’t you do something when you could still stop it?’ Because they’ll notice. They’ll notice that things are gone that should have been theirs.”
“Oh, man,” Burt said, exhaling. “I’m feeling so . . . not good right now. This is really depressing me.”
To cheer themselves up, the Science Moms talked about their hopes for the campaign. Burt said that she wanted to empower her fellow-mothers and inspire them to take action. Russell said, “I want moms to write to their local, state, and federal representatives and say, ‘We require that you move faster on this.’ I want them to demand to speak to the manager!”
I asked why they thought this wasn’t already happening. “The biggest thing that I’ve found, talking to the women in my neighborhood, is they just don’t know,” Burt said. “They kind of have this inkling that something’s going on, but they don’t have much information.” According to Marshall’s research, few Americans grasp the science behind climate change. Most people (sixty-six per cent) think it has something to do with plastics. Nearly half think it’s caused largely by the hole in the ozone layer. Burt recently spent about fifteen minutes explaining changes in mountain snowpack to some moms on her block. They seemed grateful for the tutorial. “They were, like, ‘Oh. Now I get it!’ ”
Russell said, of her community, “Tucson’s a pretty science-y town.” The moms she speaks with grasp the basics. “I would say they want more details. I get a lot of pretty specific questions about budgets and metrics. Like, ‘How can we measure wildfire emissions?’ and ‘How can we make sure that China’s paying their fair share?’ ” Some time ago, she fielded questions from moms in the parking lot outside her son’s swim-team practice. At the end of the conversation, one of the swim-team moms told Russell, “This is really important. Why isn’t everybody listening to you?” She had some business connections, and she arranged for Russell to speak to Tucson’s chamber of commerce.
Russell said she knows that, when it comes to climate change, moms have a bandwidth issue. “A friend of mine asked me, ‘Why are you doing this in the middle of COVID? When so many moms are out of work, or they’re having to watch little kids while they’re trying to get work done?’ ” she said. “It’s been an epically difficult time for mothers. I feel like, on one hand, yes, this is hard. It’s extra. And on the other hand, Come on! We’ve got to do this now.”
“Busy people get more done,” Fischer said. “As moms, we’re always saying, ‘O.K., you have a cavity, so we’re going to the dentist before we deal with the wart on your foot.’ I think that as soon as moms know this is urgent, and it has to be dealt with now—not next year—they’ll do it.”
And if they don’t? “Moms will get blamed,” Fischer said. “Let’s face it. We get blamed for everything, right? Your children are furious when you put the wrong bread on their sandwich.”
Russell imitated a whiny voice: “Why didn’t you cut off the crust, Mama?”
If we don’t put a stop to this problem, Fischer said, “We’re never going to hear the end of it.”
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