Through my window, I watch snowflakes frost the carcasses of trees downed by Sandy. Though 80% of homes in my NJ town lost power during the super-storm, ours did not. To my three-year-old and five-year-old, Sandy delivered an endless play-date, with a stream of friends and cousins flowing to our door, needing a place to warm-up, recharge, shower, and do laundry. Even during height of the storm, as I lay awake in my bed listening to the hooooooooooo of the wind and jumping every time lightening lit my ceiling, my children snored contentedly in our king-size bed, poking feet into their father's face.
I explained to my kids that families were made homeless by the storm, but I was careful not to let them overhear the stories that left me reeling as I listened to NPR. I was beginning to think my kids would remember Sandy as an "adventure" of the sort KJ Dell'Antonia described in her piece about children's memories of traumatic weather events.
Then yesterday, as we walked to the library in an effort to conserve gas, my daughter began weeping. "Why are you crying, honey?" I wondered, because my girl is NOT a weeper. She pointed to the trunk of a fallen tree that had just been sliced into logs. "That tree. It's dead, and I loved it." I said, "Well, that tree was already dying. It's ok." She said, "But what about the butterfly bush? It fed so many creatures." Last summer, the huge butterfly bush on the corner of our block had fluttered and buzzed with life. Sandy uprooted it. She fixed her large brown eyes on me and asked, "Why did this storm happen?"
The easy answer would be that storms are acts of nature and they just happen sometimes. But that's not the whole truth. Global warming does not cause storms, but there is evidence that it might intensify them. Scientists point to the fact that the Western Atlantic Ocean was five degrees higher than the average for this time of year, and that was likely to have fed the energy of Sandy.
As this new storm bears down, I can't help thinking about last years' "freak" Halloween blizzard, which brought the giant limb of an ancient oak crashing down over our power and cable lines. I get a pit in my stomach every time I see the gas lines and think that the legacy we are leaving our children could be relentless extreme weather caused by climate change.
So I fumbled for a simple way to explain the connection between global warming and extreme weather to my 5 1/2-year-old. This knowledge is a big burden for a small person. Part of my problem was tone: I didn't want to impart a sense of dread. It was my good fortune that a librarian handed me a copy of The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge, part of a wonderfully goofy science series by Joanna Cole & Bruce Degan. The book helped me explain that, "the greenhouse effect is when heat trapping gases, like Co2, act like glass in a greenhouse and make the earth warmer" and how "global warming puts more water in the air in some places. That means more rain... and more snow." I also found helpful kids' websites from NASA and the EPA. I told my kid that we will probably keep having "bad storms" unless we find a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
These resources helped me keep the conversation age-appropriate, positive, and focused on how our family can reduce our carbon footprint. Our children must know about the problem in order to dream of a solution.