There’s no denying that the effects of climate change will be felt the most by people who have contributed the least to the crisis. The younger generation, our children and grandchildren, will inherit a world vastly different to the one we all grew up in.
It breaks my heart that my sons won’t be able to walk on the New Zealand glacier I hiked on in crampons not even 20 years ago and if they do scuba dive, dive bleached white coral reefs rather than the colourful underwater wonderland I explored off North Queensland in my 20s. But it angers me most that they will suffer the health impacts of a warming world and will bear the significant financial costs of the transition to a greener future.
So how do we prepare our kids for this future?
How do we break the news to them without fuelling any existing anxieties they already have about their future?
Enter Dr Marji Puotinen.
Dr Marji is a coral reef scientist who aims to teach kids around the world about the climate crisis through interactive play and art. Marji meets kids at their level with play dough and LEGO and isn’t afraid to dress up as a coral polyp or penguin to help get the important message of the climate crisis across to young inquisitive minds.
Dr Marji also runs an international drawing contest for kids at kidscareaboutclimate.org that brings kids around the world together to make their voices heard on this vital issue.
In this episode Dr Marji will share why she’s focussing on educating kids about the climate crisis rather than adults, how she ensures she doesn’t fuel any anxieties the children may already have about the state of our global environment, and how you can get the children in your life involved by drawing a picture of a tree and in turn have a real tree planted on their behalf.
Podcast: Play In New Window
Could you share your background and how and why your work as a coral reef scientist has expanded to educating kids about the climate crisis?
I had an unlikely start in the field of coral reef research because I was born in Chicago in the middle of the United States. I actually didn’t see the ocean for the first time until I was 12, and I didn’t learn to snorkel until I was 20 and on a semester abroad.
I studied geography and environmental science because I didn’t want to narrow down to one small thing, I was interested in the connections between different types of organisms and processes that create different environments. And so geography was perfect for that. When I did my semester abroad I got to see turtles laying eggs on a beach in Costa Rica, I snorkelled on the Belize Barrier Reef and camped for the first time in a tent at the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. I was so inspired by these events that I went on to study coastal and marine environments.
I did my master’s degree in coastal environmental management at Duke University. And then in 1995, I moved to Townsville, Australia, to do my PhD at James Cook University where I looked at the impacts of tropical cyclone waves on the Great Barrier Reef over a 25 year time period.
Then I moved on to becoming a teaching and research academic, which I did for a decade at James Cook University, followed by the University of Wollongong, in New South Wales. Now I am in Perth, Western Australia where I am a research scientist, looking at the impacts of climate change on coral reefs in the context of tropical cyclones, and how they’ll change over time.
Early on, as a child, I started to get this realisation that I have this immense amount of privilege. I was in a happy home, well fed, and we had enough money. I noticed that at school I was able to understand what teachers were teaching me and I was able to communicate relatively easily. The other kids in the class would come and ask me for help when we were doing things in school.
I really appreciate this ability to communicate even more now, because my eldest child (14) has high functioning autism. She’s immensely creative and smart. But it’s quite a challenge for her to be able to communicate what’s going on in her head to other people.
So it’s a real gift and a privilege to be able to communicate and have people understand me, I feel this responsibility to share what I know in a way that inspires other people towards a collective positive outcome.
Being a coral reef scientist can be a bit depressing. If we let the average Earth temperature rise by only two degrees Celsius, we will lose 99% of coral reefs as we currently know them. So in my lifetime, I’m 50 years old, that will happen if we don’t act now.
Why did I start focusing on educating kids? I have 3 kids, and when my oldest was five, I thought it was really important for her to know why I went out on field trips that meant I was away from home for weeks. I started going into my kids school and teaching their classes about what I do. And I did that just so they knew that it was important what I was doing, that I wasn’t just leaving them for no reason. And also to show them that if you feel passionately about an issue, you can and you should do something about it, and to make that normal to them.
I used to just talk in my own kids classes each year, because a scientist is supposed to publish lots of papers and not spend all their time doing outreach. But when I joined Homeward Bound in 2018, I got super inspired and I thought, I want to do something and I want to do it now!
And I thought back, what is something that people like that I can do? And I thought outreach, everyone always reacts positively. So that’s when I expanded my outreach that I do in primary schools, about climate change, where I ask kids, what do penguins and coral reefs have in common? And then reaching out to kids internationally through the drawing competitions I run.
As a mother yourself, how important is it to you that we combat climate change? Do you think you’d be as passionate in your work if you weren’t a mum?
That’s interesting. I hope I would be as passionate but I don’t know. I had a difficult journey to become a mother, I had premature ovarian failure diagnosed when I was in my early 30s. So my daughter was actually a miracle. I conceived her naturally. And my son’s came from donated egg IVF. We tried really hard to have them.
In terms of how important it is, there’s really no way to overstate how important I feel it is. And I feel weird saying this when I give presentations, because it sounds like crazy talk but unfortunately, the truth is that we’re headed for a future that’s unsurvivable for most people, if we continue exactly as we are now. Our staples like food and water are just going to collapse into chaos. And the worst effects will be felt first by those who did the least to cause it, and are least able to cope with it. So that is just deeply, deeply unjust. This can’t be the future that we choose. And the irony in it is that it doesn’t have to be that way because we have the technology, we have the finance, we have the knowledge, we have the systems to transform the world into one that is safer, cleaner, greener, more prosperous, and more fair for all people. We have to absolutely do whatever is necessary to change the ending to the story. And the world is starting to do that. There is a lot of cause for hope.
Some would say that it’s the responsibility of adults to fix this mess and we shouldn’t burden kids with worrying about the climate crisis. Why are you focussing on educating kids rather than adults?
I went for kids just because that was something I already knew I could do and that I was good at.
Sometimes I feel a bit guilty and think I should be talking to the people who are more averse to the message. But I came across a study conducted in 2019, where they tested the influence of kids on their parents. They had a control group of kids who didn’t do anything different at their school. And they interviewed their parents about their attitudes on climate change, before and after the time of the experiment. And then they had a test group of kids which they took through a climate change curriculum. And then they interviewed their parents before and after. And they found significant changes in attitudes in those parents. And the most significant changes were for the super conservative people who cared the least about climate before their kids went through this education programme.
I realised that kids actually have this incredible power to help adults consider information that under any other context, they would reject.
And when people comment about not worrying the kids as its not their fault, my response is of course they didn’t cause it. But you could say the same thing about the developing world, countries like Bangladesh have a carbon footprint of virtually nothing. They haven’t done anything to fill up the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, yet they’re the ones who are going to cope it first and the hardest and have the least ability to cope.
The reality is, we need all hands on deck, we need every possible way, every possible person to be part of the solution. Because none of the possible solutions will work in any way if we are not all in it together. So unfortunately, we can’t just leave kids out, or developing countries -we all have to move forward together.
And I think the key to it is being able to imagine a different future than the path we’re automatically on, and to get excited and inspired about being part of that future. And I find that a key pathway to inspire adults is to do it through their kids.
How do you ensure that educating kids about the climate crisis doesn’t fuel any anxieties the children may already have about the state of our global environment?
That’s a great question. And it’s especially relevant to you and I, well at least with my daughter anyway, her Autism is accompanied by anxiety. And I do have to be very careful. She lets me know when it’s too much to think about. So I think the same strategy that works for kids on this works for adults.
It doesn’t matter if we want to shield our kids from this. It’s actually happening and the evidence of climate impacts are around us. And kids have eyes and ears, they are smart, they can sense what is happening.
For example, the kids that had to shelter in the ocean from the New South Wales and Victorian bushfires, you can’t tell them nothing’s going wrong, and we’ve got it all under control, because then all you do is tell them not to trust what their senses are telling them and cause them to be really confused. Trying to pretend it’s not a threat does not make kids feel better, it makes it worse, nor adults.
Greta Thornburg says “the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.” And I just love that because it’s so true. Kids deserve to know the truth, I explain the science to them, and to adults in a clear and honest way. And to me, the key to this shift is joy to make it fun.
So I think the climate crisis is best served with a lot of silly and play. And it makes it easier to deal with the big strong emotions that come when you really think about what’s happening. That’s why I dress up in a coral polyp costume, and I get kids and adults to bleach me by ripping coloured bits off my costume. So I turn white. That’s why I get kids to wave their tentacle arms to feed like coral polyps and even little five year old kids to curl themselves as tightly as they can into a ball, so it gets hot in the middle like penguins do in Antarctica when they need to stay warm.
I get them to make coral colonies out of playdough and Lego. Last week, my son Daniel dressed up in an inflatable T-Rex costume, I dressed up as a coral reef with animals hanging off me and my other son Connor dressed up as a penguin. Daniel, the dinosaur had travelled to the school through time in a time machine to warn the coral reefs and the penguins that they could go extinct if the earth kept getting too hot. We took the kids through all these fun activities, so they could understand why penguins and coral reefs don’t want to get too hot. Then we ended with and you can help us plant trees to cool the earth, all you need to do is draw a drawing and we’ll plant a tree for you (as part of the International Drawing Competition at kidscareaboutclimate.org )
You’re currently running an international drawing contest for kids to help raise their voices on the climate crisis. Can you tell us how this works and how our listeners can get involved?
The idea of the contest is to show kids that what they think and what they do can actually make a difference. So to amplify their voices and actions and inspire adults around them as well. The theme of this year’s contest is ‘Kids care about climate change, plant a tree and cool the earth.’
The idea is that kids draw what they love most about trees as a way to help cool the Earth which in turn help penguins, dolphins and people.
15 Trees are planting a tree for every entry so automatically by drawing a tree a kid gets a tree planted. And that is a climate action right there. When they upload their drawing to our contest at kidscareaboutclimate.org they are prompted to download a certificate that says a tree is planted for you. It also gives them information on how they can see where their tree is planted. Although, depending on how many entries we get, it might take a while to plant them all!
It’s also possible for adults to donate to plant even more trees, you can buy as little as one tree for less than $5. On our website there’s a counter that tells how many trees we’re going to plant, how many countries are participating, and how many schools are participating.
We’re going to mosaic all the drawings to form a picture that will be printed on a seven metre high by five metre wide banner. The banner will form a picture made up of all the individual drawings. Then we are going to film the banner in different iconic forests around the world. It will also be displayed at United Nationals Biodiversity Conference in China.
And if you are a company with an eco product, you might be interested in sponsoring the banner and the associated publicity with it being displayed around the world.
Step By Step Instructions can be found at kidscareaboutclimate.org
Can you share some of the feedback you’ve received from kids that inspires you to keep going with your work?
One of the reasons I started to do a contest like this was because of the feedback I had received from kids about the other activities I had done. Putting myself out there was quite a scary thing, not knowing whether anyone would participate in the drawing competition and waiting for the entries to arrive was a nerve racking experience.
Three years ago, when I was in the middle of running another contest, and helping some kids with their entries. This boy Austin asked ‘who’s running this contest?’ And I said ‘just me,’ and he said, ‘then you are a very important person.’ And I felt really uncomfortable about that. And so I sat and thought about it. But then I thought 1246 kids, their parents, their teachers, their friends and more than 11,000 uploaded a drawing, or voted on our website. And this outreach wouldn’t have happened if this competition didn’t exist.
So that made me realise that if I worry about the climate crisis and say, someone should do something, that I am someone, and this is something I can do. And so this may not be the normal job of a research scientist, but it’s too valuable, I think, for me not to do it. And the feedback from the kids helps me know that to be true.
I would encourage our listeners to reach out to the kids in their life and get them drawing ! Entries close on the 30th June 2021.
Over to you!
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