HARRIET SHUGARMAN was interviewed by PURNIMA RAMAKRISHNAN from the Heartfulness Institute in 2020, the same year she was selected as a New York City Climate Hero. She is a sought after speaker, an influencer and connector in the climate movement, and in 2019 was a featured speaker at the Global Engagement Summit at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Harriet is the Executive Director of ClimateMama, an online community in over 110 countries. As a leader and mentor with The Climate Reality Project, Harriet chairs the NYC Metro Chapter and was the recipient of the Climate Reality 2017 Green Ring Award. Harriet is also profiled in former US Vice President Al Gore’s 2017 book: An Inconvenient Sequel, Truth to Power.
Harriet’s book, Talking to Your Kids About Climate Change, Turning Angst to Action, was released in the spring of 2020. She teaches World Sustainability and Climate Change and Society at Ramapo College in New Jersey.
Q: Welcome Harriet.
HS: Thank you for having me here.
Q: Tell me a little about how you got to write this book.
HS: It’s been in my head for a long time, and for many years it seemed far away from me. In the early 1990s I worked for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The IMF was on the preparatory committee for the Earth Climate Summit that took place in 1992 in Brazil, so I worked on that committee. At the conference, we had heads of state and government from around the world, and the importance of the reality of the climate crisis was recognized, but it still seemed far away. Scientists were warning us of the urgency, but for me personally it seemed to be taking place perhaps “over there.” I didn’t even think about where “over there” was. It seemed that it was many generations away.
Climate models weren’t as exact as they are now. Our understanding of where we were with our Earth was not clear. She was crying out then, and she was telling us that we were doing things to her that were causing her to change, but we weren’t listening.
In 2007, I trained with the Climate Reality Project and former Vice President Al Gore, after his film An Inconvenient Sequel, Truth to Power came out. He founded an organization to help others, which is called the Climate Reality Project. It is an international organization that raises awareness of the climate crisis in our local communities. After the training, I recognized how personal this was to me and my two small children, to their future. I was meeting parents and people in the broader community who didn’t understand the urgency. Within two years, I had founded ClimateMama and we were one of the first organizations to specifically educate parents about the climate crisis, how to talk about it, and how to learn from each other about it.
All of a sudden, it feels like the world is listening – the corporate world, the international community, where I live here in New York, and across the country. Youth are being invited to the table and they are being heard. Parents are asking, “What do I say to my kids? They are asking me about the climate crisis, and I don’t have the words, and I don’t have the understanding.” So, it is the right time for this book to come out, and I partnered with New Society Publishers, who really walked the walk on sustainability, from how they print and the materials they use, being a corporation that is run by the people who own it. I am pleased to be working with them and to have my book come out this past spring, even during this strange time on our planet. So, thank you for asking and that is the story.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your book!
How can we come to terms with the grief which we feel when we understand the reality of the climate crisis? How can we give hope to our children and hope to ourselves first? How do we come to terms with all these emotions?
HS: Our natural instinct is something called motivated avoidance and cognitive dissonance, where we separate ourselves from the reality of what is happening and the grief. It can be dire, but once our eyes are open – and I think that’s a critical part of being able to talk to our kids – we can understand what’s happening and what we need to do. This is the premise of ClimateMama.
There are three principles:
1. Tell the truth
2. Actions speak louder than words, and
3. Do not be afraid.
They are hard to come to terms with, but they shouldn’t be. We can be honest with ourselves and with our children, and when it comes to grief, specifically, we should feel sad. What our species has done is tragic. It is awe-inspiring in certain ways, that a singular species has put all other species at the brink of extinction, because that is how serious the crisis is. And it isn’t something that will ever be fixed in our lifetime, but hopefully we get to a place where the climate crisis becomes chronic, something our planet can live with. Also, be resolute that we are moving forward, and through our actions and how we advise our children, we will be able to face the future without fear.
Q: What is active hope and how do we build upon it?
HS: We can find ways to be hopeful, but with the climate crisis, it’s hope in a vacuum. It sits there. Active hope comes through taking action, whether talking about climate crisis, showing our children by example at home, having a plan, community action, talking to elected officials, or planting gardens. By doing things that are active, we will build hope, and active hope is a practice. It is similar to Tai-Chi. It requires physical and mental work – our thoughts and our practical acts to move it forward. It isn’t easy. Once you put it into practice, and show your children how to do it, it’s something to hold on to, to move us forward.
Q: What would you do to help children tap into their passions, and how can this actively lead us to find solutions for climate change?
HS: The climate emergency that we are living in is all encompassing now. Had we addressed it in 1992 when we had the first summit, with the urgency required at that point, we would be in a different place now. We didn’t. We can’t go back there. We need to go forward.
The opportunities that arise aren’t the #1, #2, #3 things that we can do that will solve it or make it better. There are an infinite number of things that need to happen. In motivating, inspiring, and empowering our children, whatever drives their passion through the lens of the climate crisis will help. Are they an artist? Do they want to be a farmer? Are they fascinated with the science of growing seeds? Encourage what it is that is moving them forward. Help them see that we need artists, we need musicians, we need farmers, we need engineers, we need teachers, we need philosophers.
2020 is a time of transition in so many ways and from different angles. How we move forward after lockdown is important. It seems like it will never end. It will end, but the climate crisis will not. It is here, so we need our children to feel empowered to be part of that solution. Whatever their passion, there is a way that it can help us move forward through this climate emergency.
Q: I read from your book that you give recommendations grade-wise. I was wondering if you would like to share a few recommendations for kindergartners, preschoolers, and toddlers. How are we going to inspire them to help the world doing their passion?
HS: I think regardless of age, we begin with the premise of telling the truth, because they know when we are not telling the truth. Our children are truth seekers, and they speak the truth. They do not see the veil in between. So, answer them directly when they ask questions, be true to your emotions. If you are sad about something, share it with them. You don’t need to go into detail about the reasons, but if you are sad or anxious, they feel it anyway. Making it a part of your conversation with them is important.
Being in nature with children, showing them the wonder of nature and how amazing and special it is, whether you are digging in the dirt, planting a garden, or going for a walk in a park or down a city street – those are awe-inspiring moments for children. Those are important things that help them to love nature. That love of nature, the importance of nature, of our natural wealth, and the wonders of our planet, are important.
Scientists tell us that we are in the sixth mass extinction, which we have put in motion. If we don’t know what’s disappearing, we won’t know when it has gone. The web of lies is beginning to unravel. How will we know if its missing if we don’t develop love for it and value its importance?
Where I live, some of the children think that their food comes from the grocery store. They don’t understand the chain of how it grew from the Earth. Exposing our children to that from a very young age, is very, very important.
Q: What would you recommend for middle schoolers?
HS: When middle schoolers were younger, they were excited to be with you and do things with you. As they get older, they feel an authority growing in themselves. So, I think it’s important to again go with honesty. There are so many people all around the world addressing the climate crisis. Show them other children who are working on solutions, and videos of young people taking action in their communities. Even if they are too young to vote, or too young to act, showing them that other young people are taking action is very powerful.
Listen to their opinions. They have strong opinions and they often have new ideas we haven’t thought of.
One thing I talked about in the book is developing a climate plan for your family. When you have your family meetings, sitting around together, decide what is your plan – both from an emergency perspective and a solutions perspective. Where I live in the United States, there have been some terrible fires of late. If you live in a fire zone, does your school have a plan? Let your children know that you are doing things too. Our children want to learn more. We are not teaching them about the science and the intersectionality of the climate crisis. Are you talking to their teachers? What is being taught in their school? Show them that you are taking action. They may pretend that they are not watching you, but they are seeing what you are doing.Involving them in family solutions, supporting what they are doing, and acknowledging their feelings is very important.
Q: It was very insightful when you said to involve them in our discussions. It gives them a very important sense of belonging and decision making. What would be your recommendation for high school kids?
HS: I have found in many of the high schoolers and beyond I speak to that they feel the weight of the crisis is being put on their shoulders to solve. Remind them that this is an intergenerational issue, which is something that everyone must work on. Let’s help them share their stories by listening to them.
Some of our children want to be out front and center. High schoolers in particular lead marches, lead activities and climate strikes, and we support them, but that might not be all of our children. Some of them are just coming to understand – as maybe we are – the realities of the crisis. Recommend where they can search for information that is factual, studies that have been peer-reviewed, if they are interested in science. Give them some ideas because maybe they don’t want to listen to their parents only. Show them where they can find more information on how to take action and on the science.
Q: With the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot has changed in the world. Involvement from children is not as straightforward as it was earlier. So is there something you would like to share which could help families handle the climate crisis in relation to the current public health crisis?
HS: It’s such an important question and I am so glad that you asked it.
In the world right now, we are all experiencing this global pandemic, this health emergency. In my book, I share a moment in time when the world came together in 1968 when the first Apollo mission went out into space, and it was the first time that we as humans on the planet saw Earth as this pale blue dot rising above the surface and we were mesmerized by it, the world over. There have been a few moments pre-Covid, where we all would come together as a community and witness something, that inspired us to take further action. In a strange way, Covid has given us lessons for addressing the climate crisis. We have supported first responders by making meals, by making masks. We have done really hard things for the community, for our grandparents, for the people around us. And we can continue to do hard things. We can remind our children that they lived through it.
Prior to Covid, I would get asked all the time, “What are the three things we can do?” We need to be in involved in the democratic process, because we are seeing how Covid is threatening. We have to make sure that the people who are in positions of power do everything they can. We were doing harm before; we need to lessen the harm to our planet. Finally, we need to plant seeds, both literally and figuratively, of the active hope we can create.
Q: As you said, climate reality is not just a stand-alone thing, and processing and handling emotions is a big part of the whole conversation. What can we do with our kids regarding their feelings, and how this can affect climate change, the future? How can we harness their feelings in a more positive and constructive way?
HS: The climate crisis is there. It’s not in isolation. It is connected to social and racial injustice, to global health issues, to all of the Sustainable Development Goals that were set in 2015, when the world community came together and said, “How are we going to alleviate poverty, how are we going to ensure education for all?”
Health is one of those Sustainable Development Goals, as is climate crisis. They are all so closely connected. As we said earlier, children can be involved when we help them see and lead with their passions, lead with what they feel strongly about, and inspire them to move through their emotions, recognize them, feel them, and be allowed to feel grief and sadness. Then they will express their real emotions, positive feelings, and positive ways to be able to move forward, knowing that it’s not a linear path.
With regards to the climate crisis, we are on a train, and we are heading toward the cliff, but we don’t have to go over. If we come together, if we harness the emotions, if we stay actively positive, we can slow things down. That is what science tells us. 1992 was a different place to now, and things have progressed much faster than scientists thought they would. We need to be jumping in wherever and however we can. Processing emotions, so that we can take the next stage of action, is something we can help our children do.
Q: Often, the origin of these problems is our thoughts. What do you think about thought pollution?
HS: Personally, working many years on the climate crisis and understanding the reasons behind why things are happening, there are a lot of data to show that 90 companies are responsible for the majority of the greenhouse gas emissions, and we have known that for decades. Many of them are in the fossil fuel industry. If they know what is causing the problem, why are they doing it? Its greed. It’s about corporate profits, it’s about sustaining an unsustainable way forward. Those thoughts are not the ideas that drive success. And this concept of GDP, of constant growth, is like cancer. Constant growth is what cancer is: It isn’t healthy. It isn’t healthy for our bodies, it isn’t healthy for our planet, and we are seeing that.
It is critical to tell the truth, speak to the truth, and cut away all the thought pollution. I am hearing from politicians and others that we have to make a decision – is it the environment or the economy? Well, there will be no money on a dead planet, no growth, no economy, no personal wealth or family wealth. I am not saying we don’t need that, but if we don’t take care of the planet, remove those kinds of thoughts, recognize the interconnectedness, and work toward that, we have no hope. It’s important to recognize that thought pollution is part of physical pollution as well in a very visceral way.
Q: Do you have any closing thoughts?
HS: Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to have this conversation with you. There is no one path. We need to use our emotions, we need to use every ability we have to move forward and help our children. I am grateful to you all at the Heartfulness Institute to help guide us as well along this lifelong journey. Thank you very much.
Q: Thank you so much Harriet.
Watch the webinar at https://youtu.be/tqx_blDVH50
Interviewed by PURNIMA RAMAKRISHNAN
HARRIET is a New York City Climate Hero. She is a sought after speaker, recognized as an influencer and connector in the climate movement, and in 2019 was a featured speaker at the Global Engagement Summit at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Harriet is the Executive Director of ClimateMama, an online community in over 110 countries. As a... Read more