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I Tried To Explain The Bushfires To My Three Year Old

“But, why are the fires so bad, Mummy?”

It was Tuesday last week and the smoke in Sydney was so heavy we couldn’t go outside to play. I had explained there were fires raging all around the country, especially in New South Wales, that were now filling our mouths with the taste of smoke. I explained we were lucky; some people had to leave their homes altogether and some people’s homes were now gone. Some mummies and daddies were away from their families fighting fires.

I told him they were the worst fires Australia had ever had. And, being three, he asked why.

And the question nearly broke me.

I tried, clumsily, to explain that we, all of us, used too much and threw away too much, then bought more. That we have used too much energy for too long and that this has contributed to longer fire seasons and more extreme temperatures.

Sitting in our living room with our plastic Christmas tree, the clothes dryer on, getting a disposable nappy ready for my 18 month old, I tried to explain climate change and sustainability in an age appropriate way.

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I could barely look my son in the eyes. I felt so guilty. And so hopeless.

In a post on Inner West Mums’ Facebook page that evening, Cheryl Jane talked about her own feelings of guilt and despair, particularly when she looked at photos of her child: the balloons at the birthday party, the trips on a plane, and wondered what he would think when he saw them as an adult.

But Cheryl has a plan for action: one small pro-environmental change in her home each week for a year. The response to her post was overwhelming. After weeks of being unable to push the realities of climate change from our minds (or our nostrils), knowing we were comparatively lucky to only be experiencing smoke and not fire, the energy and urgency to take action was palpable.

Dr. Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, climate scientist and mother to two small children, has noticed this shift in public mood since the fires started.

“The fact that these fires are unprecedented in many ways is making a lot of people realise that the events climate scientists have been banging on about for decades are coming to fruition, and in their lifetime too," she says. "Climate change is no longer something to worry about for the future, it’s something to worry about now, and I do think these fires have made a lot more people realise that.”

Like many of us, Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick worries what their future will look like for our kids, and she echoes our frustrations that they “are going to have to endure the [parts of] climate change we are already locked in to, while also cleaning up the mess of generations before them being addicted to fossil fuels” and that “we’re still not doing anywhere near enough to reduce our emissions”.

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It was this frustration that lead Cheryl Jane to her decision to change one thing a week. “It’s not just about me and what I do," she says. "It’s about him, and that whole generation… It’s about what he sees me do. It’s about the habits he grows up with. And what he learns about the world along the way.”

It’s the ideal New Year’s Resolution: one small pro-environmental change each week for a year. Fifty-two changes, but in manageable chunks, perfectly paced so our kids can learn and adjust.

Cath Wallis is in week 18 of her challenge and has chronicled her journey on Instagram, doing things like swapping from pump to bar soap, and using reusable bread and produce bags. Inner West Mums is adding the 52-week challenge to their calendar for 2020. My household, like Cheryl’s and Cath’s, will be one of many.

And Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick has some great suggestions for small changes to include in your challenge, including:

  • Reduce meat consumption, particularly red meat
  • Use beeswax wraps instead of cling-film
  • Only run one fridge/freezer
  • Set your air-conditioner to 26 degrees in summer and 18 degrees in winter, and don’t run it all the time
  • Switch energy providers to one with green energy/carbon offset options
  • Use public transport or walk when you can
  • Grow some of your own produce, even if it’s just herbs

Other things I’m adding to my list include moving my superannuation away from investing in fossil fuel companies, writing to my local member regularly, and swapping to bamboo toothbrushes.

And, look, four less plastic toothbrushes and eating more vegetarian meals isn’t going to stop the bushfires or keep warming under two degrees. I’m not delusional.

But last night I explained our 52-week challenge to my three year old and, together, we started making a list of the changes we could make. He was so excited that he ran all through the house telling me to turn lights off and unplug appliances!

And talking to him about climate change still got me a little teary, but this time I could look him in the eyes.