By Libby Ryan
2022 was one of the hottest years ever recorded. With global levels of carbon dioxide and methane at a record high, we’ve seen terrifying wildfires, disappearing glaciers and unprecedented levels of pollution. Scientists agree drastic action needs to be taken now to ensure a bright future for the next generation of families.
Kat Maier, organizer for Fridays for Future, a youth-led and -organized global climate strike movement founded by Greta Thunberg, says, we, as a society, need to make climate action a normal part of everyday life.
Mom of two Winona Freed started a Fridays for Future chapter in Las Vegas with her daughter to take action in their community. “I used to think that you had to be someone to do something like that,” says Freed. “Like, you had to be someone special, like Greta. Now I’m starting to realize, well, you don’t. You don’t have to be someone famous. It could just be you.”
There are many ways your family can minimize your carbon footprint — the amount of harmful carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere to provide for your family’s food, home and transportation. And there are also opportunities to go beyond your own household and fight for bigger changes in your local community, state, country or even across the globe.
Whether your family is full of longtime climate activists or you’re just beginning your eco-friendly journey, there’s room for everyone to make a difference — at any age. Here’s how to take on climate change as a family, according to experts.
Make your home planet-friendly
There are tons of little green changes you can institute in your home — or help older loved ones make happen at their house. Consider the following steps.
Use reusable containers
Kids, especially little kids, can be avid recyclers, notes Molly Rauch, public health policy director of Moms Clean Air Force, a community of over one million parents united against air and climate pollution to protect children’s health. And if children bring school lunches in reusable containers, washing them can be part of their green chore routine, she suggests.
If your family is ready to get your hands dirty and take on a bigger project, you can try composting. “Composting does help reduce methane emissions from landfills, and methane is one of the main drivers of climate change,” explains Rauch.
Some cities offer composting services but there also are private companies that can pick up your food waste. Or, if you have a garden, you can make your own compost right in your backyard.
Skip appliances for manual options
You can also tackle other small swaps to save energy. Rauch suggests skipping the dryer cycle on some laundry loads and hanging clothes to dry instead.
You or an older loved one might also find it fulfilling to rake your leaves instead of using a leaf blower. “It gives a lot of exercise, it’s sort of this iconic fall activity,” says Raunch. “And also it means that you’re not using electricity or burning gas to care for your lawn in the fall.”
Consider adding more plant-based meals
It’s common knowledge that adopting a plant-based diet can lower your family’s carbon footprint. And there’s no need to give up meat completely, points out Rauch.
“We’re talking about one meal a week that’s vegetable protein,” Think beans, lentils or tofu. Or even just switching one beef-based meal for chicken (which uses less carbon to produce) can make a difference.
Opt to be greener when you’re on the go
Riding a bike versus traveling by car just once a day reduces an average citizen’s carbon emissions from transport by 67%, according to research led by University of Oxford transport professor Christian Brand.
And if you can encourage your child to do this early on, they’ll learn that it’s not a chore, and they don’t have to rely on cars, says Freed.
Senior family members who no longer drive can lead this charge, giving young kids a great introduction to navigating public transportation systems.
Make your voice heard
While every single little action by every single person matters and shows that you consider climate action a priority, it’s important to frame the climate crisis on a larger scale, keeping in mind the big institutional changes it will take to solve it.
Rauch explains that the climate crisis needs larger collective action on a bigger scale than individual households in order to make a big enough impact to change the course of climate change.
Maier agrees, noting that guilt about your personal carbon footprint can be overwhelming and distracting from larger forces, such as fossil fuel companies and other super polluters.
For example, although taking the bus is more eco-friendly than driving in the car for your family, there are millions of other cars on the road using fossil fuels and emitting harmful pollution into the air. And changing that requires using less fossil fuels, developing alternative forms of energy, and designing communities that don’t require cars.
“The most important thing that any family can do is to raise their voices to their decision makers,” Rauch notes. “We need to have systemic change from every level of government.”
That could be the school board, a neighborhood block association, city council, state governor or national representatives.
“The same way you might draw a picture for a grandparent and send it in the mail, you can draw a picture for lawmakers,” she suggests. “It can be a message from the heart from a child that they care about the earth.”
Kids can also get crafty with protest signs for families ready to join a climate march or protest to make their voices heard. Even if grandparents or less mobile family members aren’t ready for a day on their feet marching, they can help kids design signs to carry. “And then kids get to go out in the world and hold up their sign and feel like their voices are heard,” says Rauch.
If a protest isn’t the right fit for your family, Maier suggests online petitions or finding climate issues right within your own community. Maybe there’s a charity cleaning up a water source near your home, activists protesting deforestation or even a group planting trees. It might sound like a cliche but it truly does make a difference. “Tree cover is a really important way to keep cities resilient as climate change gets worse,” says Rauch.
Keep learning and talking
Kids are already seeing the results of climate change in wildfires and superstorms. And it’s taking a toll on their mental health.
“We like to think that like our kids don’t really understand — it’s just not true,” says Freed. “They do. But then if we don’t talk about it with them, it makes them even more afraid.”
Rauch agrees, adding that as a parent, the most important thing to her is to be truthful about the fact that climate change is, indeed, happening. A couple of ways to do this:
Discuss climate justice
For older kids, parents and older adults, talking about the climate crisis means talking about climate justice: Who is most affected by climate change? Often, in the U.S., communities with the most exposure to pollution from sewage, landfills, major highways, and power plants are communities where the majority of residents are people of color.
“In most communities in the U.S., you’re going to see the wealthier communities, and the white communities, are located in places that are farther from those sources of pollution,” says Rauch. “Folks who are on the edge of our society or who are bearing the brunt of pollution, they are going to suffer first and worst from climate impacts.”
Parents and caregivers can teach kids about climate justice and environmental racism through lessons about environmental disasters such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a long-polluted river was used as a water source for the city’s majority Black residents.
With teens, you can discuss the impact of oil refineries and chemical facilities on communities in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” which the United Nations has identified as being a serious and disproportionate threat to the human rights of its majority Black residents.
For a practical lesson near home, Rauch suggests looking at local infrastructure like highways, power plants or oil fields and helping kids notice who lives in nearby communities.
Have a climate movie night
Not every climate conversation has to focus on the negative. It’s crucial to highlight wins to keep from sinking deep into climate anxiety or gloom. “Any progress is progress.” says Freed. “You got to really celebrate the small wins. So that way, you keep your momentum up.”
You can even start a family movie night, screening kid-friendly climate documentaries like “I Am Greta” or “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” — perfect for bringing different generations together to keep fighting for change.
Get involved with an organization fighting climate change
Check out and see how you might get involved with the following organizations which are helping families band together and take steps to fight the climate crisis:
- Fridays for Future
- Moms Clean Air Force
- Elder Climate Action
- Climate Action Families
- Families for Climate
Feeling ready to save the planet? It’s going to take every single person — from little ones just learning about their favorite animal to older adults who have seen the world rapidly change — to change the way we live. Every family doesn’t have to do every single action on this list. But if everyone puts their voices together to demand change, we can make a difference.
Libby Ryan is a freelance journalist and editor covering health, culture, and travel.