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Climate and Society Alumna Suzie Hicks Teaches Climate Science to Kids of All Ages

When Suzie Hicks was growing up, she believed her interests in media and theater were entirely unrelated to her love of the outdoors and the environment.

It was only as she got older that she began to see the thread that would bind these topics together.

A girl smiling with a puppet on her shoulder
Suzie Hicks and Sprout the Puppet on set. (Courtesy Suzie Hicks)

Hicks’ parents were both ministers who were deeply involved in progressive social movements when she was younger. But like many teenagers, Hicks didn’t draw any parallels between their motivations and her own. “I always thought that art and expression was a way to escape from the hard and scary things in the world. I thought it was just an opportunity to be loud and fun and avoid it all. But as I grew older and as I got to college, I actually learned that art and expression can be an amazing conduit to understand, navigate, and find solutions to those big and scary problems,” Hicks said.

Now, as a recent graduate of the inaugural class of Columbia Climate School’s M.A. in Climate and Society program, Hicks is finding unique and engaging ways to reach audiences through film, music, television, and children’s books—all while combining her not-so-disparate passions.

In the Q&A below, Hicks discusses her experience in the Climate and Society program, how she’s communicating climate science to “kids of all ages,” and what keeps her motivated.

Why did you decide to enroll in the Climate and Society program?

I made the decision to go to Climate and Society because I come from a non-climate world. My background is in TV, theater, and entertainment.

Growing up, I thought these fields were completely separate, but the divide between climate and expression got a lot smaller for me when I worked at the New England Aquarium. Standing in front of a tank for 8 hours a day, telling kids about how climate change is affecting their favorite fish is actually really powerful because they find this really emotional connection to it and then want to go out and make a change.

I knew I wanted to get super solid on the science of climate change, because if I’m going to be synthesizing it down to something that kids—and adults—can understand, and that they can form healthy emotional relationships with, I need to be communicating it effectively and accurately. I had been doing so much research on my own, tuning into webinars, going to protests. But I knew I wanted to move my career forward as a climate communicator, especially in media, and there weren’t a lot of programs out there that didn’t already require an undergrad in science or a background in research.

I was working at PBS SoCal at the time, so I was doing science, but it was explaining the engineering design process for 8-year-olds or finding local bugs in your neighborhood. It wasn’t high-level atmospheric physics. So finding Climate and Society was a really cool opportunity because it seemed like the only program that actually valued the interdisciplinary approaches to climate education and found value in diverse industries rather than focusing only on scientists.

Do you feel like you came away with the knowledge you were looking for? What was the outcome of the program for you?

I feel so much more confident in my role in addressing climate change—and that came both from the classes on atmospheric physics and quantitative modeling but also from the cohort and people in and around the program. I learned that there are so many different ways to be involved in climate work that I didn’t even know. Sitting next to fashion designers, business people, politicians, and GIS mappers who all have skills that I couldn’t even dream of but who are all working in the climate space. It was very cool to see that we are building the paradigm shift that people have been yelling about for the last 20 years.

A masked girl poses with a book.
Hicks poses with the first printed copy of her book, Zaynab the Great and the Giant Plastic Monster. (Courtesy Suzie Hicks)

Can you talk a little bit about the projects you’re working on right now and what your goals are?

Fundamentally, I am a kids’ media creator that talks about climate. Right now I have a kids’ show called The Climate Chick that I shot and produced, and I’m now touring around to festivals. We just won the Visionary Film Award at the Portland EcoFilm Festival. The head of the festival said he watches ecological films all the time and ours was the first to make him cry, but not because ours is sad or depressing. It’s because the main themes of the show are togetherness and belonging. Obviously we talk about climate science, but really we talk about the social emotional implications of climate change on a kid because they did nothing to cause it. It’s really scary to be living in a world that’s changing because of the actions of others, but there are already so many things happening that are good. All it takes is plugging everyone into those solutions. I’m sending that pilot around the festival circuit right now and pitching it to different networks to see if anyone is interested in making it a TV show.

I’m also doing a lot of speaking at different organizations. I currently work at EarthEcho International, where I do a lot of youth movement building. I’m speaking at a panel on climate storytelling this month, then I’m coming back to Columbia to teach as part of the Strategic Communications for Climate Change class in March. In April, I’m going to Portland to do a creativity and social change workshop. I’m also a kids’ author, so I have a book all about friendship and plastic pollution in the ocean.

Right now, I’m hoping to get funding for future projects. I’m ideating on a kids’ podcast or a kids’ play or musical. I’m really excited and I hope that it becomes more widely acknowledged that kids’ media is a good conduit for conversations about climate change, and I hope to be someone that pushes it further into the limelight.

Are there media or shows that have inspired you or that you have used as models?

I’m a student of Mister Rogers, Steve Irwin, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Hayao Miyazaki in the ways that they tell stories that are fun and exciting and make kids feel like they’re part of something. I’m taking those pedagogical approaches that those iconic kids’ media figures have shown us and applying them to this great existential crisis.

Fred Rogers talked about assassination, divorce, and the things that adults don’t want to talk about. And climate change is a thing that adults don’t want to talk to their kids about.  So if I can be the person that creates a really healthy intervention point that gives kids the tools they need to understand this information and the avenues to create solutions and advocate for a better future, that would be awesome.

Climate education for kids is not being massively produced for the public, but there are people like me who don’t have a huge platform who are doing the work. So it’s just a waiting game until all of it comes to the world.

Have you received much pushback or do you find yourself up against parents or people who don’t want to talk to kids about these topics?

It depends on the audience that I’m talking to. Nearly all the people I engage with agree that we need to be able to talk about this. But there are a couple of barriers to it. First, because fossil fuels are embedded in a lot of funding, finding places that will let you talk about how climate change is being accelerated by fossil fuels is hard.

The next barrier is the argument that kids aren’t ready to see or understand this massive problem. But the thing is, kids are already seeing it. By not talking about it, we’re not protecting them because climate impacts are happening everywhere. The news shows catastrophic climate destruction all the time. Social media exists and people there are talking about climate change, but is it in a way that’s healthy? No. If kids are already being exposed to it in these unhealthy ways, it’s important for us to show them the healthy ways to engage.

Sometimes my content migrates to the wrong side of the internet, and I am faced with climate deniers who say that I’m brainwashing kids. But I’m not really too concerned with convincing the small minority that isn’t convinced. I’m more concerned with mobilizing the massive majority who are who are concerned and ready to take action.

A smiling girl gives the thumbs-up next to a microphone.
Hicks filming a virtual summer camp for PBS SoCal during the pandemic. (Courtesy Suzie Hicks)

Do you have any memorable words of advice or lessons you’d like to share?

You can’t do it alone. Community is massively important. I have been helped by so many people and mentors who have told me to keep going. So if you are struggling and you feel like it’s all on your shoulders, it’s not. There are people everywhere that are willing to help you, and I’m happy to be one of them too.

I think communicating climate change is really hard, but it’s something that’s totally worthwhile because, at its bare essence, it’s a big problem that we’ve got to solve. And kids are very familiar with big problems that we’ve got to solve, and so are adults. Because we are all inherently problem solvers, I trust that we can build future generations that are going to solve this problem.

An important thing about talking about climate change with kids is a sense of belonging. There are as many solutions as there are people and places on this planet. So I hope that through any communication that I do or any communication that a kid receives about climate change, it shows that they can be a part of the solution as much as we’re told that we’re part of the problem.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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