On a backpacking trip in northern Colorado last August, Emily Fischer was eating lunch with her family on the side of a trail when she spotted a smoke plume behind the mountains nearby.
Fischer, an atmospheric chemist who studies wildfire smoke at Colorado State University, has witnessed firsthand how quickly fires can spread. But this was her first brush with a fire outside of work — and with her family in tow, it was terrifying.
The whole family, including Fischer’s 5- and 8-year-old daughters, ran almost nonstop back to the car, covering around 6 miles in under three hours. The fire appeared to be following them, moving in a parallel direction, fueled by strong winds.
“It was very scary for my children,” Fischer told BuzzFeed News. She remembered that they asked her: “Are we dying now?” She responded: “No, but we have to get out of here right now.”
That fire grew into the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire ever recorded in Colorado. The smoke from that wildfire and others across the state last year forced Fischer’s family to repeatedly shelter inside to avoid the unhealthy air, despite living hours away from the flames.
The episode last summer made Fischer realize her professional work was directly intersecting with her family life. “It’s very personal now,” she said.
Fischer is now among a group of scientists who see this personal urgency as the key to finally convincing Americans that it’s time to tackle the climate crisis. Their new advocacy group, called Science Moms, just launched a $10 million ad campaign, the largest paid climate education media blitz in the US in a decade.
In digital and television ads that started rolling out this week, Fischer and the other scientists make a direct and emotional appeal to other moms to join the climate movement for the sake of their children.
The TV ads are slated to run nationwide, with larger ad buys targeting the swing states of Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Another targeted ad push will likely focus on Colorado, Florida, and Pennsylvania. The geographically diverse set of states all feel different impacts of climate change, from extreme heat in Arizona to flooding in Wisconsin.
“We’re really speaking to moms and collectively asking moms to do something about the climate crisis,” said Melissa Burt, another researcher at Colorado State University.
Science Moms is a collaboration between the all-mom climate scientists and the nonprofit Potential Energy Coalition, which is funded through a collection of donations from individuals and philanthropic foundations.
While some 72% of people in the US understand that global warming is happening, only 61% of them believe it is already hurting people. An even smaller percentage — 43% — think the crisis will harm them personally, according to 2020 public opinion data collected by the Yale Program on Climate Change.
But moms and kids are among the people who are especially vulnerable to climate change. Extreme heat, for example, poses a particular threat to pregnant people, babies, and young children, all groups who cannot easily regulate their internal temperatures. Air pollution poses a greater threat to children, especially kids of color who live in communities that are disproportionately exposed to it. And then there’s the anxiety and fear many kids experience when facing intense hurricanes or wildfires, or even just learning about climate change.
“Moms, if they know it’s a threat to their children, they will act,” Fischer said. “We need that feeling to get to the collective action that we need to actually stop climate change.”
For Fischer and Burt, who each star in one of the new ads, talking to other moms about the climate crisis is already baked into their lives.
With her closest friends, Fischer says she has long been direct about the science and its emotional toll on her.
But last year, when wildfire smoke lingered in the air for weeks to months, the issue increasingly bled into her conversations with other families in her Colorado community. For parents in her neighborhood, she became the person they called and texted to ask basic questions about air quality and whether it was safe for their kids to go outside.
Fischer relied on the PurpleAir network to make her daily judgment call, telling her kids: “If this number goes over 100, we don’t run around and play outside because that seems not to be healthy for us.”
Burt has also been bringing up the issue more with her neighbors. “In my neighborhood circle of women that I’m involved with, I’m always that mom who is going to share a book,” she said. “Here is a good book on climate change or science that you can talk to your kids about.”
“You don’t always want to be the downer at the book club,” she continued, “but you can talk about this.”
Climate scientists have been talking about the crisis for decades. But in recent years, their warnings have become more dire. Following the 2018 release of the United Nations special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, one scientist bluntly said: “For some people, this is a life or death situation, without a doubt.” Then, last year, more than 11,000 scientists declared the planet was facing a climate emergency. With this newest campaign, scientists aren’t just warning people about the problem, they are opening up about their own experiences and fears.
“In my experience, the more strongly we can connect climate change with our identities, the more compellingly that connection serves to highlight how climate change matters to us and how we can contribute towards fixing it,” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University also participating in Science Moms, told BuzzFeed News in an email.
“This effort isn’t meant to exclude other parents,” she said, “Rather, it’s meant to focus in on an aspect of our identity that is central to us.”
The focus on moms wasn’t just based on these scientists’ personal experiences. It was also a deliberate strategic decision, backed by research and polling conducted by Potential Energy.
Climate change is “a complicated topic that’s wrapped up unnecessarily in politics,” John Marshall, founder and CEO of Potential Energy, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s something people can always push out to later.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to climate action in the US is the stark political divide. In a Pew poll on the top issues going into the 2020 presidential election released last August, 68% of Biden supporters said they prioritized climate change compared to only 11% of Trump voters, making it the most divisive issue surveyed.
Science Moms is hoping the focus on moms can help cut through this.
In 2019, Potential Energy conducted a survey to help figure out which groups of Americans are the most concerned about climate change and the most persuadable to take action. Based on the nearly 8,000 respondents, all at least 18 years old, they found 83% of moms were concerned about the issue compared to only 60% of the general population.
The messaging that especially moves mom to want to act is one focused on the risk climate change poses to their kids, according to Marshall. This is true for moms across different age groups and across the political spectrum, too.
“The research said this is actually a really big and powerful untapped force,” he added.
For Burt, part of the motivation to get involved was to highlight the crucial role race plays in experiencing the worst impacts of climate change in the US. “For me it’s important for moms to know there isn’t just one type of scientist, just like there isn’t one type of mom,” she said. “These are things that are directly impacting our communities. We know climate change is disproportionately impacting communities of color, low socioeconomic communities, and I guess I’d say most importantly our children within those communities.”
More recently, kids — not their parents — have been the driving force behind the climate movement.
The most famous climate activist worldwide is 18-year-old Greta Thunberg, who launched what’s become a global movement of kids striking school to draw attention to the climate crisis.
“This is all wrong,” Thunberg told a crowd of world leaders and climate negotiators gathered at a 2019 conference in New York. "I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you!"
School walkouts and rallies organized by students have brought traffic to a standstill in major cities and attracted millions of participants, from Los Angeles to New York, Belgium to Bolivia, Kenya to Australia. For years now, kids have also been suing state and country governments to take climate action.
And in the US, the youth activist group Sunrise Movement has been pushing to hold politicians accountable. Its members have pushed for a Green New Deal to tackle inequality and climate change, pressured Democratic presidential candidates to pledge not to take big campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies, and played a role in pushing Joe Biden to adopt the strongest climate platform of any presidential candidate.
The climate kids are a big reason why Marshall thought that Science Moms could work. “My 17-year-old was the one that suggested I do this,” Marshall said. “My whole team stopped working at their corporate jobs to do this, and many of us were motivated by our children saying: Is this true? What are you doing about it?”
“I would give the youth movement credit for us doing this,” he said. “There should be a parents movement to go along with the youth movement because the most important conversations happen in the home.”