What Should I Tell My Kids About Global Warming?

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For many years there has been debate about whether or not climate change is actually happening. More specifically, the controversy revolves around two questions:
1. Is Earth becoming warmer?
2. Assuming Earth is getting warmer, can we say that this is caused by humans?

Climate change and global warming. Mt Kilimanjaro is often use as an example

Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2007. Its ice cap is shrinking rapidly and is expected to disappear in 10 years or so.
Currently there is debate about how much of an effect global warming has had on the shrinking ice.

In the media we often hear indications that the global temperature is rising. A google search on ‘global warming due to human actions’ (a search without quotes) will return 57 million results, with arguments for and against climate change. In fact, some people will argue the opposite of global warming, that the Earth is cooling. So what gives?

One of the difficulties in discussing climate change is temperature’s variability. Global temperature is neither constant nor always increasing or decreasing. Many factors affect global temperature in a natural way: solar cycles, large volcanic eruptions and many other factors. Temperature can also have fairly constant, increasing or decreasing trends in any given period of time in a nonsystematic way (i.e random). The issue is not at all straightforward and some parents may find the topic frustrating.

What people think about climate change
Although public opinion on the subject in the US has varied considerably over the years, the last couple of years have seen a drastic shift. A 2012 Yale study reported that 70% of Americans now believe global warming is a reality.

According to the same Yale study 54% of people believe global warming is caused mostly by human activity. This is the first time that more than half of those surveyed answer affirmatively to this question. An independent Associated Press-Gfk survey found that even among people who don’t trust scientists, 61% think global warming is happening.

But what is leading more and more people into believing that the world is becoming warmer? Some people argue that last summer’s drought in many places in the United States is evidence of global warming. This is not necessarily true and proving the world is warming needs stronger arguments. Scientists have looked at many different aspects to determine whether climate change is real or not.

What scientists think about climate change
Put simply, among scientists there is no doubt global warming is occurring, and there is strong evidence that it is caused by humans. Scientists have determined that over the last 150 years or so, global climate has warmed by about 0.7 degrees C, about 1.5 degrees F. This might seem like a small increase but Earth has warmed twice as fast in the last 50 years as in the 50 years before that and this fast warming is causing drastic changes around the world. Scientists are currently using any means possible to study climate change, including satellites.

Some interesting facts to be aware of:

  • 2012 was the warmest year in recorded history for the U.S. (but not for the world). For the entire world, 2005 was the warmest year on record.
  • Fossil fuels, mass transportation, some power generation and industrial procedures generate man-made carbon dioxide.
  • Since 1997, every subsequent year has been among the warmest on record for the world
  • Both carbon dioxide and temperatures have been going up–and dramatically so–in the last few years, faster than any other time in Earth’s history
  • Barry Commoner explains in his book “Making peace with the planet” how synthetic chemicals (not produced by nature) are partially to blame in causing the ozone layer to thin and for global warming, although regulation has reduced their effect.

Although the strong association between carbon dioxide and temperature does not mean that carbon dioxide increase causes temperatures to go up, scientists have two main arguments for why humans are likely to blame. First, the rate of temperature increase has been dramatic, especially since the 1950s or so. Secondly, scientists have been able to distinguish between natural carbon isotopes and man-made carbon isotopes in the atmosphere. They’ve been able to show that, although man made carbon dioxide levels are much lower than the amount naturally found in the environment, the levels are high enough to create an unbalance, leading to a stronger greenhouse effect (carbon dioxide gets stuck in the atmosphere making the Earth warmer). About 97% of climate scientists agree that human activity is a significant factor in global warming.

Why is climate change important?
Warmer climate leads to many changes around the world: higher temperatures, melting of polar ice, higher sea levels, droughts for some regions, more rain for other regions and endangerment of many species. It’s believed that warmer temperatures will lead to more extreme weather around the world.

These changes can have major impacts on our lives. For example if more droughts occur in agricultural regions around the world, then food becomes more expensive. More frequent hurricanes (and stronger hurricanes more likely) can translate into huge emergency costs and drastic changes to the coastlines and city planning. Melting of the polar ice leads to higher sea levels which also affect our coastlines.

How can we help?
In summary, the facts point to that it is very likely that human activity is causing global warming. So educate your kids about being green. Even if you’re not convinced that climate change is happening, there are many things one can do to protect the environment that don’t require much effort, and can even help us save money.
plant a tree. One easy way to help with the climate change/global warming problem

  • Reduce your carbon footprint– This is key when talking about climate change. CO2 is naturally produced on Earth. Because of our modern needs, additional CO2 is being released into the air. Decreasing the amount of pollution from transportation, power, food and mass production of our essentials can certainly have a positive impact on the planet. Try to incorporate green products in your daily life; switching to hybrid or electric cars, using fewer disposable products and even green diapers for your baby can make a huge difference. Many other green tips are available online.
  • Recycle – recycling helps avoid the need for clearing land for landfills, which results in less vegetation; plants help to naturally process carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Also much less energy is needed to recycle materials such as aluminum than to make them from scratch. And children will follow their parents’ lead if they recycle at home.
  • Plant some trees – As mentioned earlier, plants help to naturally process carbon dioxide; more plants mean less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • Conserve water  – With the higher chance of drought in many places around the globe, saving water is crucial. Teach your kids about water conservation. You can get creative at home too. For example you can turn a summer beach float into a toddler bathtub.
  • Save energy and use green alternatives – It’s no secret that we are highly dependent on burning fossil fuels for our electricity needs. You can make your home more power efficient with some simple changes. A wide array of green power alternatives are also available.
  • Support your local farmers. The more food people buy at the farmers’ market, the fewer trains, trucks and planes we need to have in use. While you’re at it, you’ll be helping the local economy.
  • Think green when it comes to transportation – Car pool to work or use public transportation. If possible, use a bicycle as a form of transportation.

If you want to do your own research on the subject, try checking out some university studies and papers on it. Google  ‘global warming due to human actions site:.edu’ (no quotes)–only university websites will appear in your search results. For additional information on climate change especially targeted toward kids, check out http://climatekids.nasa.gov/.

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Author:Robert Rivera PhD

Proud dad and statistics university professor. His specialty is the use and construction of statistical methods. Also strategy analyst for Living Green with Baby

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