What’s Up with Global Warming?
In Search of the Climate Culprits
Glaciers are melting, coral reefs are bleaching, trees are drying up and the Gulf Stream begins to weaken. These are all signs that global warming is slowly evolving and throwing nature out of balance. But what does global warming really mean, where does it come from and are we personally affected? In this edition of Science at Home, we join 10-year-old Alyssa Delaffon from England as she searches for those answers.
What IS Climate Change?
One chilly Friday afternoon, Alyssa returned home from school with warming on her mind. Global warming! That day, her class had started to study climate change – something she had heard about, but never really understood before. She knew that the word climate referred to the average weather conditions in a region over a long period of time. In England, where her family lived, the climate was mild: the air temperature was rarely too hot or too cold, and while it was often rainy, they almost never got really bad storms like tornadoes or hurricanes. But it seemed like the climate in England had been the same for her entire life, so the change part had never made sense to her.
Scientists have been measuring the Earth’s surface temperature for many years and they have observed a trend: that the Earth’s surface is slowly but steadily getting warmer.
“At school they said it’s getting warmer because of humans doing things that put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And if they don’t change those activities, it will keep getting warmer!” Alyssa exclaimed as she shared her new knowledge with her two little brothers. Their eyes grew wide.
“But what are greenhouse gases?” asked Micael, who was seven.
“Good question. I asked the same thing!” Alyssa told him. “My teacher said that they are specific gases that trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere, which is the air around our planet. And then she said that we could do a “Climate Lab” experiment to investigate the greenhouse effect that these gases have on Earth. It was very interesting! Would you like me to show you?”
“Yes! Brilliant!” they both shouted.
Who Are the Climate Culprits?
“So you see…” said Alyssa after she and her brothers had completed the experiment, “…as people keep doing things that put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it makes the Earth’s “plastic wrap” layer grow thicker and trap more heat. And that makes Earth’s surface temperature keep rising – which is where the term global warming comes from.”
“But why is that bad? I like it when it’s warm outdoors,” said four-year-old Rafael.
“We learned that the warmer Earth gets, the more natural disasters and unusual weather events will happen, and the more sea levels will rise due to melting glaciers,” Alyssa replied. “My teacher says these changes will lead to big problems around the world. For instance, some of today’s cities could one day be completely underwater. And some animals could become extinct. And there will be more droughts and floods and wildfires.”
“Yikes! That sounds awful!” said Micael. “Who are the people responsible for climate change? We must make them stop!”
“Yes, who are the climate culprits??” their littlest brother chimed in.
“Sadly, I don’t know. We didn’t cover that bit yet. My teacher said we will finish the lesson after the weekend,” Alyssa told them.
“But that’s days away. We want to know now!” Micael complained.
“Sorry guys,” their mum Anu interrupted. “But now it’s time for bed. I’m so glad you’re all interested in such an important topic, but we can talk about it more tomorrow.”
They reluctantly retreated to their bedrooms, both chanting “Who’s to blame? Who’s to blame?”
Follow the Carbon Footprints
The next morning, Alyssa awoke to find a notepad, a pen, and a magnifying glass on her bedside table. There was a message written on the notepad. It said, “Your mission: Follow the carbon footprints to find the climate culprits.”
“How strange. I wonder where that came from?” Alyssa thought. “But I do love to play detective!”
It all starts with carbon (C), an element that is found it all living things, as well as rocks, air, soil & water. When carbon is released into the air, it mixes with oxygen (O) to form carbon dioxide: CO2.
She hopped out of bed to find a sticky note on the floor. On the note was a pair of footprints with “CO2” stamped on them.
“Are those carbon footprints?” Alyssa asked herself out loud.
“Interesting,” said Alyssa. “I know that carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases that traps heat in the atmosphere. But where is it coming from?”
She looked down the hall and spotted another note, this one with two talon prints. “These tracks look like they were made by a bird…”
“No…they look like the fossil footprints we saw at the museum!” interrupted Micael, who was now following the tracks along with Rafael.
“Very clever,” Alyssa commended him as she began reading the next note: “Some plants and creatures that lived millions of years ago were preserved as fossils. Others decomposed to form substances that we now call fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and oil. They contain the trapped carbon from those living creatures. When you burn fossil fuels, it releases lots of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But it also generates lots of energy, which is why people do it.”
“Mum & dad say I have lots of energy!” said Rafael.
“I don’t think it means that kind of energy,” laughed Alyssa. “Look at the clue. I see a light bulb and a radiator. I think it means the kind of energy people use to power things – like electricity.”
“That’s exactly right, Alyssa! Well done,” said a voice from the other room.
“Mummy! Did you make these clues?” Alyssa asked, as they all followed her voice into the living room.
“Guilty,” said Mummy. “You were all so interested last night that I did some homework of my own so that we could keep learning together. Now…tell me…what do you see in this room that is powered by electricity?”
The children began to shout things out: “TV!” “Computer!” “Lamps!” “Phone chargers!” “Toys!”
“Right,” Mummy confirmed. “All of that and much more. Like most people, we consume lots of energy in the form of electricity. But we also use energy from natural gas to heat our home, and energy from oil to power our car and any other form of transportation. And it takes lots of energy to power the manufacturing plants that make just about everything we use! And energy to transport those things from where they started to us. Look about the room again. Do you see anything we made ourselves?”
The children couldn’t find anything, other than their own art and drawings.
“So if you calculated all the greenhouse gases – especially carbon dioxide – that are generated by our normal activities, that would be our family’s carbon footprint,” explained mom. “Even if we are not personally burning the fossil fuels ourselves to create the energy or the vehicles or the products, we depend on all of it. And we are responsible for the bit of energy that we consume.”
“Do you mean that WE are the culprits?,” asked Rafael with a sad look.
“I don’t mean only us, but yes – we are partially culprits, just like everyone else,” said mom. “And keep in mind: Our carbon footprint does not only come from producing all the things that we use, but also from the waste that we are producing. What do you think...how long does it take for one plastic bag to degrade in a landfill?”
How Is Agriculture Connected to Climate Change?
“Now that we have learned about energy and transportation as big drivers of greenhouse gas emissions, can you imagine other areas? What about the food that we are eating?” Alyssa’s mum asked.
“Plants are good for our planet. I can’t imagine that agriculture contributes to climate change” Alyssa answered.
“I thought you might say that,” said Mummy. “And I have arranged for you to speak with someone who can explain better than I can. Alyssa, I’ll put her on the video chat and you can ask your questions.”
What Can Kids Do to Slow Climate Change?
After that very interesting conversation, Alyssa and her brothers had a great deal to think about.
“So, Christine said that agriculture does contribute to climate change, but can also be part of the solution?” Alyssa thought aloud.
“Correct. By using technology and farming practices that pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the plants and soil,” Mummy confirmed. “Isn’t that clever? And scientists and engineers around the world are trying to find solutions to fossil fuel problems, such as developing better ways to generate power using renewable energy, like the sun or wind.”
“What can we do?” asked Alyssa. “I don’t want to only be a climate culprit. I want to be part of the solution too!”
“Well, I’m happy you asked,” smiled Mummy. “As it turns out, I’ve been thinking that we can do a better job of trying to reduce our carbon footprint at home and I have a new game we can play. Who is ready for a little competition?”
“Me!” everyone shouted.
“This bingo game is filled with actions that we can take to help slow climate change,” said Mummy as she handed them each a printed game. “Some things we can do as a family, but others we must each do on our own. The question is…who can complete enough actions to get the first bingo?”
For the rest of the weekend, Alyssa and her family members plotted their winning bingo strategies and talked more about climate change than they ever had before. Alyssa even drew a picture of her top climate commitment to hang on the refrigerator. “That way, I’ll see it every day as a reminder,” she explained to her parents. And she also asked other kids from around the world to share their climate commitments with her.
By Monday morning, Alyssa couldn’t wait to tell her teacher and schoolmates about all she had learned over the weekend! But as she rushed through her morning routine, she also thought about using resources efficiently. She turned off the water faucet in the sink while brushing her teeth and then took a much shorter shower than usual. While eating breakfast, she noticed the bowl of apples that had been sitting on the counter for several weeks and asked her parents if they could preserve them so they didn’t go to waste. Her dad said they could certainly look up ways to do that after school. “Brilliant!” exclaimed Alyssa as she grabbed her backpack and ran out the front door.
Seconds later, her parents soon heard the sound of heavy footsteps running up the stairs and across the front porch. Alyssa threw open the door and flipped the switches to turn off the front porch lights. “Don’t want to waste electricity!” she breathlessly explained as her parents walked into the room. And with that, the sound of Alyssa’s heavy footsteps once again filled the air. But her carbon footprint was already little bit lighter.