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What is climate change?

climate-change-istock-telman-bagirov.png
Telman Bagirov
/
istock

What is climate change? What is causing climate change? How do you cool down the earth? How is climate change affecting the oceans? Kids are hearing about climate change and they have lots of questions. In this episode we explain the science of climate change and look at how humans will adapt to a rapidly warming planet. We speak with Dr. Claudia Benitez-Nelson, oceanographer at the University of South Carolina and Dr. Jola Ajibade, a geographer at Portland State University. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive look at the issue, but it’s a good way to start a conversation about this issue for families and teachers.

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

  • Climate is the long-term trend of temperatures and weather. You can think of the difference between climate and weather like a dog walking down a sidewalk: The dog might go from side to side of the sidewalk - that’s kind of like the weather - it varies. But the general direction of the dog is forward - that’s the climate.
  • Since the 1800s we’ve had a lot of changes in technology that mean humans are burning a lot of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, to power engines, run our cars, heat our homes and create electricity. That puts a lot of greenhouse gasses and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  • The atmosphere is like a blanket around the earth. The increase in greenhouse gasses means that the blanket is getting thicker, making the earth warmer. 
  • Think of the earth like a human body: when a fever increases our body temperature by a few degrees, it can make you feel really sick (sometimes really hot, but other times with cold shivers). It’s the same thing for the earth! Even one or two degrees difference in average global temperature can make a big difference, including changing the amount of rainfall that a region gets or the overall temperature of the ocean, throwing our systems out of balance.
  • Climate change can increase sea levels. As polar ice caps melt because of increasing temperature, the water levels rise, which can cause higher tides and more flooding. A good experiment you can do to visualize this is to grab a mixing bowl and turn a smaller bowl upside down inside of it (like an island). Pour some water and several ice cubes into the big bowl and see how high the water goes up the side of the smaller bowl. (You might need to weigh the smaller bowl down so it doesn’t float up.) As the ice melts, observe how the water level rises up the sides of the small bowl.
  • Increased water temperatures are bad for coral reefs and other ocean animals. 
  • The best way to stop climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels.
  • People will respond to climate change through coping mechanisms, including migration and relocation. 
  • The people most affected by climate change are the people least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.
  • If you’re concerned about global warming, find ways to consume fewer resources and to burn fewer fossil fuels. And lobby your government officials to make policies that benefit the environment and those most vulnerable to climate change.

Resources

NASA’s Climate Kids

NASA’s Kids’ Guide to Climate Change

National Geographic Kids Climate Change Explainer

Take Action: Young Voices for the Planet

Science Moms

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the senior producer for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.