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Kids’ Questions on Climate Change

15 April 2011
Young girl interviewing male author (State Dept.)

Lela, a primary-school student, asks author Charles McCutcheon questions about climate change.

Washington journalist Charles McCutcheon is the author of What Are Global Warming and Climate Change? Answers for Young Readers.

We asked Lela, a Washington primary-school student, to interview him. In preparation, she gathered questions from Linnea, 10, Axel, 8, A.J., 8, and Cameron, 12, as well as other children.

Q: What is climate change?

A: It’s a name that’s been given to the process that is not just making the Earth warmer but is causing a lot of other physical processes. Like causing the ocean levels to rise, like causing glaciers to melt.

Q: How does pollution cause climate change?

A: To understand climate change, you have to know about the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is like a blanket covering the Earth. When pollution such as carbon gets put into the air, it becomes part of the blanket and raises the temperature of the Earth.

Q: How will climate change affect the Earth?

A: In many different ways. It depends on where you live.

In Africa, for example, a big problem is the lack of water. People who don’t have enough water there and in other countries will have more trouble growing the food they need. It could lead to droughts where nothing will grow at all.

In countries in Asia and the Pacific and elsewhere that have a lot of people living near their coastlines, the sea levels could rise — not overnight, but gradually — and flood out a lot of places where people live. It could hurt the incomes of farmers who grow rice and other crops.

Q: Will climate change affect humans in the future?

A: Yes, because Earth’s temperature hasn’t varied by more than a little bit over the last 10,000 years. It doesn’t take much of a shift to throw the world out of balance.

For example, cities around the world could have heat waves. And when there’s a heat wave, a lot of elderly people particularly can get sick and die because they sometimes don’t have any way to cool off.

Q: How does global warming or climate change affect animals?

A: A lot of animals won’t be able to get the food they need and could die. With ice melting, polar bears, for example, might not have access to places to live, which is called their habitat. There are already some animals whose extinction has been blamed directly on climate change. And people are afraid that as temperatures go up, there will be animals, just like humans, who will have trouble adapting.

Q. What’s the warmest it’s been in the Arctic?

A: I don’t know the exact temperature, but the Arctic is the first place that noticeably showed the effects of global warming, and it provides a warning of what might happen elsewhere. This is also true for Greenland and northern Canada. On average, the warming that’s been happening in these areas has been two or three times greater than anywhere else.

Q: What animals are extinct because of climate change?

A: The golden toad of Costa Rica is the first creature whose extinction is believed to have been caused by climate change. It used to live in the humid and misty forests, but higher temperatures affected its skin, which is very moist, and people stopped seeing the toad in the late 1980s.

Q: Are all trees in the rain forest going to be cut down?

A: No, but the rain forests are a big concern. The rain forests have been disappearing at a rate of 4 acres [1.6 hectares] every second. There’s a lot of burning that’s being done in the forests, and that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Q. What is the U.S. government doing to help stop climate change?

A: NASA, which people think of as the agency that sends people into space, actually does a lot of studying of global warming and climate change. Other federal agencies study it too and share their information.

Right now, there’s a big debate because the U.S. government hasn’t taken steps to really sharply reduce global warming. A lot of state governments and a lot of local governments are making their own efforts to reduce polluting.

Q: What are the U.N. and international community doing to help?

A: The U.N. has an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is made up of scientists from dozens of countries. They set the tone for the scientific consensus on climate change. They have gone from saying that humans may be causing it to saying humans are very likely causing it. The U.N. is also helping some countries in Africa and other places that don’t have a lot of money to deal with possible outcomes of climate change.

Q: As an 8-year-old, I don’t have much influence over other people who pollute. What can I do to stop climate change?

A: You can do a lot.

Talking to other people about climate change and asking grownups about it is a very important thing you can do.

If you have electricity at home, you can remember to turn off lights when you leave a room to save power. That means the plant that produces electricity won’t pollute as much. Cars and power plants make most of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, so we need to drive less and use less energy. If your family has a car that runs on gasoline, remind people in your family to drive it less. Walking, biking and riding public transit are great alternatives.

Q: If we can stop global warming, how long will it take?

A: It’s going to take a while. There’s no magic solution, no button we can push to make it stop. It’s hard to say how long it will take, but if we do a lot of different things starting at home and also working and helping scientists, we could hopefully do something about it in the next few decades.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Three children planting trees (AP Images)

Students in Costa Rica plant saplings as part of an Earth Day celebration.