Updated: Jun 14
Audience: Elementary and Middle School Students
Have you heard anyone discussing “climate change” or “global warming” before, but don’t know exactly what these words mean? And what does weather have to do with it all? Good news—this article will explain the definitions of everything from ‘climate change’ to ‘greenhouse gases’, and what you can help do to protect the Earth!
First off, let’s understand how the Earth’s atmosphere works and go over some climate-related vocabulary:
The Earth’s atmosphere is best described as a layer of gases—such as nitrogen and oxygen—that surround the planet. When light and heat from the sun reach the Earth, they bounce off the planet’s surface, but are trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Some greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. This is called the greenhouse effect. It is called the greenhouse effect because heat from the sun cannot escape the atmosphere due to these greenhouse gases, which is similar to what happens to sunlight within greenhouses. Since solar energy is needed to support life, the greenhouse effect is actually responsible for allowing life to exist on Earth! However, because humans are releasing too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, more and more heat is being trapped on Earth, and our planet’s temperature is now rising at dangerous rates.
Global warming is the continued heating of the Earth over a long period of time that is caused by human activities. These activities include the burning of fossil fuels, pollution, and deforestation (the clearing of trees from an area). When fossil fuels are burned, more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. This in turn traps more solar radiation/heat on Earth, ultimately causing the temperature to keep increasing. Through photosynthesis, trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and release oxygen. So the more deforestation happens, the less trees there are, and the more carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere. All in all, global warming is a huge problem because as the temperature of the Earth increases, both the planet and humanity will take a great toll.
Climate change is defined as the changes of overall long-term weather patterns around the globe. Unlike global warming, climate change is not about the human activities that are causing changes in temperature, but rather about the climate patterns/trends themselves.
Larger forest fires, deadlier storms and hurricanes, more intense droughts and heat waves, and floods caused by rising sea levels are all products of global warming that will become more common if nothing is done to fix the damage human activities bring to the planet. Climate-related deaths and people around the world being forced into poverty (often because they lose their jobs due to a climate crisis such as droughts) are already problems we face.
Common Questions/Misunderstandings About Climate Change and Global Warming
Many people don’t fully understand how global warming and climate change work. Here are the answers to a few common questions and misunderstandings about these issues.
How can global warming be true if I, myself, don’t see a difference in the weather or temperature around me?
You may not notice the effects of global warming in your area right away, but that doesn’t mean that global warming isn’t happening and hurting communities around the world right now. At the North and South poles, for instance, icebergs are melting and floating into the sea due to the rise in temperature. This is problematic for both the animals that live there and people who live in coastal areas that are experiencing more flooding and natural disasters.
And chances are that you have already seen some of the negative effects caused by global warming, such as larger and more intense natural disasters, a decrease in snow during the winter, or more floods caused by the sea levels rising.
2. Will global warming start to fix itself over the coming years and decades?
No, this issue will not fix itself. In fact, it is predicted to get worse if we don’t do anything about it, especially since the population is predicted to increase and therefore carbon emissions are predicted to increase as well. The bottom line is that if we are going to fix global warming, we have to take action today.
3. How is weather involved in all of this?
While climate refers to the long-term weather patterns in a specific region or even around the world, weather is simply the atmospheric conditions that occur over a short period of time, like hours or days. And as global warming continues to get worse, weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable.
Air pollution, which puts tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere every day, is one of the major causes of global warming. Image by Chris_LeBoutillier from Pixabay.
4. What is the government doing to slow climate change and global warming?
So far, many countries, including the United States, have signed the Paris Agreement, which is an international climate change treaty that encourages countries to follow low greenhouse gas emission strategies. However, many people argue that stricter and more intense climate change laws need to be put into action.
More developed countries (countries that are wealthier and have higher rates of employment and security, like the U.S. and Canada) need to decide to cut down on their greenhouse gas emissions by choosing renewable energy sources (like windmills and solar panels) and reducing pollution wherever possible. Other countries will be likely to follow in order to not fall behind technologically and economically.
What action can we take right now as individuals?
Here are a few simple things you can do to make a difference today! Every little action is important:
Plant trees! As mentioned earlier, trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis. And they benefit the environment in many other ways as well!
Waste less water - energy is wasted when your water is heated, treated, and pumped, so waste less water to reduce carbon pollution.
Don’t waste food and only buy what you need - the growing, processing, transportation, and packaging of food takes a lot of energy, and right now a lot of it is being thrown away. So don’t waste and make sure to renew, reuse and recycle.
Talk to adults about using renewable energy - much better for the environment!
Spread awareness about climate change - the more people are aware, the more action will be taken.
And when you are old enough to vote, remember the importance of voting for politicians who promise to acknowledge and take action against the current climate crisis. Accountability and the power of the people will be essential in forcing the government to make changes.
It is incredibly important to care for our planet. If we don’t, one day we might wake up to find that it is uninhabitable. Fortunately, it’s not too late to slow down climate change and save the Earth from irreparable damage. Talk to your friends and family about these issues and take action today!
April 07, 2021 Amanda MacMillan Jeff Turrentine. “Global Warming 101.” NRDC, 10 May 2021, www.nrdc.org/stories/global-warming-101.
“Causes of Global Warming: WWF-Australia.” WWF, www.wwf.org.au/what-we-do/climate/causes-of-global-warming#gs.0r0ncz.
July 17, 2017 Melissa Denchak. “How You Can Stop Global Warming.” NRDC, 10 May 2021, www.nrdc.org/stories/how-you-can-stop-global-warming.
“Overview: Weather, Global Warming and Climate Change.” NASA, NASA, 28 Jan. 2021, climate.nasa.gov/resources/global-warming-vs-climate-change/.
“The Paris Agreement.” Unfccc.int, unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement.
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