Climate change: a climate scientist answers questions from teenagers

Your moment

Pupils in 60 countries went on strike from school on March 15, 2019, to demand urgent action from the world’s leaders on climate change. Here, a scientist answers teenagers’ questions about climate change, gathered by the Priestley International Centre for Climate at a previous strike in February. You can find more Q&As like this on the centre’s website

How long is the planet going to last? I heard it was 12 years…

The “12 years” date you’ve heard comes from a special report requested by the United Nations, which looks at the impacts of global warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. At the moment, the world is 1°C warmer than in the late 19th century: the earliest period for which we have reliable temperature measurements and just before the Industrial Revolution got into full swing.

To avoid global warming above 1.5°C, humanity needs to cut its carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions to about half of today’s levels by 2030, and to zero by 2050. The 2030 date – 12 years from when the report was released in October 2018 – got a lot of media attention.

Missing the 2030 deadline would make it very difficult to keep global warming under 1.5°C. That temperature is not necessarily safe, but the damage caused by climate change will quickly get worse with higher levels of warming.

At today’s 1°C of warming, there have already been increases in extreme weather events (such as heat waves and flooding), as well as food shortages and effects on food production. Entire species are already going extinct, for reasons related to climate change.

At 2°C of warming or above, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather and damaging effects on food and water supplies will make some parts of the world very hard to live in. As a result, it’s predicted that many people will need to leave their homes and become climate refugees, while many millions more people worldwide will be exposed to poverty. What’s more, many species will be lost and virtually all corals will die.

Unfortunately, we are not on track to keep warming below 1.5°C, or even 2°C. If countries hit their existing targets, temperatures will rise by around 3°C – or more than that, if emissions continue to grow.

The planet itself will survive man-made climate change. In fact, it has been warmer, millions of years ago, although the world looked very different back then. Humans are not expected to go extinct – but we will have to learn to cope with a warmer world, and all its challenges. This means cooperating and providing support and resources to vulnerable people.

What would be the most effective policy to end climate change?

No single policy will end climate change, but a very effective strategy would be to quickly phase out fossil fuels such as coal and petrol, which are used to create electricity and power transport. There are many different ways to achieve this goal, and it’s important that leaders choose policies that create good jobs and strengthen communities.

For example, governments need to put money towards safe, reliable, efficient and affordable trains and buses, so people can get around without using cars. Towns and cities should be designed to be more friendly to walking, cycling and public transport. Homes should have good transport links, and be built or modified to be more energy efficient, so that they’re easier to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

International air travel is also responsible for a growing share of global emissions and governments around the world need to work together to come up with a response.

Farming – especially meat and dairy production – also creates a surprisingly large amount of emissions. So, governments should encourage farmers to use sustainable approaches. Agriculture can also lead to deforestation. Since trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, forests must be protected, and new trees planted.

What’s the single best thing I could do in my life to help the climate?

First, you can find out what your environmental footprint is using this questionnaire from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The survey gives advice to help you and your family reduce your impact. Research has also highlighted the biggest changes a person can make to help the climate. They are:

  1. Fly less.
  2. If you are old enough to drive, challenge yourself to live without a car, or to car-share with family and friends.
  3. Switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet can reduce your footprint (although it might be better to avoid food waste than to stick to a strict diet).
  4. It’s controversial, but true: in wealthier countries, having one less child makes the biggest impact of all.

Smaller actions in your daily life can also help. Turning down the heating or air conditioning at home and only heating or cooling the rooms you’re using will save money and reduce carbon emissions. Try to buy less clothing, plastics and gadgets, since it takes resources and energy to make these items.

Make, borrow, swap, buy secondhand or find things for free, and recycle as much as possible that can’t be reused. When you’re old enough, you can also choose to put your money in an ethical bank account, and get electricity from 100% renewables.

Individual changes will only go so far, but remember that your actions can inspire others. Use your voice! Talking about climate change with your friends, family and classmates really helps to raise awareness and drive further action.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It was written by Chris Smith, Research Fellow in Physical Climate Change at the University of Leeds. Header image is by Eric Schuler. You can read the original article here

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  • India’s cyclone Fani recovery offers the world lessons in disaster preparedness


    Fani, a rare summer cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, hit eastern India on May 3. It is one of the strongest cyclones to have hit India in the last 20 years, according to the Indian government’s meteorological department. Storm surges and powerful winds reaching 125mph blew off roofs, damaged power lines and uprooted countless trees.

    But the worst-affected state, Odisha, has been successful in keeping the loss of life and numbers of affected people to a minimum. This is the result of a very effective strategy of disaster preparation and quick responding.

    The United Nations office for Disaster Risk Deduction (UNISDR) and other organisations have hailed government and volunteer efforts that have ensured the levels of destruction have been kept to a minimum. According to official estimates, 64 people lost their lives due to the devastating cyclone Fani. But considering the power of the cyclone, it is remarkable that more lives have not been lost.

    To put the death toll in perspective, the 1999 Odisha cyclone (which had 155mph winds) killed 9,658 people and caused US$2.5 billion in damages in the state. It was this super cyclone in 1999 that led the state to become better prepared for future cyclones.

    The government’s “zero casualty” policy for natural disasters and the near accuracy of the India meteorological department’s early warning system have helped reduce the possibility of deaths from cyclone Fani. A record 1.2m people (equal to the population of Mauritius) were evacuated in less than 48 hours, and almost 7,000 kitchens, catering to 9,000 shelters, were made functional overnight. This mammoth exercise involved more than 45,000 volunteers.

    The statistics are striking when compared to the impact of recent big weather events around the world. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 with wind speeds of 175mph, it caused a death toll of 2,975. The same year, Hurricane Harvey struck Texas with winds of 130mph and caused devastating flooding. There was US$125 billion in damage and at least 68 direct storm-related deaths reported in Texas. Most recently, cyclone Idai hit Mozambique on March 14 and ripped through Madagascar, Malawi and Zimbabwe, with more than 1,000 people feared dead.

    So the Indian state of Odisha’s ability to put such an effective disaster management plan in place and save thousands of lives is a template that the world can learn from. This, after all, is a state where the average income is less than US$5 a day. We identify four key takeaways from Odisha.

    1. Build a relief infrastructure

    Until 1999, Odisha didn’t have a well laid out plan for disaster management. Two months after the cyclone hit, the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority was set up and plans put in place. Around 900 cyclone shelters have been built in vulnerable pockets of the state, with systems in place for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. By 2001, Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force was also set up to conduct rescue operations and distribute relief.

    There is a clear command and control structure for disaster relief and there are clear protocols in place for carrying out relief operations. These were successfully used in managing cyclone Phailin in 2013 (a storm five times the size of hurricane Katrina), cyclone Hudhud in 2014 and cyclone Fani.

    2. Accuracy of early warning systems

    The India Meteorological Department has built an effective service to predict accurate timings of cyclone formation in the Bay of Bengal and when it will make landfall along India’s coastline. This early warning system enables the state to be disaster ready and minimise loss of lives. It’s then crucial that people follow the protocols in place when the warnings come in.

    3. Clear communication plan

    Roughly 2.6m text messages were sent to locals in clear language before cyclone Fani hit, keeping those potentially affected alert. Regular press briefings were made by officials to update people of the approaching cyclone. People were repeatedly advised over all forms of media not to panic and given clear “do and don’ts”. This helped in the record evacuation of 1.2m people to safe buildings.

    4. Effective co-ordination of groups

    Preparations to fight the onslaught of Fani involved a number of government agencies, as well as local community groups and volunteers working together. The government’s disaster response forces were pre-positioned in vulnerable locations, food packets for air-dropping were made ready for air force helicopters to drop to people. Senior state officials and police officers were sent to the affected districts to co-ordinate efforts of various agencies.

    Cyclone Fani has, however, left a fury of damage to properties and public infrastructure. The post-cyclone recovery will be a daunting challenge to the administration in Odisha, demanding a lot of resources. In the aftermath of the 1999 super cyclone, the state relied on a number of community-based groups and volunteers to help rebuild communities. The same goes for today, but they are in a much better position thanks to the disaster preparedness and risk mitigation followed before the storm hit.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Manoj Dora, Reader in Operations & Supply Chain Management at Brunel University London and Arabinda Kumar Padhee, Director of Country Relations and Business Affairs at New Delhi, ICRISAT, CGIAR System Organization. You can read the original article here.

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  • Young activists assemble to discuss the state of the world and how to save it


    When policy consultant Vandita Morarka co-founded a social reform initiative to work around marginalized communities including slum-dwellers and street children in India six years ago, she was stunned at the lack of youth leadership to address crucial developmental issues in Asia's third-largest economy, India.

    Now, six-years-later, Morarka runs a feminist youth leadership organization 'One Future Collective' from India's financial capital, Mumbai and mentors other youth leaders to run programs around South Asian feminist literature, a queer resource center and a mental health awareness initiative.

    "OFC is based on the idea that there is transformative power in each person that can lead to larger societal transformation. We zeroed in on a couple of thematic areas which was gender, mental health, legal reform, and policy and we felt that many issues were not addressed by other organisations," 24-year-old Morarka, a policy consultant and lawyer said.

    Morarka is not alone. Around 80 youth leaders from across 45 countries and working in civil society spaces including gender-based violence, mental health, inclusivity, and LGBTQ issues joined hands for a two-day 'Youth Assembly' in Serbia's Novi Sad. The sessions involved sharing lived experiences and fighting against abuses in oppressed regimes, and creating a thematic framework to address crucial human rights issues in the global south.

    "[T]here is transformative power in each person that can lead to larger societal transformation."

    The event that preceded the 'International Civil Society Week' held in Belgrade, Serbia in April held engaging discussions on the state of civil society globally. Issues pertaining to human rights violations in India-administered Kashmir, Palestine, and censorship and threats in various parts of the world to activism and journalistic work were highlighted.

    For Renata Thakurdyal from Madagascar, conducting workshops around sexual health for school children and dismantling the country's 'taboo' outlook on sexual health and reproductive rights is crucial.

    Thakurdyal is a program development officer at Madagascar's 'Projet Jenue Leader' that runs sexual health and leadership classes in schools across Madagascar who believes that creating conversations among youngsters is the only way to sensitise them.

    "Educators work in pairs of a male and a female teacher. Male educators talk about the menstrual cycle, showing the entire class how to put on a pad and the importance of menstrual hygiene. The female educator could also do it but the role reversal takes away the stigma and there's a transformation in students," Thakurdyal adds.

    In Madagascar's Malagasy language, menstruation is referred to as 'taboo part of the month’, highlighting how little awareness on menstrual hygiene, access to healthcare or generally on the topic there is.

    "Both boys and girls need to know about sexual health and a culture of open information is very transformative. Talking about sexual health is taboo in Madagascar and teachers often end up inserting their own opinions or ideas," Thakurdyal adds.

    The youth assembly was hosted by Johannesburg-based civil society alliance CIVICUS and brought together more than 850 delegates from around the world including Morarka and Thakurdyal to join the discussions on how to build movements for change.

    Armed with posters and drawing broads, Amanda Segnini, a Brazilian climate justice activist and founder of non-governmental organization Engajamundo holds discussions on how political situations have resulted in the killing of a record number of human rights defenders worldwide.

    "In the Amazon rainforest, we run a project with Brazilian youth and build leadership around climate justice to enable community leaders to protect their local eco-systems. We have around 100 young people as part of the pilot project from different traditional communities," Segnini, co-founder of Engajamundo said.

    Regarding threats faced by activists due to the dangerous political situation in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, she adds Brazil has killed the biggest number of human rights defenders and most of the vulnerable communities in the country are under threat due to climate change.

    According to Soledat Kenzhebulatova and other ICSW organizers, Segnini, Morarka, and Thakurdyal represent a growing movement of youth activists fighting for the defense of civil and gender liberties and seeking government action on important issues including climate justice, sustainable development, and gender equality.

    "I can see the transformative power of bringing youths together at this summit as decision-makers. This is no longer lip-service. This is about giving youngsters the power to enable change."

    "We work with young lesbian, gay, intersex, bisexual, queer, gender non-conforming and othered individuals who have shared experiences of systematic discrimination, hate, and violence. Our work focuses on vulnerabilities. It is clear that in the context of citizenship some freedoms are exclusive to certain demographics only," Gatsha, one of CIVICUS 26 accelerator program goalkeepers said.

    Meanwhile, for 39-year-old Nyaradzo Mashayamombe, Zimbabwe's record on women’s rights and gender-based violence against young girls and children led her to establish Tag a Life International Trust (TaLI) after facing persecution growing up in a marginalized community.

    "We engage with leaders locally, nationally and through regional and international platforms to advocate and advance the rights of girls. We have a flagship young women's Leadership Programme designed to raise young women as young leaders in their communities where they are trained about their own self-awareness," Mashayamombe said.

    Speaking about the recent internet shutdowns due to fuel price hikes and reports of sexual assault allegedly carried out by government officials, Mashayamombe said human rights defenders had to play it low-key and as women human rights defenders were forced to protect themselves amid government crackdowns, advocacy spaces shrunk completely.

    "We need to ensure that women have an access to platforms where they can easily report cases of rape without fearing for their lives and that women human rights defenders themselves are able to assist victims without feeling vulnerable and constrained to help," she added.

    Most of the youth leaders, including Gatsha and Morarka, echoed similar sentiments on the need for more spaces for youngsters where they can engage besides the ‘tokenism and symbolism that is not meaningful’ in terms of grassroots impact.

    "I can see the transformative power of bringing youths together at this summit as decision-makers. This is no longer lip-service. This is about giving youngsters the power to enable change," Morarka concludes.

    This article was originally published on Open Democracy and was written by Vishal Manve. You can read the original article here.

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  • Researchers, set an example: fly less


    The world is warming and ecosystems are dying. To avoid disastrous climatic change, massive reductions in CO2 emissions are required in all sectors, reaching net-zero globally no later than 2050. This requires an unprecedented and rapid change in our ways of life.

    In this, the world of research is challenged for two reasons. First, researchers are the source of the increasing number of warnings about the state of our climate and biodiversity, and their credibility would be damaged by not setting an example. Second, because researchers have the training and tools to critically appraise their colleagues’ conclusions, they’re well placed to understand the seriousness and urgency of the situation, and act accordingly, by reducing their own CO2 emissions.

    The carbon footprint of aviation

    Air traffic currently accounts for about 3% of global emissions, which is three times more than the total emissions of a country like France. Traffic is growing by 4% per year and is projected to double by 2030. This is in complete contradiction with the objectives of the Paris agreement, which will require halving current greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. With the growth projected, by 2050 the aviation sector alone could consume a quarter of the carbon budget for the 1.5°C target, i.e., the cumulative emissions from all sources that cannot be exceeded to limit global warming to this target.

    Technical progress toward more efficient planes and better organised airports will have only marginal impact at best. Real change can only be achieved by a massive transition toward biofuels or a dramatic reduction in demand. The first solution would be to the detriment of food security and biodiversity, and providing better nutrition to a growing population while remaining within planetary boundaries already presents a huge challenge. We are left with the second option: flying significantly less.

    Researchers on the move

    For better and for worse, researchers have been flying for a long time. The benefits include scientific and human exchanges, and the creation of larger networks with broader scope, giving more robust results. The cost is the international “meeting mania”, which consumes time, energy and money, and whose carbon footprint is enormous.
    “A researcher isolated is a researcher lost,” as the saying goes. Today, unless scientists are advanced in their careers, those who give up flying are marginalised. They transgress the rules of an environment that values frequent exchanges and hyperactivity. In doing so, they miss opportunities to make contacts for new collaborative projects, and run the risk of not being “in the loop”.

    This observation is not specific to research: it concerns all competitive environments, which in our globalised world is a very large number of professions. To emit less CO2 is to reduce one’s activities; to reduce one’s activities, when one is alone in doing so, is to exclude oneself from the competition. If the first to act loses, it’s no surprise that governmental climate commitments are far from sufficient, and even unmet.

    By reducing its emissions voluntarily, the scientific community would be exemplary for two reasons. First, it would show that the science – the severe warnings of climatologists and ecologists – must be taken seriously. Second, it would prove that a professional sector can overcome the fatal “first to act loses” attitude and collectively change its behaviour.


    The first project to change the situation could be addressing scientific conferences. Historically, they allowed important results to be shared quickly, at a time when communication with journals took place by post. Publishing an article was necessarily a slow process, and once published, its circulation was limited by journals existing only on paper. Today it is possible to publish in record time, and articles are instantly available online.

    Conferences have essentially become areas for collective brainstorming, where a mixture of the official programme and informal encounters produces fruitful exchanges. However, they can also be a source of significant carbon emissions.

    There are three ways to limit the carbon footprint of conferences.

    • Go to fewer of them. Major world scientific meetings emit tens of thousands of tons of CO2. However, under the pretext of human contact but also of communication (even of “buzz”), they multiply without real justification. It is not rare to have three, four or even more conferences of global significance each year on the same theme, each with separate organisers.

    • Organise events that preserve social interaction while limiting travel, and therefore CO2emissions. This is the concept of multiple-site conferences, where regional hub sites are linked together with videoconferencing. In this case the choice of central locations (relative to the expected audience), instead of pleasant but often remote places, would reduce the total distance travelled. Shorter distances also make trains increasingly practical, and in countries where trains operate on low-carbon electricity, they produce much less CO₂ per passenger and kilometre than planes.

    • Virtualise encounters: “no-fly conferences” to which everyone can connect from home. Pilot experiments have been encouraging, and technological developments should allow increasingly sophisticated formats including both official programs (easy to virtualise, including for questions and answers) and informal scheduled or improvised discussion sessions. The latter are less easy to organise, but they will need to be preserved because they contribute to the interest of these events.


    While it might be hoped that teleconferences will gradually replace face-to-face meetings, the two are in fact growing in parallel. This is similar to what is happening with energy: production from renewable sources is rising rapidly, yet fossil-fuel consumption continues to grow.

    The importance of making and maintaining good relationships through direct human contact, and also of efficiency – we work better when we know each other – are good reasons to travel. But not to the point of ignoring the reality of our environmental situation.

    The carbon budget beyond which we risk falling into an uncontrollable climate situation is now estimated at about 800 billion tons of CO₂, a little more than 100 tons for each of the 7.5 billion inhabitants of the planet. Spread over 30 years, this gives an average of 3 tons per year per person. Two transatlantic round-trips in economy class are enough to consume this budget, which we drastically exceed already since the average European emits 9 tons of CO₂ per year.

    The question is no longer just whether to travel less. It is to quantify the carbon footprint of travel, to set reduction targets (which should be transparent regardless of how ambitious they are), and to verify that these are met.

    Better now than later

    The net-zero world soon awaiting us requires carbon abstinence. Air travel is just one aspect; information and communication technology (ICT) is another. This should be organised and adopted without delay, at the risk of being forced upon us later on by worsening conditions. Meeting physically with colleagues who live thousands of miles away is not an inalienable right. Ignoring the science of greenhouse gases and the resulting threat posed to humanity would be irresponsible.

    To continue to emit CO2 that future generations will then have to capture from the atmosphere to guarantee their own survival would be inexcusable. Many research institutions already have policies in place to encourage their members to adopt good practices for occupational risk prevention, data protection and ethical decision-making. Now is the time for institutions to also embrace policy for flight reduction or carbon abstinence. Our collective future depends on it.

    In addition to flying less, you can also fight climate change by donating to Cool Earth, a Kinder-vetted non-profit that is working to protect rainforests 👇

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Xavier Anglaret (Université de Bordeaux), Chris Wymant (University of Oxford), and Kévin Jean (CNAM). You can read the original article here. 

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