Lately, according to his mom, Jodi Green, Noah has become preoccupied with the climate crisis. He learned about it last year in school during a Greta Thunberg-style rally where students came together to demand swifter action on the global climate emergency, she said.
Ever since, he’s been brimming with questions.
Thank you for that, Noah. And thank you also to the hundreds of you who sent thoughtful questions to us as part of this series. I’ll be responding to them over coming weeks.
Noah, I agree we adults of the world aren’t doing right by you or your future. I share your mother’s concerns about what the weight of the world that’s sitting on your shoulders could do to you. (“I worry about him and all kids,” Green told me recently by phone. “I worry about them getting depressed about [the climate crisis] and giving up on it — feeling hopeless.”) It’s not fair that climate change has become the burden of the young simply because your generation will live on this planet far longer than mine or your mom’s. There’s more we all can do.
I’m going to offer a few specific suggestions knowing full well that none of them is enough but that if effort is thrown behind all of them, from all corners of the world, we can fix this. There is hope. First, though, I want to set up the context of this conversation. I think that will benefit Noah a bit. But this is really for the adults who need to catch up to him — who have not been paying quite as much attention to this issue and the magnitude of this moment.
I’ll do that by way of answering two other questions from readers.
Christopher, from Oklahoma (my home state), asked something I know many adults are wondering: “Can you explain the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming?”
Some of you likely will roll your eyes at this question. Unroll them, please. I’ve met many smart people over the years who never learned, or never fully grasped, the basic mechanics of global warming. It’s always best to define our terms before going any further.
The story begins in the 1850s, when the scientists Eunice Foote and John Tyndall
separately discovered an important property of the gas carbon dioxide: It absorbs heat from the sun. (Foote’s experiments preceded Tyndall’s by three years, but he usually gets the credit because he was an established scientist and because, well, he was a man and the world was and still is sexist). That CO2 absorbs heat and reflects it back to the surface of the planet is a good thing when the atmosphere is in balance. It helps create a livable environment on Earth. But these discoveries hinted at trouble to come as humans began altering the atmosphere.
A century later, Charles David Keeling, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, began measuring
the level of that heat-trapping gas. His finding was frightening: Carbon dioxide was gradually accumulating in the atmosphere. Keeling helped develop what would become a global network of sensors measuring the buildup of carbon dioxide, or CO2.
When those measurements started, in the 1950s, CO2 concentrations were less than 320 parts per million
— levels that had been variable but mostly consistent for hundreds of thousands of years
. (We know that last bit — the hundred-of-thousands-of-years bit — because scientists can tap into and analyze tiny air bubbles trapped inside ancient ice). By 2019, CO2 levels averaged 410 parts per million
. Keeling’s work helped tie that increase
to fossil fuels. Burning coal, oil and gas moves carbon from the ground, where those fuels are stored, into the atmosphere, and gases like CO2 act like a blanket around the planet, heating it up.
OK, so that’s a little context for you. Christopher, you can read more
about the relationship between CO2 and global warming on NASA’s website. Thank you for that question.
Ari, in Miami, asked what needs to change by the year 2030 (the year Noah will turn 18) “in order to achieve a safe and stable climate and future for the world.”
This is a big discussion, but the simplest and best answer comes from a 2018 report
from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-affiliated entity that reviews climate science and, every so often, produces reports that synthesize that knowledge.
To have a reasonable chance of stopping global warming short of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — which is the goal set by the Paris Agreement — then the world needs to cut carbon pollution roughly in half by the year 2030, and then to net zero by 2050.
In 2019, for context, the fossil fuel industry put 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide
into the atmosphere. Carbon emissions are expected to be down about 4% to 7% this year,
according to a May 2020 study published in Nature Climate Change, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has slowed travel and the global economy, along with associated pollution.
Few experts expect those changes to last, though, once the pandemic is over.
Emissions had been climbing until the pandemic.
To meet that 2030 target, global emissions need to decline about 8%
per year beginning this year, according to a 2019 analysis — the “Emissions Gap Report” — from the UN Environment Program. That would require a radical shift in the world economy, which is why you hear activists
and, increasingly, politicians calling
for a shift to clean energy as fast as possible.
So far, the world’s pledges to reduce emissions as part of the Paris Agreement are not enough. Instead of limiting warming to 2 degrees, they would push temperatures near or beyond the 3-degree Celsius mark; that’s a truly scary level of warming. Already we’re seeing the effects of a planet we’ve been heating up for decades. The truth is that all of this talk about the future is a matter of probabilities: The more pollution, the greater risk to us all. Already, humans have contributed to
more than 1 degree Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.
Not enough about the energy system is changing.
Not by a long shot.
OK, Noah. Forgive that detour, please.
Let’s get back to you and your question.
Noah, age 8, in Ontario, wrote: “I want to know what I can do to change the world and make it better for my own children one day. I am looking for specific actions and steps that will help me take control of the situation and fight climate change.”
Let me offer two suggestions.
The first: Do what you can in your personal life — and in your household — to connect your own actions to the global struggle to reduce emissions and stabilize the atmosphere.
That includes eating (or asking your parents to consider letting you eat) more plants and fewer animals. Cattle and lamb, in particular, have an outsize impact on greenhouse gas pollution. (There are plenty of beef alternatives, and eating chicken and pork has less climate impact than beef, by far). It means biking and walking more, driving less. It means limiting air travel, especially across oceans. It means educating yourself — Project Drawdown is a great resource
— about the most effective solutions to the climate crisis, many of which involve governments and energy systems and infrastructure. When you’re old enough, it means voting, and making climate change one of your top priorities as you consider political candidates and parties.
These personal life actions are important, I believe, not because you should feel responsible for the climate crisis — you have nothing to feel guilty about — and not because your actions, on their own, will change the global carbon budget. But I do think these actions are meaningful in that they connect you to the global struggle at hand, which will require so much more than individual actions to fix. I think about the environmentalist Edward Abbey, who wrote
, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” It’s healthy — necessary — to live out the truths you believe in. There’s something powerful and life-affirming about it.
So, do what you can to help. Also: Get outside and enjoy the natural world — enjoy the animals you care about. Celebrate this magical place. Your enthusiasm is infectious.
My second piece of advice is to use your voice. You, along with millions of other young people all around the world, realize truths far too many adults shy away from: The planet is in major trouble; we’ve been messing it up for decades and decades; and the time for change is now.
The truth is that adults are responsible for this mess you’re inheriting; we owe it to you to do more. But that doesn’t change the fact that you do have an important voice, and you can make a real difference. Witness what Greta Thunberg has created with the global Fridays for Future movement. Millions and millions of young people like yourself have been moved by her story.
I know, as I said, this answer is not fully adequate. I promise to keep you in mind as I explore other questions and other aspects of the climate crisis in coming weeks. This theme — what more can we do — came up in dozens of questions from adults and children alike.
I’ll keep coming back to it.
For now, I’ll leave you by saying that you give me hope. Your insight, and caring, outpace many adults. I find it admirable that you love polar bears and seals — that you learn about them from TV — and that you want those species to exist when you’re old enough to have children of your own. I want that, too, and I want humans to be safe from the devastating storms, fires, floods and droughts that continue to intensify as we pump heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
Your name, Noah, carries the story of a Biblical/Quranic figure who built a ship that rescued the world’s animals and people from a flood. I see your warmth and compassion in that story. You mom told me she had that story in mind as she named you. She waited until she met you in the hospital before deciding on that name, which also means peace. “I knew it was right,” she said.
Thank you for asking this question, and for caring.
As you said: “It’s about the future.”