Is it too late? Young climate strikers questions answered

An interdisciplinary team of climate researchers from the Priestley International Centre for Climate attended the Leeds Youth Strike for Climate on 15 February 2019 with a stall called ‘Ask a Climate Researcher’. The team answered people’s questions face to face, and we also collected and logged the questions so that we could provide answers for other young people who might have similar questions.

If you have climate change questions you want answered, please email us.

The science and the impacts

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

The “12 years to save the Earth”  message came from media headlines about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, which said that CO2 emissions need to fall by 45% by 2030 (12 years from when the report was released in 2018), in order for to stay within 1.5 degrees of additional warming above mid-19th century levels.

The planet is going to last a long time and will survive human-caused climate change – but the consequences for living creatures at temperature rises above 1.5°C will be devastating: at 2°C virtually all corals will die and almost a third of the world’s population will be exposed to extreme heat waves at least once every 20 years and the risk of floods increases by 170% (see this explainer from WWF and this interactive chart by Carbon Brief showing and comparing climate impacts at 1.5°C, 2°C and 3°C+).

When is the point of no ability to fix anything?

Scientists have identified possible “tipping points” where beyond a certain temperature limits ice sheets may melt away, leading to centuries of sea-level rise or species becoming extinct. The exact temperature thresholds at which these occur is debatable, which is why we need to do everything we can do avoid every fraction of a degree of temperature rise possible.

When are we all gonna die?

Climate change is already contributing to the sixth mass extinction: a report by WWF found populations of wildlife have reduced 60% between 1970 and 2014, and although not all of these losses are driven by climate change, climate change likely played a role. Human extinction it is not expected, but we have to learn to live with a warmer world and cope, which means co-operating and providing support and resources to the vulnerable.

Is it too late?

The effects of climate change are detectable already, but will get worse the longer we allow temperatures to rise. It is not too late to prevent some of the very worst effects of climate change if we start now and take rapid action; if we don’t, more people will die and almost everyone will experience a lower quality of life, in addition to widespread loss of species and the destruction of the living world.

What are the main sources of greenhouse gases?

Fossil fuels (from power generation, heating our homes, large industrial operations, cars, airplanes and shipping) are the main sources of emissions. Cows and sheep burp a lot of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas, while fertilizer use produces nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas.

When and how will we feel climate impact?

We are already detecting the impacts of climate change in the UK, like the increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events (heat waves and flooding), as well as food shortages and effects on food production; climate change in other parts of the world will also affect the availability and prices of the food we import. Increased frequency of extreme weather and damaging effects on food and water supplies will make some parts of the world very hard to live in, and as a result we will find that climate refugees may need to find elsewhere to live.

How realistic is the threat of ocean currents shutting down because of an influx of polar fresh water?

Recent research has shown that important currents in the Atlantic Ocean are weakening. There is evidence that sudden changes in the Atlantic currents have affected our climate in the past, and climate models predict a further weakening of the North Atlantic current with increasing temperature – however, we currently think that a complete shutdown is extremely unlikely.

What actions can be taken to tackle climate change?

What are the main things to tackle climate change and what are their advantages / disadvantages?   

We will have to change the things we buy, what we eat, how much and how we travel and commute, and what we produce (and how). All of this requires rapid and brave action at all levels of society, but if we do it right it can improve our lives, wellbeing and our communities in many ways.  

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

No single policy will end climate change but the most effective would be to quickly phase out unabated fossil fuel use. There are many different policy approaches: an important one for the UK is improving the quality of our homes in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect us from climate change. It’s important that all policies are implemented in a way that creates good jobs and strengthens communities.

What can I do in my house and my life?

The most common things that have a big impact on climate change are: long-haul, or frequent, flights; car travel; meat-heavy diets; gas heating, and electricity from coal or gas; money invested in fossil fuel companies and creating lots of waste (especially food, but also clothing, plastics, electronic devices). The important thing is to change whatever you can, and demand that it  becomes easier to do the right thing, so write to your MP – and remember that your actions can inspire others, so think about creating alternatives yourself, such as community gardening and sharing schemes.

What is the single best thing I could do to help the climate?

Find out what your environmental footprint is – the amount of carbon emissions and impact your family’s lifestyle is responsible for – using this simple questionnaire. Then follow the recommended actions to help you and your family reduce it.

What’s the most useful thing people can do now to stop climate change?

That depends on their  lifestyle, age and income (wealthy people have a much bigger carbon footprint; an Oxfam report found that the richest 10% are responsible for around half of global emissions while the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions). For many of us, the most useful thing would be flying less (have more UK-based holidays!) – but also eating less meat and reducing food waste, driving less (preferably going car-free) and walking and cycling more, getting energy with a 100% renewable tariff and turning down thermostats in our homes.

What can we do to make a difference?

Individual actions are important (see above), but we won’t get far enough to make a real difference without collective action resulting in structural changes to the economy and society as well, because those systems are so still closely tied to the use of fossil fuels. Use your voice (and your vote, when you’re old enough) to advocate for change:  it starts with talking to your friends, classmates and family – try these tips from YouTuber ClimateAdam!

What are green jobs?

Any job can be a green job, if you do it right! Most people think of green jobs as being about wind turbines or solar panels, but green jobs can also be working for charities or being a childminder or a farmer (or a climate scientist, of course!). See some great examples of green jobs and read about why they are so important for the future of young people and the economy.  

Communicating the climate emergency and collective action

How effective are these demonstrations?

There has been huge engagement with the Youth Strikes for Climate, starting discussions and building momentum among all sorts of people and organisations – just look at the number of of climate strikes taking place around the world on 15 March! They are most effective when they are aligned with other actions, for example writing to your MP or lobbying councillors to ask for specific changes that are within their power to achieve.

Will people protest in the future? Will the decision makers listen?

Organisers of the school strikes say they will keep holding them until there is concerted political action and change. Lots of local authorities around the UK are declaring a climate emergency and setting ambitious new climate targets; young voices have helped to achieve this. Greta Thunberg, who started the school strikes for climate, is talking to world leaders and telling them to act on scientists’ findings and some are listening: after meeting her, EU President Jean-Claude Juncker promised the EU would spend a quarter of its budget on climate action over seven years.

Is there any way of gathering data on the impact of demonstrations? :

You could get data for the number of mentions of the climate strikes in the news, and from social media analytics and you could also see if there’s any public opinion polls (or conduct your own local survey?). The test for impact, though, is whether it produces change: are politicians talking about it (search Hansard) and are policy changes being made? After the first Youth Strike for Climate, a debate was held in the House of Commons, but very few politicians came; however there’s been a bigger impact in some other countries like Belgium, where the demonstrations have put climate change on the mainstream political agenda.

How can we best communicate to people the different behaviours related to climate change (eg eating less meat, reducing plastic)? People get confused.

One of the best ways to communicate about behaviour change is to emphasise the positive – if people think they are missing out, or are made to feel guilty, they won’t want to change carbon-hungry habits, but if they hear that other people feel happier and healthier because they are eating less meat or walking to school, it’s an incentive for them to try it.  To avoid confusion about what things make a difference to your climate impact, the WWF  questionnaire breaks your environmental footprint down into four sections (travel, food, stuff and home), making it easier to identify your personal ‘big ticket’ items. Scientists at the University of Oxford have made a great climate change food calculator, which shows the impact dietary choices make.

How can we stop the seeming distrust of science and fact?

This is a huge subject and goes far beyond climate change. Distrust can come from not wanting to deal with “threatening” messages that challenge how people see the world, especially their political views. Facts alone often won’t change people’s minds but optimistic messages, achievable goals and connecting change with things that people value can help create common ground. Science education, so that you understand how the world works, is really important (recent polls show that former climate deniers in America are starting to change their minds as they get better informed). It’s important to get your information from reputable sources, not just social media.

How can we influence politicians on climate change?

Get to know your local politicians and find the ones who are already supportive of climate issues. Show them you care (MPs judge this by the amount of letters they recieve) and provide them with the tools and resources for them to convince their voters (see the Climate Coalition Show the Love campaign for materials and inspiration.) It helps to know how politicians think: a study by Rebecca Willis for Green Alliance gives really useful insights and approaches.

How can I get in touch with other people in Leeds to who want to work together to take action?

There’s a Leeds for Climate Facebook group that has been started up for just that purpose! And, hot off the press, there’s also now a Leeds for Climate website where you can find out and share information on climate action in the Leeds area. There’s also the Leeds Climate Commission, which posts news and information about  actions the city is taking on climate change.

Can you get climate researchers into schools to teach about the climate crisis – especially schools that are  threatening detention for pupils who attend the protest.

We think it would be a really good idea to do this and we are looking at how we might produce resources for schools to use in assemblies. Researchers are keen to get involved in schools (it’s also good for them to get to talk to young people about climate change). We think it’s really important to have more climate science education – which is why we are making a start here by answering students’ questions!

Read more in depth answers to some of the above questions in this article by Dr Chris Smith in The Conversation

Image: Priestley Centre researchers at Leeds Town Hall at the Youth Strike for Climate (photo: Kate Lock)