K-2 Chapter 1. What is Climate Change and Why Care?

Art by Joana Campinas for ArtistsForClimate.org

Canada’s climate is changing at an accelerated rate: since 1948 Canada’s annual average land temperature has increased by 1.5°C—roughly double the global average level of warming (Natural Resources Canada). “‘It has been clear for decades that the Earth’s climate is changing, and the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed,’ said [IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie] Masson-Delmotte. Yet the new [IPCC] report also reflects major advances in the science of attribution – understanding the role of climate change in intensifying specific weather and climate events such as extreme heat waves and heavy rainfall events” (Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying – IPCC, 2021).  It is true that there are many natural forces that play a role in determining the Earth’s climate (the Earth’s orbit around the sun, changing ocean currents, very large volcanic eruptions and the Earth’s tilt) and there is a great deal of evidence that the world has warmed and cooled in decades before humans existed. However climate changes have never occurred at a pace as rapid or as drastic as we have seen since pre-industrial time, and these changes cannot be explained by any natural phenomena (Prairie Climate Centre). These changes are a cause for concern but, more importantly, they are also a call to action to mitigate current and future effects. 

According to the Council of Canadian Academies’ expert panel on climate change risks and adaptation potential, Canada faces substantial risk with a likelihood of significant losses, damages, or disruptions over a 20 year timeframe in the following areas: agriculture and food; coastal communities; ecosystems; fisheries; forestry; geopolitical dynamics; governance and capacity; human health and wellness; Indigenous ways of life; northern communities; physical infrastructure; and water. If the global community is able to limit the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees, the impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems are expected to be lower. 

Overall, Canadians are quite certain that climate change is happening. According to the national survey Canadians’ Perspectives on Climate Change & Education (2022) conducted by Learning for a Sustainable Future, 81% of all Canadians believe that climate change is happening. However, the population is less certain that humans are the primary cause of the warming climate; only 54% of respondents think that climate change is caused mostly by human activity.  When this understanding is contrasted with the widespread scientific consensus that climate change is primarily caused by the human activity of burning fossil fuels, the urgent need for more comprehensive education on the subject is made clear. The consensus is now essentially unanimous – more than 99.85% of peer-reviewed scientific papers agree that climate change is mainly caused by humans, according to new research published by Lynas et al. (2021) that reviewed 88,125 climate-related studies from 2012 to 2020.

Another finding from the report, Canada, Climate Change and Education: Opportunities for Public and Formal Education, found that 46% of students ages 12-18 are categorized as “aware,” meaning they understand that human-caused climate change is happening, but they do not believe that human efforts to stop it will be effective. This is an opportunity for schools to help students understand that there are strategies and solutions to address climate change if all sectors take action today. 

Greenhouse Effect

According to Let’s Talk Energy, “A greenhouse is used to create a warmer growing environment for plants that would otherwise not survive in the colder conditions outdoors. In a greenhouse, energy from the sun passes through the glass as rays of light. This energy is absorbed by the plants, soil and other objects in the greenhouse. Much of this absorbed energy is converted to heat, which warms the greenhouse. The glass helps keep the greenhouse warm, by preventing the warmed air from escaping.” (Greenhouse Effect, Let’s Talk Energy)

Let’s Talk Science explains that “A blanket of gases called the atmosphere surrounds the Earth. Some of these gases are greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide being the most common greenhouse gas). They trap heat, like the walls of a greenhouse. The greenhouse gases in our atmosphere keep our planet warm enough for us to survive. Not enough greenhouse gases would make the Earth too cold for humans. In fact, without greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, Earth’s average temperature would be -18 degrees Celsius. But, too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere would make the Earth too warm.” (Climate Change 101, Let’s Talk Science, 2021)

“Many greenhouse gases exist naturally. Greenhouse gases cycle through the Earth’s systems. There are greenhouse gas sources and greenhouse gas sinks. Sources are parts of the cycle that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Sinks are parts of the cycle that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Recently, the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has gotten higher. This is because humans have dramatically increased the amount of sources, which now outweigh the sinks.” (Climate Change 101, Let’s Talk Science)

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Climate vs. Weather

The difference between weather and climate is that weather describes an event occurring at a particular time and place (a storm moving in over a city for example), whereas climate describes the typical weather that a location experiences based on the study of weather conditions over long periods of time. An often heard expression is that “climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get.” (Let’s Talk Energy – Climate vs. Weather: A collaborative project with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Ingenium)  

To better understand the difference between climate and weather, watch this video by National Geographic that features Neil Degrasse Tyson.

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