Talking to kids about climate change: top tips to explain causes, effects and solutions
23 December 2020 | Celia Topping
Talking about big issues like climate change with children isn’t easy. Firstly there’s all the technical jargon which can be a bit overwhelming for young ones. Climate change, global warming, the greenhouse effect, deforestation, carbon emissions, carbon footprints – it’s never-ending!
Plus, understanding the reality can seem pretty abstract when much of the world seems to be carrying on as if nothing is wrong. And of course, it’s actually a pretty scary subject to learn about. How can we speak to our kids about it all, without giving them nightmares?
There are 2 things to keep in mind:
- Children love to be active. Encourage them to get involved with ideas and activities that make a difference. Inspire them to be the change!
- Don’t be a doom-monger! You can tell the truth, but make sure you emphasise what’s being done, and what can be done, in a positive way. Don’t dwell on how hopeless it might seem!
Our planet is an amazing place to live – but it needs our future generations’ help to stay that way. That’s why here at OVO, we’ve been working on putting together the best resources for kids to learn about climate change – and for parents and teachers to show kids how to take action!
Simplify the basics for kids: what is global warming?
Explaining the science behind what’s happening doesn’t have to be complicated. Break it down into easily digestible chunks.
You could explain that the air around us, surrounding Planet Earth, is called the atmosphere. The atmosphere is like a blanket, protecting us from the harshest rays of the sun, and the coldness of space. It also traps enough warmth from the sun to keep the Earth at a pleasant temperature.
This ‘blanket’ is made up of different gases. It contains oxygen, the gas our bodies need to survive. There are lots of other gases too, such as carbon dioxide – known as greenhouse gases.
They’re called greenhouse gases because they trap warmth inside the Earth’s atmosphere, just like a greenhouse.
For a long time, there was a perfect balance of these gases, making all life on Earth possible. Just enough heat gets trapped in the Earth's atmosphere to keep it warm. And, at the same time, just enough heat escapes back out into space, so that the Earth doesn’t get too hot.
But, about 150 years ago things changed. We began burning enormous amounts of coal, natural gas and oil. These are fossil fuels, which are found below ground. We managed to find a way to dig these out of the Earth, and burn them to make energy that could power light bulbs and machines.
Unfortunately, when fossil fuels are burned, they release lots of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide. That perfect balance was ruined. Too much greenhouse gas causes problems – it adds another layer to the ‘blanket’, trapping more heat. This causes the Earth to get hotter, and this is called global warming.
Activity #1 to teach kids about climate change
Wrap your child up in a sheet (head out, make sure they can breathe!). Explain to them that this is like the atmosphere, keeping the Earth at the right temperature inside.
Then put a blanket/duvet around them. See how much hotter they become after a minute or so. This nicely illustrates how an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases the warmth of the Earth.
Simplify the basics for kids: what is climate change?
Global warming, caused by more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, is leading to changes in our climate. And it’s not just that some places are getting hotter. All sorts of natural processes here on Earth are also being affected.
So what do we mean by climate?
Before you have a go at explaining what climate change is, it's important to make the difference clear between weather and climate.
Weather changes every day. Whereas climate is the average pattern of weather conditions - like how hot or cold it is, or how rainy it is – over a long period of time. For example, in the UK, we have 4 distinct seasons, and it's warmer in summer than it is in winter. The climate in other parts of the world is different.
For example, in central Africa, it’s hot most of the time – but in the Arctic, it’s cold all the time. These countries have different climates to ours. So when we talk about the climate changing, that doesn’t mean that you get an odd day here or there when it feels a bit hotter than usual. Instead, it means more hot days, more often, over a long period of time.
So what exactly is climate change?
Climate change describes the change in Earth’s climate (those average patterns of weather conditions). The climate changes we’re feeling today are due to global warming. This causes all sorts of problems, including:
- Heatwaves and droughts – some places will get hotter and drier. Dried-out land means farmers can’t grow as many crops, which means less food for us and animals.
- Ice and glaciers melting – at the north and south poles it’s very cold, with lots of ice on the sea and land. As temperatures rise, the ice melts. All that extra water from melted ice flows into the sea, causing sea levels to rise. This causes flooding in low areas next to the sea.
- Stronger storms and hurricanes – when the earth is hotter, the flow of air in our atmosphere and water in our oceans changes. This can make a big difference to weather events like storms or hurricanes. Global warming means that storms and hurricanes are becoming stronger, and happen more often.
- Wildfires – when forests get very dry, they can catch fire in direct sunlight. This fire spreads extremely quickly, and is difficult to put out. So as forests get hotter and drier due to climate change, big wildfires are more likely.
The Earth’s climate is always changing – and it always has done, even long before humans first appeared. But scientists have seen that climate changes in the last 150 years or so have been unnaturally quick. Much quicker than other changes.
And they’re happening all over the world, rather than just in one place. When the climate changes quickly, the knock-on impacts are much worse. Humans, animals and plants can’t adapt quickly enough.
So why is climate change happening so unusually fast at the moment?
Explaining climate change for kids: Causes
Let’s find out a bit more about the impact of human activities on global warming, which leads to climate change. Human activities in the last 150 years have led to much higher amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.
These are called greenhouse gas emissions (or carbon emissions, if we’re talking about just the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide). More greenhouse gases equals more global warming. And more global warming equals more and faster climate change. Here are the three main causes we’re responsible for:
- Burning fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal are made from fossils of animals and plants buried in the earth, which have broken down over millions of years. Burning them releases lots of energy – which we harness to power all sorts of machines, gadgets and appliances. But it also releases carbon dioxide, also known as CO2.
- Farming – farming animals uses a lot of space and energy. And so does growing the food they eat. And, then, of course, they fart, and burp. A lot. Imagine, 1.5 billion cows farting and burping! That means a lot of methane – another greenhouse gas. Telling kids about this might raise a giggle or two. That’s ok – bringing in a little humour makes the subject less scary, more engaging, and certainly more memorable!
- Deforestation – Trees are super-important in the fight against climate change, because they absorb carbon dioxide out of the air. And when they’re cut down, they release it. Deforestation is the cutting down of millions of trees across the world. Why? For timber, and to clear land for farming – or to grow crops like palm oil (which is used in everything from pizza to shampoo!). Forests are also cleared to make way for roads, buildings, oil mines and dams. Much deforestation is done illegally.
Activity #2 to teach kids about climate change
Make a list together of things in your home that use electricity to work, heat something up or cool something down. In most cases, the energy they use is created by burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon emissions – which causes climate change. Then read on below, to find out how to go green at home, in 16 easy ways.
So, what are adults doing to help stop climate change?
Time to stop with the doom and gloom, and show your child the positive steps being taken to help stop climate change. It’s important for children to know that climate change is being taken seriously by people in power – and that big changes are being made worldwide, to help make a difference.
Explain how politicians and businesses are making important decisions about how to stop climate change. Here are some of the steps they’re taking:
- Governments from nations all over the world have agreed to limit global warming by reducing carbon emissions. In 2015, they all signed what's known as the Paris Agreement to make this promise. Talk to your kids about how our world leaders have agreed, and are beginning to take action.
- Here in the UK, our prime minister has announced a 10-point green plan to help us lower our carbon emissions in areas like energy, heating and transportation. You can explain to your kids that the people in charge are making changes to lower the amount of carbon we produce in our day-to-day lives.
- A lot of our carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels to generate energy – but this is starting to change. Explore some of the renewable energy technologies being used instead – including green energy such as wind turbines, solar power, tidal power and biomass.
- The upcoming ban on new petrol and diesel cars means that vehicles using fossil fuels inside their engines are being phased out. You can explain a bit about electric cars, and how they’ll change our roads, and air, forever.
- The forthcoming ban on gas boilers by the mid 2030s in order to meet emission targets. 78% of British homes are heated by gas boilers. Gas is a fossil fuel, so banning their use and replacing them with electric heat pumps and other solutions, will cut carbon emissions.
- Governments and action groups are trying to limit deforestation. Emphasise how amazing trees are, and the importance of planting trees. See how OVO has teamed up with the Woodland Trust and The Conservation Volunteers to plant more trees in the UK.
What can kids do to help stop climate change?
Now’s the time to really get down to the nitty gritty with your child. Explain how there’s still time for them to do something positive, by taking ACTION! Start trying to think together about what you can do, right now, to help stop climate change.
Focus on the small things that they can personally do. Children feel empowered by knowing they can make a difference every day, through their direct actions.
Making changes in your own daily actions – from how you use electricity, to what you buy and eat – is also a great place to start.
Check out our 16 easy ways to go green at home (below). And if your child is a bit older, and feels passionate about protecting our planet, read more about how our charity, the OVO Foundation is empowering children and young people in the UK to take action on climate change:
- Action for Conservation – encouraging children, aged 11-17, from less-advantaged areas to gain the skills and knowledge to work on environmental improvements projects. They’re our next generation of nature conservationists!
- Energy Sparks – helping school children learn energy-saving skills that not only have a real impact on climate change, but that they can take home and teach to their families and friends. Over the next 3 years, we’ll help 350 schools ditch 6,000 tonnes of CO2, and save £1.9m in energy costs.
- Earthwatch – building 12 Tiny Forests (sites of 200m2 of land, with 600 trees per site) in deprived areas of the UK. These forests will be used by teachers as incredible outdoor classrooms, to teach children about the environment and sustainability. Each forest absorbs 450-600 kg of carbon after 4 years of planting – which means our Tiny Forests will absorb up to 7,200 kg of CO2
16 easy ways to get everyone involved in going green at home
Emphasise again the steps that lead to climate change:
- Using less energy
- Burning fewer fossil fuels
- Lowering carbon emissions
- Reducing global warming
- Slowing climate change
Explore changes your family could make at home to reduce your carbon emissions:
- The three big turn-offs! Turn off lights when you’re not in the room. Turn off taps while you’re brushing your teeth. Turn off appliances at the wall.
- The four R’s! Refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. Look at ways you can reduce the amount of stuff you buy. Especially stuff that will immediately get thrown away, like single-use plastic. Ask your child to help sort out and recycle the waste in your home.
- Walk or cycle to school at least once or twice a week. Walking 1 mile instead of getting in the car could save almost 150kg of carbon dioxide over a year. That’s the same as planting 4 trees, to grow for 10 years!
- We’ve seen how animal farming causes deforestation and methane emissions. If we all ate less meat and more plants, those emissions would be reduced. So why not try a meat-free Monday?
- Cook some veggie meals with your children. And they’ll love making these no-cook raw sesame seed bars instead of buying pre-packaged snack bars.
- If you have a garden, try growing some veggies with your kids to inspire their love for plant-based food. And if not, the National Trust has some advice on growing herbs on your window ledge.
- We know that palm oil that isn’t produced sustainably causes deforestation – a major cause of climate change. It’s said that up to 50% of products contain palm oil. Find out what they are with your kids, and see if you can cut some of them out of your supermarket shop.
- Help your child to love plants – they’re our best allies in the fight against the climate crisis. Ficus plants are well known for their purifying air qualities, by absorbing greenhouse gases out of the air. Choose one with your child and teach them how to care for it. For more information about the best trees to plant at home, read our practical guide.
- Sharing is caring. The less new stuff we buy, the fewer carbon emissions are released to make it – so emphasise the importance of using 2nd hand clothes, books and toys – and organise a bring n’ buy sale in your street.
- Encourage meaningful, sustainable shopping with eco-friendly products and less packaging.
- Highlight the importance of saving energy at home. Don’t turn the heating up, put a jumper on!
- Nurture your child's love for the planet by getting out into nature and showing that you care about the state of our environment. Maybe plan a clean-up day with friends and family in your local woods, park, or on the beach.
- If your child is concerned about climate change and old enough to write a letter, help them write to your MP. Ask them to take stronger action to slow down climate change.
- Encourage your child to talk about what they’ve learned about climate change to friends and family. Let them know that fighting the climate crisis is important. Discuss further action you can take together.
- There are hundreds of kids climate action groups. Find one in your area. Help save the planet and make new friends at the same time!
- Go to your local library and look at inspiring books together. Empower the young climate activist in your family!
Also, did you know that fewer than a third of us actually realise that wasting food contributes massively to climate change? Find out how food waste is damaging the environment and what we can do to stop it in our new guide.
Activities to teach kids about climate change
Inspiring kids with fun, motivational activities is the best way to get them involved. Here are some more resources, to help you and your family understand more about climate change, and get active!
- Join National Geographic Kids in their Climate Change Challenge. See what the World Wildlife Fund has to offer, with their stimulating resources
- Get involved with NASA’s Climate Kids, for loads of fun games, activities and videos
Don’t forget, you can learn from your kids too. Climate change is an issue that will impact our kids’ generation more than ours – so support them in their ideas. Help them make their voices heard. Remember it was Greta that drove the Fridays for Future global climate strike movement, not her parents!
And remember, your actions speak louder than words. Your actions make an everyday impact on how your child interacts with the world. Show them that you care about protecting the Earth, with your daily routines.
If you have a pet in your family, you can also look at ways to reduce your pet's carbon pawprint!
Here are 120 more tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint around the home. Talk to your child about what you’re doing and why. And get them involved with 22 carbon-friendly activities, watch a documentary about climate change, and find more ways to help save the planet together.
Also, simply by switching to OVO, you can:
- Cut your carbon footprint, as we use only 100% renewable electricity
- Have trees planted every year in your name.
- Earn 3-5% Interest Rewards
- Fight carbon, plant more trees, and protect rainforests – with our green upgrade, OVO Beyond
Join us today, and find out so much more about how you and your family can start cutting your carbon footprint!
Sources and references
1 The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on REGO certificates and how these work.
2 Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.
3 Interest Rewards are paid on credit balances of customers paying by monthly Direct Debit. It is calculated at 3% in your first year, 4% in your second year and 5% in your third year (and every year thereafter) if you pay by Direct Debit. Interest Rewards are paid monthly based on the number of days you’re in credit and the amount left in your account after you’ve paid your bill. Full terms apply.
4 By providing 100% carbon neutral gas (15% green gas and 85% offset) and offsetting all associated lifecycle carbon emissions involved in the production and consumption of your energy, OVO Beyond reduces your yearly carbon emissions from the energy used in your home to net zero. The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates and how these work. The green gas we sell is backed via renewable certificates (Renewable Gas Guarantees of Origin (RGGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Gas Guarantees of Origin and how these work. We offset the remaining emissions by supporting UN-led REDD+ carbon reduction projects that are certified to the Verified Carbon Standard or the Gold Standard. See here for more information on how we restore nature and protect rainforests with our offsetting programmes.