'Are a cow's farts the worst for the planet?' Children's climate questions answered

What are young people most worried about? We put their queries to the experts

How long until the climate crisis causes irreversible damage?

Ewoenam Tetteh and Faith Otasowie, both 15, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex

You are obviously both smart and thoughtful kids, so I will be blunt and tell you that climate change is already causing big changes in our world. You can see this in the melting of the ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctica, in the rising temperatures in cities around the world, in the changes in how much rain we get, and, perhaps most importantly, in the extinction of many plants and animals that are not able to adapt.

One of the most important ideas to grasp about climate change is that it is not a future event: it is happening now, in real time, and those changes will only accelerate in the coming years and decades unless we radically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere (mostly from burning fossil fuels). That’s why we must take action now.

Are the changes we are seeing irreversible? That depends on how you think about it. For example, scientists know that ice sheets have come and gone many times in our planet’s history, driven mostly by slight wobbles in the Earth’s orbit that change the amount of sunlight hitting the planet (other factors, such as the eruption of volcanoes, have also played a role). So the ice sheets we are losing today will, in all likelihood, grow back some time in the distant future. But we’re talking millions of years.

On the other hand, when a particular kind of frog becomes extinct because it cannot adapt to our rapidly warming world, it is lost for ever. We humans are pretty smart and capable creatures, so I don’t worry that we’ll figure out ways to adapt. And maybe we’ll even figure out ways to make it a better world.

But it will be a whole lot easier – for us and for every living thing on the planet – if we take action now to minimise those changes, both today and in the future. I really like the world we live in, and I’m sure you do, too. It is a beautiful place. Let’s fight to keep it that way.

Jeff Goodell, author of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, And The Remaking Of The Civilized World

Which animal farts are the worst for the environment? Shark, cow, otter or something else?

Sasha Dutta, eight, London

Scientists have published a surprising amount of work relating to animal farts and our climate. It has been hypothesised that large dinosaurs (the sauropods) may have changed the Earth’s climate with their farts. Sharks are rarely seen farting. But like sheep and goats, cows are a type of ruminant – that is, they have four stomachs. This means a lot of methane, one of the gases that causes the worst warming. One cow can produce up to 200kg of methane a year. Most of it is released as burps, but some certainly escapes out of the rear end, too! Because humans eat so much beef and milk, there are an awful lot of cows in the world, and their burping and farting causes a sizable contribution to our greenhouse gas emissions, making up nearly a third of all emissions from agriculture, by some estimates. This certainly makes them a strong contender for the animal with the farts that do the most damage to the planet (even if their burps are worse).

• Dani Rabaiotti, environmental scientist and co-author of True or Poo?, Quercus, £8.99

Why don’t many politicians address the climate crisis and give us ways to help?

Georgia Robinson, 15, Poole, Dorset

Well, the good news is that nearly all politicians in this country accept that climate change is happening and that it’s caused by human activities; almost all political parties have now accepted that we face a climate emergency. This is an amazing change from just a few years ago, and it’s happened because of people like the climate strikers.

But declaring an emergency and being prepared to take the necessary steps to address it are not the same thing, and politicians – especially those in government – don’t match their words with actions. For example, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, was championing the expansion of Heathrow airport at exactly the same time as apparently agreeing that there’s a climate crisis – in spite of the fact that air travel is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the problems is that most politicians won’t accept that we need a very different economic model, one that recognises that continuous growth isn’t possible on a planet with limited resources. We need to change our idea of what success looks like, so that instead of being obsessed by money, we measure human wellbeing and the health of our natural environment.

There are also vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Too many powerful corporations benefit from the way things are now, and many give large donations to political parties, asking politicians to resist taking action.

The good news is that ideas such as the Green New Deal are getting more support, as people recognise that investment in a green economy provides decent jobs and a better quality of life, as well as a more secure future. The role of young people in keeping up the pressure is vital – your generation is making a real difference. But we don’t have much time.

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, was elected as the UK’s first Green MP in 2010

If someone doesn’t believe in the climate crisis, what can I do to help them see it?

Olivia Liddell, 14, Hemel Hempstead, Herts

People who don’t see climate change can be frustrating because the scientific facts are so clear. But, as you’ve probably discovered, facts don’t always help people see the reality. If anything, bombarding people with facts makes them more sceptical and argumentative. So, what else can you do? Here are three things.

First, it’s really important to acknowledge the other person’s good nature, and to identify common ground and shared values – areas where you have agreement. Just because someone doesn’t believe in climate change, it doesn’t make them a bad person. You probably both care about things like family and other people. Affirming shared values reduces the feeling of being attacked; being argumentative rarely succeeds.

Second, invite people to think about their legacy – how their grandchildren and future generations will react to their actions (or inactions). If they are willing to acknowledge even a small chance that climate change is real, don’t they want to be on the right side of the argument?

Finally, be really clear that climate change matters to you, that you are personally worried about it, and that you are asking them to help address it because you are scared. Friends, family and others are much more willing to help when they realise something is important to someone they love, even when they may disagree about the facts.

How can we use technology to stop the climate crisis?

Daisy Furmston and Chloe Nolan, both 14, Hemel Hempstead

An overflowing bath
Imagine the tub is the world’s atmosphere, the water is carbon dioxide, and the tap is running. Photograph: Ragnar Schmuck/Getty Images/fStop

This is a great question. Think about your bathtub at home. Imagine the tub is the world’s atmosphere, the water is carbon dioxide, and the tap is running. If we leave it on, eventually the tub will overflow and cause great damage to the house. The same is true of emissions. If we continue to emit CO2 at the current rate, we are going to see catastrophic consequences.

So, how do we solve this problem? The first and most obvious thing is to turn down the tap – ie reduce our emissions. The good news is, there are a number of great minds working on technological solutions – from renewable energy to electric vehicles – to do just that.

However, the bathtub is still full of too much water – the air is already full of CO2 at dangerous levels – and if we cannot turn the tap off completely, the tub is going to overflow. So, we are also going to need to pull the plug – and that means removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

This may sound impossible, but it isn’t. My company has developed a technology called direct air capture that removes CO2 using large fans to pull air through a filter that has a liquid capture chemical flowing over it. That chemical binds to the CO2, removing it from the air, and then we purify and compress it.

After that, we can bury it permanently, injecting CO2 into rock formations deep underground. This means we create something called “negative emissions”; by doing this, we will be able to bring our global emissions down to zero at a much faster rate. Eventually, these facilities will be key to reducing the level of CO2 in the air back to safe levels.

• Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian-based clean energy company

Is it possible to completely reverse the effects of global warming? If it is, how long would it take?

Dorian Kopij, 15, Rochester, Kent

Good question. We always thought that the answer is that it would take many centuries, because climate science has generally assumed that levels of CO2 will remain in the atmosphere for a very long time: that global heating is essentially locked in. We are now seeing a real awakening, by scientists, organisations and activists about how to draw carbon down from the atmosphere. We can do this by using both natural techniques, such as planting more trees, and newer technologies that can filter CO2 from the air. So then the question is: can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to very small and manageable levels, and remove significant amounts of carbon in time to avoid runaway climate change, which could occur within 10-12 years?

Whatever the answer to that is, we must do everything we possibly can sooner than we think we can, and more brilliantly and imaginatively than we think possible. “Drawdown” is the name for the point when emissions peak and then begin to go down on a year-to-year basis. But even if we achieve this aim, most people think that there would be at least a 20-year lag time before temperatures start to measurably go down.

There’s always the danger that if we take too long, warming will have increased to the point where melting ice emits methane, creating yet more temperature rises. The planet is then warming itself without humans doing anything to make it happen. In that case, all bets are off.

Paul Hawken is editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed To Reverse Global Warming

What can ordinary schoolchildren like me do to help?

Elizabeth Kelly, 14, Hemel Hempstead

You can be very powerful when it comes to action, as -: Greta Thunberg has showned the world the power of ordinary schoolkids. This is because climate breakdown will hurt younger generations the most, and you have done the least to cause it. Most adults realise this at some level, even though they aren’t doing much to stop climate breakdown, yet. Most of us recognise our moral obligation to leave children a decent future, which obviously includes a decent planet.

The main thing ordinary schoolchildren should do is find ways for your voices to be heard, loud and clear. We need everyone to wake up and realise how serious this is. Climate striking every Friday is a great start. If you get in trouble with your school, it gives you a good reason to talk to the media: your voice gets louder. Because what’s more important – staying out of detention or having a livable planet? This takes courage, it’s true, but I think we find courage in ourselves when we have a great need. And there’s no greater need than stopping climate breakdown.

Other things you can do include:

1. Find groups of people who already understand the seriousness of climate breakdown, and get involved.

2. Talk about climate breakdown with your friends, parents, teachers, the news media.

3. Learn about it so you can answer questions.

4. Try out creative new ways to express the urgency, beyond school striking.

5. Reduce your own fossil fuel use. “Walking the talk” makes you authentic and empowered.

Peter Kalmus, climate scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab and author of Being The Change: Live Well And Spark A Climate Revolution

Is there a funny side to the climate crisis?

Stanley Booth, 12, Leighton Buzzard, Beds

Allow me to start with a joke: If we don’t reduce emissions, the future will be like the film Waterworld – terrible.

It’s important that we learn to laugh for two reasons. First, the climate crisis is here to stay, even if we do start to fix it soon. And humour can be a coping mechanism. It can help us deal with a problem that is so overwhelming it makes us feel small, depressed or futile. You have to laugh or you’ll cry, basically. We need to find ways to survive the grief and the loss of so many things we currently take for granted.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I believe that laughter is an excellent way of reaching wider audiences and engaging people who are less interested in the topic. Comedy makes people more open to new ideas. So humour can also be used to get the message across. Laughter has a strong social function in bonding groups of people together and also helps make the message more relatable.

I know this because I’m both a climate researcher and a standup comedian. I do serious science stuff during the day, but then tell jokes about the climate at night. Talking about climate change using comedy helps me think about it in a different way, and to communicate in a simpler manner. I think more scientists should try it.

And, just so you know, I fully support the school strikers. I’m just annoyed that they didn’t call it the minors’ strike.

Matt Winning’s show, It’s The End Of The World As We Know, is part of the Edinburgh festival fringe. His podcast, Operation Earth, airs this summer

What is the biggest thing we do daily, without realising, that contributes to the climate crisis?

Jemima Lett, 15, Poole

There are many ways that we contribute to climate change through our daily activities, often without realising it. It can be interesting to do a personal greenhouse gas inventory. Do you eat a plant-rich diet, take short showers, walk, bike, or take public transport to school, buy used clothes, repair broken appliances, hang your clothes to dry, and avoid air travel? You can find carbon calculators on the internet that help you to work out the impact of your behaviours.

However, the biggest thing that most of us do that contributes to climate change is to assume that what we do does not really matter. We underestimate our own capacity to contribute to a sustainable world. We tend, instead, to assume that things just have to be the way that they are.

It’s easy to forget that you can inspire your friends, parents, school and community to try alternatives, such as providing vegetarian options, improving public transport options, investing in renewable energies, and so on. Or that you can also engage in politics, and work with others for climate justice and sustainability. The potential for each of us to contribute to a fair, sustainable and thriving world is huge. We don’t always realise it, but we matter more than we think.

Karen O’Brien, professor at the University of Oslo and co-founder of cchange.no, a website aiming to give people knowledge, skills, and tools to make ethical transformation

With thanks to Poole high school, Dorset; St Bernard’s high school, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex; John F Kennedy Catholic school, Hemel Hempstead, Herts, and the Guardian Education Centre.

• If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).

• This article was amended on 19 August 2019 to clarify that Paul Hawken is the editor of Drawdown, not the author as stated in an earlier version.

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