Felicity Liggins, Education Outreach Manager
The Met Office Education Outreach team delivers in in-person and virtual events all over the UK and beyond. One of the best things about these events are the brilliant questions young people ask us. Alongside the queries about extreme weather and how much do clouds weigh, they also want to know more about climate change and what they can do to help. Sometimes these questions are fairly easy to answer, other times, they are really tricky!
We decided to use the opportunity of the Met Office Climate Science Conference, held online in May 2021, to crowd-source some answers to the six most common questions from the experts in the virtual room. Have a look below at some of the suggestions they made – they’re short and snappy as they only had 250 characters to play with. Perhaps you’d answer it slightly differently? Or perhaps you want to borrow that answer the next time you get questioned by an 11-year old!
Q: What is a dangerous level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere?
A: We need there to be a balance of gases for plants, animals and humans to live healthily, so some carbon dioxide is important. However, the more we adjust this finely tuned balance with more CO2, the more dangerous it might be for humans and animals.
A: CO2 in the atmosphere is like a blanket that helps to keep the world warm – like the blanket on your bed at night. If there’s too much CO2, it’s like a blanket that’s too thick, and the world gets too warm – like you getting too hot in your bed.
Q: What skills do you need to work in climate science or related jobs?
A: Curiosity! Climate science is a really big subject which involves everything from complex calculations to creating pictures and writing stories. If you’re interested in climate change and helping people prepare for the future, there’s a job for you!
A: You need to be curious about the world around you. Different jobs need different skills, so there is a place for everyone to use their own skills in various ways. If you’re good at maths or coding, great. If you’re good with people, that’s great too.
Q: What can a 7-year-old do that could have the biggest impact on climate change?
A: Learn as much as you can and talk to everyone you know about climate change. Talk to your parents, your teachers, your friends, and your politicians and make them care about it as much as you do. Eat less meat, walk everywhere, and save energy!
A: You’re already doing great – keep being curious and learning about climate change. You can try walking to school or eating more plants. Make sure to talk to your friends and family about what you’re doing – maybe they’ll make changes too!
Q: What is the greatest threat posed by climate change?
A: Climate change will affect everything and everyone that we care about so the greatest threat is us not doing absolutely everything that we can to limit the changes caused by the world heating and plan for the changes we cannot now stop.
A: Climate change will have different impacts around the world. In some areas the greatest threat will be too little water, in other areas it will be too much water. We need to work together to tackle climate change and reduce threats globally.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: Hope comes from people like you [young people] taking action. It’s your generation that will be most affected, and your children, so it’s important you keep it up. It’s also encouraging that world leaders are working hard to come up with solutions.
A: Thanks to scientists from around the world we have a good idea of how the climate might change in the future. We already have a lot of the technology need to tackle this challenge. Humans have risen up to challenges in the past, let’s tackle this one
Q: Is it too late to help?
A: It is absolutely not too late! When we all come together, talk about the science and the solutions, and when we are all our best selves there is no limit to what we can do. There are many solutions still to be thought of so every one of us can help.
A: No! Because of the CO2 already in the atmosphere we are already committed to a certain amount of warming, however by stopping emissions of greenhouse gases now we can prevent any more warming, and avoid even worse impacts from climate change.
But it’s not just young people who ask great questions. Here are some of those that were posed by participants during the Young People’s Questions Session, answered by Felicity.
Q: How do you talk about potentially scary subjects (e.g., climate change) to children, especially young ones, without giving them nightmares?
A: This is so important to consider. Climate change is scary for many young people, many adults too, and we don’t want to end up leaving them terrified. It’s also important to recognise that many young people might already be anxious about other things in their lives – for example, poor physical or mental health or well-being, feeling hungry or having to care for others. Climate change isn’t at the top of everyone’s worry list and we don’t want to add to that.
So, we generally focus on what the young people can do themselves to feel like they have some form of agency. We don’t skip over the science, or shy away from talking about the impacts. But we do always build in discussion around adaptation and mitigation, what they can do as individuals and perhaps influence others to do too. These might be those little things that help lower their greenhouse gas emissions. Or perhaps it’s sharing their knowledge with others to help more people understand what’s causing climate change and what can be done to help. Or thinking about what they could do at the moment to help keep themselves and their family safe during times of extreme weather. They might even consider what they want to do in the future, and review the skills they have now and might need to develop to have a ‘green job’ when they’re older.
Finishing on the thought that climate change is happening, it is very serious, but there is hope, is perhaps the most important thing you can do to keep those nightmares at bay.
Q: If 74% of young people think Climate Emergency is the most important issue they face and its causing Eco-anxiety, why isn’t Carbon Literacy and Climate science in the national curriculum for all pupils and students in primary, secondary and further education? How would you suggest we change this, urgently?
Here in the UK, each nation (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland & Wales) has a different curriculum, with weather & climate/climate change appearing at different stages across each of these. For example, in England, primary school children learn about seasons, rivers & natural resources with climate & climate change coming in more strongly in secondary school. In Scotland, the Curriculum for Excellence links to climate science & climate change throughout many of subjects, including technologies, and health & wellbeing, alongside the sciences.
We recognise there is both a desire from young people to find out more, as well as significant constraints on teachers’ time, with some teachers also feeling nervous about teaching what’s perceived as a complex & controversial topic. So, when we’re designing our online resources for use in the classroom, we don’t just focus on communicating the basics of climate or climate change. We look across the different subjects & think about how teachers could use weather or climate as a stimulus.
As an example, we have a resource called Forecasting Fact-busters, which is about fake news & how to recognise an authoritative source – a vital consideration in weather forecast communications & climate science, but also a subject that is being increasingly taught in schools. Another resource is on careers, exploring the different skills needed to be a radar engineer, but also exploring the importance of diversity & inclusion within teams & organisations. And wherever possible within our resources, we make highlight the value of interdisciplinarity (our resources can support lots of different areas of the curricula) & also that climate change is something that affects everyone of us every day in one way or another, so by integrating climate change into teaching as much as possible, we can strengthen understanding and support action.
Q: What are your top tips for scientists who are keen to get more involved in STEM and climate communication but are apprehensive because of, as you’ve said, children ask difficult questions that individuals may not know the answer to?
A: My first tip is to not worry and to just be open about not knowing! Quite often, it’s useful for children to see that adults don’t always know the answer. That sometimes we have to go away & find out the answer from other experts & that is part of the way we learn & evolve our own understanding.
So, if I’m at a school talk and I am asked something I’m not sure about, I’ll make sure that I make a note of the question, and I will then follow-up with the teacher after the event to give them the answer to pass on to the individual or class. I will also sometimes ask the questioner what they think the answer is, to see if that creates an interesting discussion (and it might help me create a bit more time to formulate an answer!)
If I’m at an event like a festival, I’ll either ask other experts who are there with me or I will ask the person to come back a bit later and, in the meantime, I’ll go off to find an answer. Sometimes this means a bit of quick research online, or I might contact a colleague who’ll be able to help.
I’ve found I’ve learned so much over the years through people asking me questions I didn’t know the answer to – It’s great!
Q: Over the years I’ve met so many children’s groups around Scotland that are doing fantastic work - campaigning against local issues which impact their environment and have fears of climate change, but I feel this always tends to be in more affluent areas and pushed on them by parents. What sort of things do you think could perhaps encourage and engage children from less affluent areas of the country to take more of an interest?
A: This is something that we think about a lot in our approach to engagement with schools and wider communities. It’s also something that I’ve noticed in some other forums where the climate emergency is being discussed.
In the past, we generally delivered outreach at schools that asked us to, with many of those being located around our HQ here in Devon. Looking at the types of the schools we were visiting, we could see we were not always reaching a full cross-section of society. Many were private or grammar schools, with fewer state schools inviting us to talk to their students. We are now looking at ways to counter this trend. We are working with ‘broker’-type organisations who can help us identify & work with schools in social mobility cold spots around the UK, particularly in SW England.
More flexibility on working location for our staff, amplified by the pandemic, has given us the opportunity to look to other areas of the UK that are more diverse than those communities close to our HQ & explore how we can reach into those meaningfully & effectively. We also look to attend festivals that are low cost or free to visitors, or others that are explicitly targeting some of the audiences we haven’t traditionally reached.
The other thing to do is to try to make your communications & activities meaningful to those taking part. We know that climate change can suffer from the distance problem (in time and space) but if you can start to talk about the kinds of impacts, they might be seeing in their local community or region today, flooding, heatwave etc, and then contextualising these extremes within a changing climate, climate change can start to become real. But the important thing is to remember not to just focus on the hazards & impacts, but also on the potential adaptation & mitigation solutions that they can implement to help keep themselves safe, both today & into tomorrow.
If you are interested in our education resources, you can find them on www.metoffice.gov.uk/schools. They’re still fairly new and we’re always adding new ones to the website. We are just in the process of scoping out our next release of bite-size activities and lesson plans, so if you have an idea you would like to see developed, you can always email us on email@example.com to share your thoughts!