Even though much of the world is focused on the novel coronavirus outbreak, Earth Day should be a reminder that there’s another issue that deserves our attention: climate change. But you might be wondering, what is climate change, exactly?
“The way I often talk about it is that it’s too much of a good thing,” said Claudia Wagner-Riddle, an environmental scientist and professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
The Earth has a collection of gases that reaches high above into the sky known as the atmosphere. And while the gases allow sunlight to pass through, they also trap heat, like a blanket does. Without our atmosphere and the gases it contains, the temperature would hover around zero degrees, said Wagner-Riddle. As it is, the atmosphere keeps the planet at a balmy average of about 60 degrees.
The trouble comes when human activities add more of those gases to the atmosphere than there used to be. The gases build up and trap even more heat, triggering global changes in climate.
Carbon dioxide, which is produced by cars, trucks and factories, is one of those gases humans keep adding more and more of. Methane is another culprit, much of which comes from the burps of cows in the beef and dairy industries.
But there’s another gas that’s much less talked about in relation to climate change. It’s nitrous oxide. Often called laughing gas, most people know it as something dentists give patients so they don’t feel pain during a procedure. Formed from two nitrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the gas is present in much smaller quantities in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide or methane. But on a molecule-by-molecule basis, Wagner-Riddle says, nitrous oxide is mighty in its ability to change the climate. And once nitrous oxide gets into the atmosphere, it can stay there for more than 100 years.
Nitrous oxide is created by naturally occurring bacteria in the soil. But people are accelerating how much nitrous oxide is present by adding nitrogen fertilizer to croplands. This helps us grow greater quantities of grass, corn, soybeans and apples, said Wagner-Riddle, but it also supercharges those bacteria and creates excess nitrous oxide.
So what can kids do to change all of that? Surprisingly, Wagner-Riddle said, there is something you can start doing today.
“Number 1 is to not waste food,” she said.
Between 30 percent and 40 percent of all the food created in the United States is wasted, according to the federal government.
“And there was a whole bunch of energy and fertilizer that went to produce that food,” Wagner-Riddle said. “So then if it’s wasted, it’s for nothing.”