Interviews: Do you think teens can make a difference with global warming? What do you do?

By Se Kim, 16, Pacifica Christian HS (Santa Monica)
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Se says that if everyone does their part to stop global warming, it will add up to something bigger.

At the end of ninth grade my science teacher assigned an extra-credit project—watch An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about global warming by former Vice President Al Gore, and write a two-page report on the movie. I was excited to watch the film, but for the wrong reasons. I wanted to raise my A- to an A and didn’t care what the film was about.

At the time, I wasn’t really interested in global warming. All I knew about global warming was that the polar ice caps were going to melt and flood the Earth. It’s kind of like talking about how an asteroid might hit the Earth or like saying there will be a 9.0 earthquake. You know it could happen but you don’t know when and you can’t stay home worrying about it. So I took a pen and notebook with me to take notes and walked into the screening expecting a boring hour and a half.

I was stunned by the scary facts in the movie. Gore showed slides of the Andes, Himalayas and Alps mountain ranges, where ice had melted off the summits because of rising temperatures. I thought these pictures were sad, but even worse, as temperatures continue to rise, more ice will melt. But I asked myself, “Why should I care?” Gore said that nearly half the world, especially people living near the Himalayas in Asia and the Andes in South America, relies on the melted ice during the summer. Less ice will mean that millions, if not billions, of people will be in a drought, and they could die from a lack of water for drinking and crops.

Illustration Sarah Evans, 17, Temple City HS

But I wondered, how do we know this is caused by carbon dioxide emissions from cars, factories and power plants? A chart in the movie showed that the Earth’s temperature has risen as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased. The movie also mentioned that the 10 hottest years on record were between 1992 and 2006. It also said the hottest year on record was 2005. I was pretty surprised because living in Los Angeles, I hadn’t felt the temperature rise, but the movie said that temperatures at the North and South poles have risen faster than temperatures near the equator.

How does global warming work? The sun’s rays bounce off the Earth and some leave the atmosphere while some get trapped by carbon dioxide and other gases, so-called “greenhouse gases.” This is actually good because it warms the Earth and makes it possible for life to exist. But when people burn more fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, there is an increase of greenhouse gases. This causes more heat to be trapped in the atmosphere, raising temperatures.

In the last 25 years, the Earth’s temperature has gone up 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although that may seem insignificant, the Earth’s climate can be affected with even a small change in temperature.

After the movie my friends and I decided that An Inconvenient Truth was one of the scariest movies we’d seen. I joked, “I don’t want to die.” We talked about the movie for a minute, but then talked about where we were going to eat.

Although it seemed like I didn’t care, I was still interested in global warming because the movie showed me that there is more to it than melting polar ice caps. When I got on Yahoo or watched CNN or the Daily Show, I paid more attention every time global warming was mentioned. It was fascinating. It can cause severe droughts in some areas and heavy rainfall in others. Animals are feeling its effects, too. Polar bears are dying because the ice is melting, according to news reports.

California will get less rain

Global warming is already causing problems around the world. We saw it with Hurricane Katrina as it swept through New Orleans two years ago. Scientists said higher temperatures made the ocean warmer, which caused the hurricane to strengthen to a Category 5—the strongest category of hurricanes—as it passed through the Gulf of Mexico. In Southern California, we’re in a drought. It has rained 2 ½ inches in the past year, compared to an average of 12 inches. I read in the Los Angeles Times that according to reports by the United Nations that came out in the spring, there will be less rain in California in the future because global warming is changing where precipitation is moving, and it is moving away from the Southwest. Our state’s agriculture could be threatened by a lack of rainfall within the next 20 years.

These reports were significant because they confirmed that global warming is caused by human activity. The Bush administration had been slow to acknowledge that global warming was caused by human activity. And by doing so, it was denying that the federal government had a responsibility to help (now the Bush administration acknowledges that humans are responsible). According to the Los Angeles Times article about the UN reports, global warming will hit the poor countries first. If we don’t do anything about it, by 2020 a quarter of a billion people in Africa will face a water shortage, which could mean millions of people dying. It was sad that the developed countries were causing all these problems, yet the hardest hit were going to be the poorest nations. It seemed unfair that America’s wastefulness could affect billions of people.

I never recycled or conserved energy, but as I started learning more I felt obligated to do something. One day other students at L.A. Youth were excited to talk about global warming and felt that as teens they could do something about it. I realized that what I do can turn into a habit that can influence others to do the same.

I started taking the bus even if my parents offered me a ride. Now I don’t go to sleep with the computer or TV on. I open the blinds instead of turning on the light during the day and turn off lights when I leave a room.

I told my parents to recycle, rather than throw plastic bottles away with our trash. Now we have a bag by the front door where we put bottles to recycle. It’s become a habit for my mom so if someone accidentally puts a bottle in the trash, she digs it out and puts it in the bag.

Then late last year I went to my parents’ clothing business and saw a bunch of empty water bottles in the trash. I told my dad they should put the bottles in a nearby bin to recycle them. My dad said he would but I knew he was just saying that to get me to go away. Still, a month later the bin was full so I took the bag to a recycling station near my house. Now one of the workers takes the bottles home to be recycled.

I got my parents to recycle, but my friends didn’t care. In summer school, my friend threw a Coke bottle into the trash even though the recycling bin (with “RECYCLING” stamped on it in huge letters) was right next to it. “Use the recycling bin,” I told him. “It’s fine Se, no one cares about recycling,” he said.

One of my friends said, “Why worry about global warming when we could focus on global poverty or more immediate issues?” Another friend even argued that global warming is a hoax and even if it were real, would teens be able to do anything about it? Because if we can’t, why even care? I said that when teens become adults, we will be the ones responsible for the environment.

Talking about it raises awareness

Sometimes when I walk down the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, I stop to talk about global warming with volunteers from Greenpeace, an environmental organization. We’ll talk for 10 minutes while my friends stare, waiting for me to finish. Now when my friends see someone from Greenpeace they drag me to the opposite side of the street. One time my friend Madison said, “It’s a waste of time with a bunch of random people.” But talking to them made me feel good. I want to make a difference and be part of a change. For me, even talking about global warming is an accomplishment—the more people talk about it, the more others will know about it and its consequences.

I think we should all try to recycle, turn off lights, walk or take the bus more instead of driving, and even tell our parents to drive less. We can’t stop polluting completely, but we can reduce the amount of energy we use and influence the government to do more.

The federal government should require companies and states to use less coal, oil and gas. The government also should give money to scientists so they can research alternative forms of energy so that we’re not so dependent on fossil fuels.

The other day while riding the bus, I thought about how changing our habits will do more than just help the environment. Using the bus or carpooling means less pollution and cleaner air that we all breathe. Buying from a local farmers market will give us fresher produce than supermarket produce, which often needs to be brought in from hundreds of miles away by heavily polluting trucks. Changing our habits can improve our health and change our lives for the better. 

My friends think I’m obsessed about global warming. But I don’t think I am. I just care. Every little thing we do makes a difference.

Steps you can take

• Walk, ride the bus, bike or carpool. We need to be less dependent on cars because they produce 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, making them the second-largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

• Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Recycling is one of the easiest ways to cut carbon dioxide pollution. Recycling paper, glass and metal saves 70 to 90 percent of the energy used to make new products, and less energy used means less pollution.

• Change your incandescent light bulbs to compact florescent bulbs, which are four to six times more efficient than regular light bulbs.

• Conserve energy at home. Turn off lights when you leave the room and open the blinds instead of turning on the light. When it’s hot outside, keep your air conditioner set at 78 degrees.

• Talk to others about global warming. It is important to tell everyone that global warming is taking place.

Click here to read about some students’ attempts to be better environmental travelers and get around Los Angeles without using a car.

Click here to read the story about a cleaning up the beach in Venice.

Other stories by this writer …

I felt their fear. Having survived an armed robbery, Se, 16, felt a strong connection to the people at Virginia Tech. (May – June 2007)

News you can use. Se, 16, didn’t use to care about current events. But when his teacher inspired him to get informed, he discovered that he likes forming his own opinions about what’s going on in the world. (January – February 2007)