Climate change is a big topic that can be difficult even for adults to wrap their minds around—especially, it seems, if they are elected to Congress. Although indicators of it are all around us, it can be hard for someone who's not a scientist—as members of Congress keep telling us they aren't—to put together cause and effect.
For a child, the concept is even more abstract. But the good news is that kids are receptive to new information and there are fun ways out there to make real to them how the climate is changing and what humans are doing to make that happen.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
1. Play a game. By their very nature, games are fun and kids have that spirit of friendly competition. NASA's Climate Kids Eyes on the Earth website has a series of online games kids can play or parents came play with very young kids. There's a climate trivia game that offers multiple choice answers and clear, simple explanations for why a choice is right of wrong; kids can vie to see who can come up with the right answer. Play Climate Bingo, "Recycle This," or get into the Climate Time Machine to see how the climate has changed over time and how it might look in the future. All of the games provide copious information, stated in clear terms kids can understand, about what is happening to the climate. EcoKids offers games for different age levels, such as "The Case of the Warming Planet" in which child detectives match up greenhouse gases with their source to "solve" the case and learn what they can do to slow climate change.
2. Watch a video. There's a wide variety of short videos online covering climate change in different ways, ranging from the humorous and to the strictly informational. Sustainability Hub has picked the "Ten Best Videos on Climate Change." Most are bite-sized clips suitable for a child's attention span. Free Range Studios' animated 3D video Change for the Oceans demonstrates the impacts of rising sea levels and melting ice on various marine animals. Others, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's The Physical Basis provide a meatier but still easy-to-understand explanation of the science of climate change. One intriguing video, Song for a Warming Planet, features a project by University of Minnesota grad student Daniel Crawford who used fluctuating global temperatures to "compose" a piece of music that illustrates climate change aurally. Watch him perform it on his cello!
3. Download an app. There's a sea of apps out there that will bring facts about climate change to your phone to share with your child. Painting with Time: Climate Change lets kids explore how a certain location has changed over the years due to climate change. They can "wipe away" the changes at different speeds. The app also includes information about why these changes are occurring and tips for taking photos to monitor climate change in their own communities. Voodoo Skies: Normal or Not could appeal to an older child (or adult), allowing the user to compare the current weather in his location (or another) to the historical weather on that day. Its huge database of weather history could be a real time suck for the weather-obsessed.
4. Do a project. Nothing drives home an idea to kids more than actually DOING something. Encourage them to think about climate change for their next science fair project. They can measure how weather conditions impact how fast a puddle melts or explore how frost forms, drawing larger conclusions from the evidence in front of them. Kids can also participate with their parents in projects such as a beach cleanup, where people gather to pick up trash on local beaches. Huge bags of plastic picked up from a single beach provide a concrete reminder of what dumping non-degradable waste can do to the environment.
5. Join a museum or nature center. An outing to your local natural history museum or nature center puts information in front of a child in a memorable way. They're be able to look at and explore exhibits which these days are increasingly interactive at all but the most basic nature centers. Most offer specialized programs including films, lectures, storytelling, hikes and nature fairs. Plus a membership in a museum or nature center is not only a great gift for a child who can then feel a sense of ownership and belonging, but they—and you—are supporting an organization that is actively working to educate people of all ages about the actual science of the world around us and helping inoculate them against the politicized talking points of climate deniers.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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