6 Fun Projects Kids Can Do To Help Stop Climate Change

What can kids do to help stop global warming? How can busy parents respond to the climate change crises while juggling work and taking care of their kids? These are real concerns. And, global warming is a serious problem that has been proven by science to be caused by humans by the burning of fossil fuels and massive deforestation in the past 200 years. This is a big problem with serious consequences that are hurting animals and people today all over the world through loss of wildlife habit and human food production. However, I think that anyone can do their part to help stop global warming–even if they are only five years old. The photo (above) of a polar bear resting on a piece of melting iceberg is by Norwegian wildlife photographer Arne Navaera.*

We have been coordinating environmental youth community service projects personally and through our non-profit KIRF using the Roots & Shoots service learning model since our kids were in pre-school**. Each project we have done with kids has been a learning experience and has made a difference. I like doing youth service projects is that kids, and young people in general, seem to be more open to change and making a difference.

Since our first youth service project in 2004 (we participated in the Coastal Cleanup that fall) our kids have gotten older but the qualities of their favorite projects have not changed.

Each successful project has these qualities:

(1) It is fun
(2) It is social (it usually involves doing something with friends or other family members)
(3) It costs almost nothing
(4) It is easy to do

Below are a few fun activities with the above qualities that almost any kid can do to help stop global warming and climate change:

(1) Ride a bicycle at least once a week. Riding bikes together is a fun and playful activity in itself. And, if a parent works close to home, riding to work or school with their kids can make a morning commute a fun activity. I remember how happy my kids and I were after riding with my 3 year old daughter riding a Trail-a-bike hitched to my old Diamondback mountain bike and my son speeding along on his own bicycle when I used to ride to work and their pre-school/daycare. Another option is riding bikes together as a family on the weekends instead of driving someplace to have fun. Simply by riding a bicycle instead of having their parents drive, kids can reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. (Ages 3+–using a Trail-bike or bike seat for the young ones) The photo above is from the Adam’s Trail-a-bike web site.

(2) Turn the lights off. Nearly all of the electricity in our town’s local utility company comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. If kids use less electricity from non-renewable energy powered sources then they are helping to stop global warming. This can be re-enforced by having your child do a run around to “check the lights” before leaving the house and turning the lights off after he or she leaves a room that is empty. (Ages 5+) The photo of the energy efficient light bulb on right is from Google images.

(3) Use reusable non-plastic bags when shopping and in bag lunches. What are plastic bags made out of? Petroleum products. We try not to use disposable plastic bags. For school lunches, the kids can use reusable lunch containers in their lunch box or reusable lunch bag. Schools and camps can re-enforce this choice by giving out “No Bag” lunch awards such as is done at our kids’ California Junior Lifeguard (JGs) summer camp programs. (Ages 5+, 9+ for JGs ) The photo on right of aluminum food storage containers is from Reusablebags.com.

(4) Make a reusable shopping bag out of an old t-shirt. This is really fun creative project using a kid’s t-shirt that they may have outgrown. As a resusable shopping bag the t-shirt can have a new life as bag for groceries, soccer clothes, beach stuff, taekwando clothes, almost anything. Using reusable shopping bags conserves paper and plastic which are produced using fossil fuels. (Ages 10+) The photo below is of three reusable bags I made out of our son’s old t-shirts. Photo by Angela Rockett Kirwin (me).

Time: 30-45 minutes per bag.
Supplies: old t-shirt, thread, sewing machine, scissors, pins.
Directions: Turn the t-shirt inside out. Pin the bottom open end together and sew it. Cut the sleaves off and cut the neck seam off and hem the arm holes and the neck hole. turn in inside-in and voila! You got a reusable shopping bag with handles and maybe cool graphics, too.

(5) Make a reusable gift bag out of an old piece of clothing. I got this idea from the reusable gift bags sold in Patagonia’s retail stores that are made of remnant cloth. Instead of throwing away the fabric scraps Patagonia reused them to make gift bags and added matching ribbon to serve as a tie. (Ages 8+) The photo below is a reusuable gift bag used as a swim suit+goggles bag that was made from one pant leg of a pair of old Patagonia boardshorts, Mens XL. It was made by a nine year old and is modeled by her cat. Photo is courtesy of Jeanne Tanner and was taken by her daughter.

Time: 30-45 minutes per bag
Supplies: thread, sewing machine, pins, scissors, ribbon and old pants, t-shirts, skirts…anything that you can get a large rectangular panel of cloth out of.
Directions: measure out how big a bag you need and then double the width and add 2 inches. (For example, for a small gift bag about 8″x10″ requires a fabric about 10″x 20″.) Fold, pin and then seam the top edge of the bag, wide side, sewing. Fold the fabric in half, inside in, top seams facing in, and sew the bottom part together. Stop, rotate the fabric 90 degrees and sew the side until you get 3/4 to the top. Stop. Take a piece of ribbon (for 10″ tie strings, cut off 20″ of ribbon), fold it in half and tuck it on the side seam’s path with the fold part sticking out (and the long strings inside your inside-in bag. Then continue with finishing the side seam and sewing in the ribbon. Turn your new bag reusable gift bag inside-in and you are done.

(6) Conserve paper. In addition to eschewing wrapping gifts in store-bought wrapping paper that ends up in the trash, kids can conserve all kinds of paper and recycle used paper. Kids can use GOOS (Good On One Side) plain white paper that is re-used from the printer for art projects. Another way for them to use less paper is have them use both sides of a piece of paper and type reports single-spaced for home work projects if it is appropriate for the assignment and okay with the teacher. Conserving paper helps stop global warming in two ways: (1) Less paper used means less trees destroyed and this is a good thing because trees are the best at absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere* and (2) manufacturing and transporting paper requires burning fossil fuels which contribute to global warming. (Age 9+) The photo above shows a Maasai school girl watering her tree seedling that is guarded from goats with acacia thorns. She planted this tree for her Roots & Shoots reforestation project at her school in the Lake Eyasi region of NW Tanzania. Photo by Angela Rockett Kirwin (me).

Our young children have done all these activities with little assistance from adults, so I know that they are doable and fun.

I believe that our generation and the generations before ours created global warming and it is our generation and the generations after ours that can un-create it. I feel bad that our kids will inherit the mess that we are leaving them. It will take time but we owe it to our kids to teach them to learn from our mistakes that have caused climate change in the first place. Each person, even a five year old, can make a real difference. As environmental activist, humanitarian and primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall has said, “…every individual matters, every individual has a role to play and every individual makes a difference.”

Or in other words, “Be the change you want to see,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

🙂 A

* Read how wild polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct due to global warming: “On Thin Ice” by Daniel Glick, National Wildlife Federation.

** Find out about more age-appropriate community service projects for kids that help animals, the environment and the human community at rootsandshoots.org.

*** Learn about how all plants consume carbon dioxide but trees are best and what you can do at environment.about.com . You can read more about how forests mitigate global warming and a status update on the old growth redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest in the article “The Super Trees” in National Geographic Magazine, October 2009.

Heritage seeds as a sustainable solution to water scarcity, food scarcity & global warming

TanzaniaAs a sustainability response to climate change and increased desertification, one strategy that you don’t hear about a lot is farming using heritage seeds. Heritage food plants are plants native to an area that propagate naturally (as apposed to sterile hybrids or patented genetically modified seeds). Heritage seeds are culturally and biologically native to many arid and drought-afflicted regions such as the American Southwest, northern India and East Africa. As such, they are more likely to be adopted (or re-adopted) and grown successfully by these rural communities as a food source. And, as a native food they can be considered a validation of a local native cultural heritage and identity as well as a practical and drought-resistant agricultural product. The photo above is of Angela Kirwin, KIRF Co-Founder, at a soil remediation project in Arusha, Tanzania. Local farmers are trying to re-claim farm land ruined by soil erosion by planting indigenous trees and food plant varieties.

The effects of global warming have caused widespread droughts, malnutrition and starvation. An estimated 25,000 people (adults and children) die every day from hunger and related causes according to the United Nations Food Programme (2009).

As radio journalist Sam Eaton reported in his segment titled “Sowing seeds that will take the heat” from the “Sustainability Desk” for Marketplace on National Public Radio, “…as a warming climate threatens mainstream agriculture, these unique genes in these little known seeds could turn out to be crucial for feeding the planet. (Eaton 2009).”

Unfortunately, heritage or non-hybrid seeds are becoming rare: in 1981 there were anestimated 5,000 non-hybrid or heritage seed varieties, by 1998 the number has gone down to about 600 according to environmental activist Barbara Kingsolver, co-author of the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Kingsolver 2007:52).This is compared to an estimated 80,000 plant species that have been eaten in human history according to Indian crop ecologist and heritage food conservationist Vandana Shiva (Kingsolver 2007:49).

Today, due to industrial monoculture farming, three-quarters of all human food comes from just eight species. And, of those eight species, most come from only three plants: “genetically modified corn, soy, and canola” according to Kingsolver (Kingsolver 2007:49). Furthermore, 98 percent of seed sales worldwide are handled by only six very huge and very politically influential companies: Monsanto, Syngenta, Mitsubishi and Dow (Kingsolver 2007:50).These food plants are produced for traits more suitable for large scale agricultural production and distribution: increased yield, longer shelf life, and uniformity of size. Unfortunately many are not produced with survival traits that can adapt to climate change such as drought resistance. What is even more troubling is that many of these hybrid plants are sterile so (1) they can’t adapt to changes in climate and evolve more successful strains and (2) these plants increase the costs of farming for economically disadvantaged communities who depend on these seeds for food and income.

Ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan is one of many scientists, botanists, and backyard gardeners who are committed to saving indigenous plant food varieties by collecting and sharing their heritage seeds. They do this for many reasons: in response to global climate change, to preserve native traditions and foods, for more nutritious plant food varieties, and for potential pharmaceutical discoveries. From a business point of view, heritage seeds seem to answer the market’s current demand for organic, flavorful and exotic and heritage (also known as “heirloom”) varieties of plant foods. And, consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for them, too.

Gary Nabhan has been writing about the correlation between chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes and the consumption of non-traditional processed and fast foods by Native Americans in the Southwest for over thirty years (Nahban 2004: backcover). He published some of his findings about the correlations between health, adaptation and diet in the book Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity. As Nabhan explains, “…each ethnic cuisine reflects the evolutionary history of a particular human population as it responded to the availability of edible plants and animals through local foraging and through trade, and to the prevailing frequencies of diseases, droughts, and plagues within each population’s homeland (Nabhan 2004:1)”

Nabhan is the co-founder of the Renewing American’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance, a program of Slow Food USA, and is the Director of Center of Sustainable Environment at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona (SlowFoodUSA). He is working with other scientists such as the Suzanne Nelson for Native Seeds/SEARCH to distribute seeds of native Southwest crops such as maize and beans to local Native American farmers in the hot Southwest deserts (Eaton 2009).

Another scientist who studies the correlation between diet and indigenous diets is medical doctor Daphne Miller. She writes extensively about the Tarahuma Native Americans (“Running Indians”) who live in the Copper Canyon network of Northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains in her book The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World…. They subsist on native foods they have cultivated for centuries. Among the Tarahuma communities who abide by their traditional culture, subsistence and eat their traditional foods, there are virtually no instances of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. These same chronic diseases plague neighboring Native American communities in northern Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico who have adopted a Western diet of processed and fast food. For the details, recipes and sources of heritage foods check out Miller’s book.

So as long as the costs and yields of heritage seeds are similar as those of hybrid and GMO seeds, they seem like a good option for local small farmers and for increasing our food supply’s resilience to the changing climate.  According to journalist Sam Eaton, these heritage seeds are thriving in the desert heat while the conventional hybrid varieties are not. Sometimes progress is looking backward and re-claiming traditional ways in order to adapt and survive change. Native seeds are once again producing good food in their native land.


Easton, Sam
2009“Sowing seeds that will take the heat”, Marketplace
, National Public Radio. http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/08/25/pm-seed-savers/, accessed August 27, 2009.

Kingsolver, Barbara with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
2007 Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,
New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 370.

Miller, Daphne
2008 The Jungle Effect: the healthiest diets from around the world–why they work and how to make them work for you,
New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 370.

Nabhan, Gary Paul
2004 Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity,
Washington, DC: Island Press, pp. 232.

Native Seeds/SEARCH
Southwestern Endangered Aridland Resource Clearing House. http://www.nativeseeds.org/ accessed September 2, 2009.

Seed Savers Exchange
2009 A
non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. http://www.seedsavers.org/ accessed September 2, 2009.

Slow Food USA
Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/raft/ accessed August 27, 2009.

United Nations World Food Programme
2009Hunger Stats. http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats accessed September 1, 2009.

Bioethics of Poverty or "Structural Violence"

The greatest bioethics issue of today is the existence of economic and social barriers to health and adequate medical care. In the United States, with the lack of universal healthcare, these barriers are growing with the poverty rate that has the increased by 20 percent between 2000 and 2004 according to a National Health Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2) According to the same survey, more 40 million people of all ages in the United States went without health insurance in 2005.

Poverty and lack of insurance are structural barriers that deprive people of their health and, eventually, their life. Uninsured children in the United States are at a greater risk of experiencing health problems such as obesity, heart disease and asthma that continue to affect them later in life says Steven Woolf, a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University. (3)

Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician and human rights activist in Haiti, calls these structural barriers of poverty “structural violence.” He defines structural violence as “Large-scale national and international structures that place limits on the ability of individuals to act in ways that protect their health.”(4) An example of structural violence is malnutrition. An estimated 842 million people in the world are hungry or are food insecure.(5)

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, being healthy and having access to adequate medical care is not just an ideal for Americans. It is an entitlement for everyone worldwide, rich or poor.(5) Farmer believes this to be true and has devoted his life to treating the poor and fighting the economic and social barriers to health that continue hurt and kill them. These barriers are behind the current epidemics of treatable diseases such as Tuberculosis, AIDS, malaria as well as chronic illnesses such as diabetes in all countries among the impoverished according to Farmer.

Farmer condemns social scientists and medical ethicists who ignore this problem of poverty in developing countries. “Surely it is an ethical problem, for example, that in the coming year an estimated six million people will die of tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS—three treatable diseases that reap their grim harvest almost exclusively among populations without access to modern medical care.”

Farmer goes on to say that these same social scientists who, in the course of their field research and analysis have observed the day to day suffering caused by poverty but have neglected to document it, or explore it, in their ethnographies, are not only unethical but are in fact may be committing “a human rights abuse.” (7) Farmer asserts that social scientists are complicit in the maintenance structural violence by the powerful elite if they do not document it when they see it. The struggle for social and economic rights is as much a social and political issue as it is a public health issue according to Farmer. (8)

But what can doctors and public health officials to counteract structural violence? As Farmer said himself, these human rights abuses are caused by “large-scale national and international structures”. Here are some recommendations from his book Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor for physicians and public health officials:

1. Make health and healing the symbolic core of the agenda. Farmer cites the example of the Physicians for Human Rights and their partner organizations, which have argued that access to care should be construed as a basic right.(9)

2. Make the provision of health services central to the agenda. Farmer recommends that health workers listen to their patients and partner with local community-based health organizations to figure out the best ways to bring care to those in poverty. Collaborations with people local to a community are necessary to address the increasing inequalities here in the United States as well as in developing countries according to Farmer. However, he cautions that “States, not ‘Western” human rights groups, are best placed to protect the basic social and economic rights of populations living in poverty…State failure cannot be rectified by human rights activism on the part of NGOs.” (10)

3. Establish new research agendas that emphasize analyzing political and economic causes of inadequate health care. Farmer recommends “ serious scholarly work” that studies the health effects of war, political-economic disruption and the pathogenic effects of social inequalities, including racism, gender inequality, and the growing gap between rich and poor.”(11) He cautions that the research must not further imperil or victimize the poor and marginalized populations. He quotes R. Neugebauer, “ Public health research on violence and victimization among these groups must vigilantly guard against contributing to emotional and social harm.” (12)

4. Assume a broader educational mandate for health workers to educate the public about inadequate health care due to structural violence. Education is central to the task of combating social and economic barriers to health and medical care Farmer says. However, instead of teaching a select group of students with an expressed interest in health and human rights, there should be a broader educational mandate to teach all students about human rights issues in academia. Health workers and social scientists who are committed to easing the suffering of those victimized by structural violence should make a greater effort to publicize their observations in the popular media so people in affluent societies can better make the connection between health and human rights. (13)

5. Achieve independence from powerful governments and bureaucracies. Farmer says it best: “We need to be untrammeled by obligations to powerful states and international bureaucracies. A central irony of human rights law is that it consists largely of appeals to the perpetrators.”(14)

6. Secure more resources for health and human rights. As more social and political rights have been attained in some countries, economic and social rights have suffered from structural adjustments such as privatization, deregulation and entrepreneurial programs that favor those of means and further disadvantage the poor. (15)

Structural violence is responsible for millions of deaths each year. Each year about 16 million children worldwide die from preventable and treatable causes. Sixty percent of these deaths are from hunger and malnutrition.(1) We may not be able to eradicate structural violence globally. However, to lesson structural violence even a tiny bit, would save at least one life. To a family, that one life is of vital importance.


(1) Bread for the World, retrieved on May 2, 2008 from http://www.bread.org/learn/hunger-basics/
(2) Rice, Sabriya. “Poverty and poor health are intertwined, experts say.” CNN.com Septermber 4, 2006, retrieved on May 2, 2008 at http://edition.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/08/29/poverty.health/index.html
(3) Ibid.
(4) Farmer, Paul. “Social Scientists and the New Tuberculosis.” Ed. Elizabeth D. Whitiaker. Health and Healing in Comparative Perspective. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. 372-384.
(5) Rice, Sabriya. “Poverty and poor health are intertwined, experts say.” CNN.com Septermber 4, 2006, retrieved on May 2, 2008 at http://edition.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/08/29/poverty.health/index.html
(6) Farmer, Paul. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. XXV-23.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Farmer. 2005. 238
(10) Farmer. 2005. 239-240
(11) Famer. 2005. 241
(12) Neugebauer, R. “Research on Violence in Developing Countries: Benefits and Perils.” American Journal of Public Health 89 (10): 1473-74
(13) Farmer. 2005. 242
(14) Farmer. 2005. 243
(15) Farmer. 2005. 243