The terms “climate change” and “global warming” have been frequently used in political and daily conversations, to the point of fatigue. However, many key aspects of climate change have become overlooked and in order to fully understand the implications of this phenomenon, we must first understand the causes.
But first, what is climate change?
Climate change refers to the average significant variation of climate over time across the globe. There are two key points of climate change that many people tend to overlook. First, climate change is the average change over decades. Sometimes it is easy to blame a single hot day on climate change, but there often is very little correlation between the two. Second, climate change encompasses more than only global warming. Many people use these terms interchangeably, however climate change also includes many other factors.
How is climate change measured?
Climate change is measured by rain gauges, earth-orbiting satellites, ocean buoys, and much more. Natural data, known as paleoclimatology, such as studying tree rings, corals, and ice cores allows scientists to extend Earth’s climate data back millions of years. This historical data can actually be used to predict future climatological data- with credible quantitative estimates and decent accuracy.
What are the causes of climate change?
The causes of climate change are actually very simple- when the Earth absorbs more heat than it expels, it warms. This process of absorption and expulsion is natural. When the sun’s energy is reflected off the Earth’s surface (typically by clouds or ice) or when Earth’s atmosphere releases energy, the planet cools. When the Earth absorbs the sun’s energy or traps it within the atmosphere (known as the greenhouse effect), the planet warms. There are many factors, natural and human, that contribute to this.
“The earth’s climate is influenced and changed through natural causes like volcanic eruptions, ocean currents, the Earth’s orbital changes, solar variations, and internal variability.” (1) For example, when volcanoes erupt, the clouds of ash and dust released reflect the sun’s energy and cool the Earth. Volcanoes also release CO2 which causes the planet to heat, however this is a very small percentage, only amounting to 1% of total CO2 emissions. Natural causes are what create the typical heating and cooling cycles of the Earth.
Humans are the largest producers of greenhouse gases today and recent emissions have increased dramatically. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides “have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.”
The main human activity increasing carbon dioxide- the most sizable greenhouse gas encompassing 76% of emissions (4)- is the burning of fossil fuels (such as coal and crude oil). When fossil fuels are burned, they release harmful pollutants which trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. The second major cause of increased carbon dioxide levels is deforestation. Agriculture also has a large impact on the emissions of methane gases, making up 16% of greenhouse gases.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, “It’s estimated that the earth’s average temperature rose by about 1 degree Fahrenheit during the 20th century. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider this: When the last ice age ended and the northeastern United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice, average temperatures were just 5 to 9 degrees cooler than they are now.”
What is the debate surrounding climate change?
While very few people deny the existence of climate change, a larger number disagree with the causes of it. Those who oppose climate change often argue that there is considerable data to prove that climate change is only part of the natural cooling and heating cycles of the Earth. Many reference the cycles of ice ages to deny the causes of climate change. However, many argue that due to human intervention, no natural causes can account for the observed trend since 1970. According to NASA, “These natural causes are still in play today, but their influence is too small or they occur too slowly to explain the rapid warming seen in recent decades.”
While some claim that climate change is a hoax, at least 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists endorse the consensus position that humans are the lead drivers of climate change. As the [IPCC] states, “It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.”
What are the effects of climate change?
It is easy to mistake current temperatures and disastrous events as natural occurrences, and therefore it is easy to ignore climate change. However, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Risks Report, the failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change will be “the most impactful risk” facing communities worldwide in the coming decade—ahead even of weapons of mass destruction and water crises (2).
The effects of climate change comes in many forms: extreme weather and events, ocean acidification, global temperature rise, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreats, sea levels rising, and warming oceans. Due to the increased absorption of carbon dioxide into the ocean, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (3). According to the World Health Organization, “climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year” between 2030 and 2050.
What are some of the proposed solutions to climate change?
There are many environmental policies currently being debated. The Biden Administration aims to enact the Green New Deal, a set of social and economic reforms to address climate change and economic inequality. Another proposed method of combating climate change is the Paris Climate Agreement, a pledge across the globe for nations to work towards cleaner, renewable energy and to reduce fossil fuel usage. In 2017, President Trump pulled the US out of this agreement on the notion that it was unfair economically for the US. The effectiveness and feasibility of these plans are hot topics of discussion. The fight to end climate change isn’t always about whether one believes in its causes or not, but rather how one weighs its immediate effects against the economic implications.
Despite the fact that there is a debate on the causes of climate change, there is almost no debate surrounding whether it exists. So whether one believes that humans are propelling climate change or not, or a specific method of fighting climate change is better than another, it is important to use your informed voice and vote.
To learn more about climate change from a variety of sources, visit these links: