Climate change is the long-term shift in Earth’s weather patterns. Although evidence of natural climate variations exist in the planet’s history, the increasingly drastic changes observed across the globe in the past century are primarily attributable to humans.1
Often, the term climate change is taken as synonymous with global warming, but slight differences exist in their proper definitions. Global warming refers only to increases in the temperature of the planet and, as such, is a subset of climate change (which encompasses both the impacts of global warming and other environmental changes).2
Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, amplify the greenhouse effect and cause increased heat absorption. Water vapor, another greenhouse gas, also amplifies the effects of global warming through a positive feedback loop (increased temperatures lead to more warming which in turn leads to more water vapor).3
There are many human sources of greenhouse gas emissions:
- Burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil (releases greenhouse gases)
- Deforestation (trees release their stored CO2 when cut down)
- Livestock farming (cow farts release a surprising amount of methane!)
- Other industrial practices that release nitrous oxide (such as in some fertilizers) or fluorinated gases4
The consequences of climate change are not limited to minor temperature increases. The interconnectedness of the Earth’s systems and processes means effects will be felt in all areas. According to the UN, the impacts of climate change range from “intense droughts, water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity.”5 In fact, many of these impacts are already being felt. For example, Hurricane Harvey in 2018 showed how increased sea temperatures have led to more intense hurricanes and extreme weather events.6 Lastly, climate change will greatly affect all societies in all aspects if not addressed. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, by 2050, at least 1.2 billion people will be displaced by the climate crisis, 3.5 billion will suffer from food shortages, and 5.4 billion will face high water stress.7 These impacts are in humanity’s near future and will lead to extinction if not addressed.
Luckily, there are many solutions that individuals and society can take to prevent climate change and mitigate its effects. Although climate action will take massive monetary contributions/profit sacrifices by governments, corporations, and individuals alike, paying the cost now is far more worth than bearing the consequences down the line (which would cost much more than pre-emptive action).
Climate action includes8:
- Replacing fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources (solar power, wind power, biofuels, nuclear power, etc.)
- Infrastructure changes and innovations in efficiency (better electrical grids, power storage, etc.)
- Going vegan/vegetarian (reduces one’s carbon footprint from food by more than 70% because it reduces land use and cow farts!)9
- Consume less (fight consumerism and the need to purchase unnecessary goods, which will decrease the strain on the environment and on your wallet :D)
- Efficiency and conservation (e.g. turning off lights when you aren’t using them, biking instead of riding a car, etc.)
- Political action (research the climate plans politicians present when deciding who to vote for, participate in protests for climate action, and hold corporations responsible10)
Finally, keep in mind that although individual actions are important in the fight against the climate crisis, our individual impacts will be minor if we do not turn towards our friends, families, and peers and encourage them to act the same. Even then, many problems cannot be resolved until corporations and governments are held responsible to enact real, effective climate policies and join us in the fight to save our planet.
1 Wratt, D. and Mullan, B. “Natural variations in climate.” NIWA, https://niwa.co.nz/our-science/climate/information-and-resources/clivar/variations#:~:text=The%20Earth’s%20climate%20has%20exhibited,million%20to%20150%20million%20years.
2 NASA. “What’s the difference between climate change and global warming?” NASA Global Climate Change, https://climate.nasa.gov/faq/12/whats-the-difference-between-climate-change-and-global-warming/.
3 NASA. “The Causes of Climate Change.” NASA Global Climate Change, https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
4 European Commission. “Causes of Climate Change.” https://ec.europa.eu/clima/climate-change/causes-climate-change_en.
5 United Nations. “Climate Action Fast Facts.” United Nations Climate Action, https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/key-findings#physical-science.
6 Trenberth, K. E., Cheng, L., Jacobs, P., Zhang, Y., & Fasullo, J. (2018). Hurricane Harvey links to ocean heat content and climate change adaptation. Earth’s Future, 6, 730– 744. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EF000825
7 IEF (2020). “Over One Billion People at Threat of Being Displaced by 2050 Due to Environmental Change, Conflict and Civil Unrest.” Institute for Economics and Peace, https://www.economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Ecological-Threat-Register-Press-Release-27.08-FINAL.pdf.
8 Biello, D. (2007). “10 Solutions for Climate Change.” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/10-solutions-for-climate-change/.
9 Petter, O. (2020). “Veganism Is ‘Single Best Way’ to Reduce Our Environmental Impact, Study Finds.” Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/veganism-environmental-impact-planet-reduced-plant-based-diet-humans-study-a8378631.html.
10 Starr, D. (2016). “Just 90 Companies Are to Blame for Most Climate Change, This ‘Carbon Accountant’ Says.” AAAS, https://www.science.org/content/article/just-90-companies-are-blame-most-climate-change-carbon-accountant-says#:~:text=The%20results%20showed%20that%20nearly,released%20by%20consumers%20and%20industry.