Climate Change 101: Facts, Causes & Resources to Help

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Engineer working on windmills

News about polar ice caps melting at record speeds, or an historic rise in the global temperature for a given year may not shock or dismay every person. But that may be because not everybody fully understands the severe ramifications—for the present and the future—that come from global climate change.

When news outlets or scientific journals publish papers on the facts of climate change, they’re not necessarily referring to typical or expected changes in weather, like when a colder winter shifts to sunnier spring skies. Climate change (as opposed to changes in weather) refers to the recent drastic shifts in the earth’s climate caused by global warming, the rapid increase in the world’s temperature over the past few decades. Beyond just making the planet hotter, global warming and climate change have had disastrous effects on the environment, resulting in natural disasters, air pollution, millions of deaths, and the possibility that the earth itself may become uninhabitable in the future.

Even though the majority of scientists are in agreement that climate change is happening and is something to be concerned about, not all political leaders or the global community at large share the same viewpoint about the dangers or causes of climate change. In the United States, climate change can often be depicted in terms of a conservative versus liberal, or Republican versus Democratic issue, with certain leaders and populations arguing that it is not harmful, that it shouldn’t take priority over other issues, or that it might not be happening at all. Outside of the United States, several countries have implemented policies and regulations to reduce or eliminate their efforts to mitigate climate change, while others have not taken similar initiatives.

On an individual level, there are certain steps a person can take to help combat climate change. Because global warming has been heavily influenced by rising carbon dioxide levels, humans can make an impact by reducing their own carbon dioxide output. Steps to take may include driving an electric car or taking public transportation. These methods lead to less burning of fossil fuels, one of the main contributors to rising carbon dioxide levels. Additionally, people can also work to make skeptics or other individuals unfamiliar with climate change facts more aware of the issue.

Collectively, the world is still not doing enough to reduce the causes of climate change. But there are steps that can be taken on the individual, national, and global levels to lessen the impact of this global issue.

Climate Change Facts and Statistics

Before we understand what steps we can take to help reduce our contributions to climate change, it’s important to understand what is causing this global event.

Causes of climate change

The type of climate change that has scientists so concerned isn’t the natural climate change the planet has experienced throughout its lifespan. There are changes to the climate when the earth’s orbit is further away from the sun, or when a volcano erupts and sends lava onto land and the ocean, but these are expected and natural processes. The climate change facts that have scientists and the global community at large worried are of another type. These involve how the planet is being impacted by humans’ contribution to the “greenhouse effect,” a process where certain atmospheric gases block the planet’s heat or radiation from escaping toward space. Marc Lallanila writes for Live Science, “The exchange of incoming and outgoing radiation that warms the earth is often referred to as the greenhouse effect because a greenhouse works in much the same way … This effect lets tropical plants thrive inside a greenhouse, even during a cold winter.”

For example, a climate change fact is that carbon dioxide is one of the atmospheric gases contributing to the greenhouse effect. Throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of the planet’s history, carbon dioxide levels were fairly constant, never reaching above 300 million parts per million. But in the past few decades alone, those numbers have reached nearly 400 million parts per million today, according to NASA. Not only is there more carbon dioxide contributing to the greenhouse effect than ever before, but the rate at which more carbon dioxide is being introduced is faster than it’s ever been in history.

The burning and heavy use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil has contributed to these increased carbon dioxide levels, a key cause of climate change. NASA notes that on a smaller level, “the clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities has increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.” The other greenhouse gases that are contributing to the increase in the planet’s temperature are methane, a gas produced through human and natural activities, as well as nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons, generated through human and industrial processes.

The rise in global temperature caused by increased greenhouse gases may seem minute, but it’s having disastrous effects on the planet’s lifeforms and landscapes. “Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted, and trees are flowering sooner,” NASA reports. The shrinking of glaciers and accelerated melting of polar ice has lead to an increased threat of natural disasters including floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Even if humans do collectively work to reduce their contributions to greenhouse gases, an unfortunate climate change fact is that the effects of greenhouse gases will continue into the future, with some being irreversible and potentially killing hundreds of millions of people.

David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, told NPR’s Rachel Martin, “When I talk about being optimistic, I’m talking about a range [of temperature increase] that starts at a death toll of 150 million people and extends to a world four degrees warmer where we would have eventually hundreds of feet of sea level rise, horrible impacts on agriculture and public health beyond our comprehension.”

Climate change causes and impacts on the United States

  • Thousands of people will die annually from the effects of climate change. [CNN]

CNN states, based off the National Climate Assessment report, in the northeast, extreme heat is projected to cause “650 excess deaths” each year. In the Midwest, there are projected premature deaths of 200-550 people each year. Death numbers by heat alone could potentially reach 2,000 by 2090.

The increase in temperatures from global warming can worsen the effects of drought in the United States. “Increased temperatures enhance evaporation from soils, making periodic droughts worse than they would be under cooler conditions,” according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Conditions of severe drought can negatively impact agriculture, transportation, energy, and even lead to an increase in the frequency and damaging scope of wildfires.

According to the American Lung Association, one climate change fact is that increased temperatures are worsening both the effects, and diminishing the ability to clean up the effects, of ozone pollution. “More than four in 10 people in the United States (41 percent) live in counties that have unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution.

Because climate change has caused rainfall patterns to shift, certain parts of the country are experiencing heavier rainfall amounts, putting them at greater risk of dangerous floods. This increased rainfall is most prevalent in northeastern and midwestern parts of the country.

Climate change impacts on a global level

  • There is increased chance of flooding on a global level, threatening millions. [BBC]

Global warming is increasing the risk of flooding in low lying areas across the world by accelerating the melting of ice at earth’s north and south poles, and by causing seas to expand because of higher temperatures. “The lives of 80 million people across the globe will be threatened, including the Shetland Islands in Scotland, Bangladesh, and Japan,” according to the BBC.

  • Global warming is likely to threaten the future existence of wildlife. [WWF]

Tigers, snow leopards, Asian rhinos, and African elephants are among the species likely to face the threat of extinction due to their habitats and ecosystems becoming damaged because of climate change. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a 1.5°C average rise in global temperature may put 20%-30% of species at risk of extinction,” the World Wildlife Foundation notes. “If the planet warms by more than 2°C, most ecosystems will struggle.”

  • Climate change can cause extreme poverty, population displacement, and millions of deaths worldwide. [Live Science]

One fact of climate change is that its initial impact, such as rising sea levels, can spawn a series of negative effects as well. These can include individuals having to relocate from coastal regions, industries and economies not being able to accommodate the changing needs of the environment, and increased health risks from air pollution.

Controversies surrounding climate change

Most scientists agree that climate change is happening, but populations and political leaders still can be at odds over both the causes and existence of climate change, and whether it is actually harmful.

Early climate change discoveries and skeptics

As long as the earth has been in existence, its climate has been changing. When referring to the phenomena of climate change and global warming, the first facts about climate change came to light around 1800-1870, according to the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Based on ancient ice measurements, the level of carbon dioxide gas was approximately 290 parts per million. The rise in carbon dioxide lines up with the onset of the industrial revolution, where the widespread usage of coal in new machinery, as well as the growing population, increased humanity’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. “In the 1930s, the press began to call attention to numerous anecdotes of above-normal temperatures,” according to AIP, although there was uncertainty whether these temperature fluctuations were cyclical or part of a larger trend. In the 1950s, physicist Gilbert Plass calculated that increased carbon dioxide levels will impact the earth’s radiation balance. Greater environmental awareness came in the 1960s because of the moon landing. People began to understand the fragility of the planet. They also began to pay attention to studies that noted sea levels could rise to damaging levels due to the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets.

The 1970s is when scientists became fully aware of certain climate change causes, facts and threats, as well as the need for an organized effort against them. When President Ronald Reagan entered office in 1981, he reversed many of the environmental actions instituted by his predecessor Jimmy Carter. As a consequence, conservatives became known for climate change skepticism. Later in the 1980s, the Global Climate Coalition was formed by U.S. fossil fuel and other industries with the intent to “tell politicians and the public that climate science is too uncertain to justify action,” according to AIP.

An Inconvenient Truth” and modern climate change awareness

As more scientific reports were published throughout the 1990s and 2000s regarding the existence and effects of global warming and climate change, climate change facts and issues became more recognized by the general public. Released in 2004, the film “The Day After Tomorrow” depicted the threat of a sudden new ice age. But in 2006, the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, bringing heightened awareness to the issue of climate change and the immediate need to address it. The documentary follows former Vice President Al Gore as he discusses the history, current effects, and potential catastrophic damage that can be caused by climate change. On top of receiving critical accolades, viewership of the film seemed to have an immediate measurable impact on voluntary carbon offsets. In an article for the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Grant D. Jacobsen wrote that “in the two months following the film’s release, zip codes within a 10-mile radius of a zip code where the film was shown experienced a 50 percent relative increase in the purchase of voluntary carbon offsets.” (Carbon offsets refer to anything that is specifically aimed to reduce carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases, like wind or solar power.) However, Jacobsen also noted that there was little evidence that individuals who were motivated to purchase an offset because of the film continued to purchase an offset a year after viewing the film on the cause of climate change.

The large awareness and interest in the dangers and facts about climate change declined in the years following the release of “An Inconvenient Truth.” Partisan debates about climate change were amplified both in politics and the media. The rise of the internet also gave a new platform for both climate change activists and skeptics. Several environmental initiatives that were enacted during the Obama presidency to reduce carbon pollution were discarded after Donald Trump took office.

Tips and resources to combat climate change

Most scientists are in agreement that the effects of climate change can be catastrophic and potentially irreversible. Even with ongoing political debate about global warming, there are steps that any person can take to make a positive impact on the environment.

Political and activist resources

There are several non-governmental organizations, campaigns, and coalitions across the world with supporters who are working to raise awareness about climate change and how to make a difference. Greenpeace is one of the most notable environmental organizations aimed at reducing the threat of climate change and advocating a “clean, renewable energy future.” Their website features several initiatives, including strikes, petitions and lawsuits, where supporters can lend their efforts. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is another organization that is dedicated to reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment. Supporters can become involved by volunteering, making donations, or even sharing EDF news items on social media. Other environmental organizations with similar objectives and support opportunities include The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, and the Earth Day Network.

Environmental tips and resources

Beyond volunteering for environmentally-focused organizations, humans can adopt new behaviors and make changes to their routine that will help to improve the environment and diminish the causes of climate change. In an article for Environmental Research Letters, Seth Wynes noted that living car free, purchasing green energy and, depending on its length, avoiding a plane flight were among the most impactful actions a person could take to reduce their carbon dioxide output.

 

Breaking dependence on fossil fuels can also help the environment. Switching to green energy solutions, such as solar or wind power, can significantly reduce a person’s carbon output while also helping to save money. Additionally, cutting back or eliminating one’s meat intake entirely can help reduce the advancement of climate change. This is because the methane produced by cows and the agricultural processes used to feed and store these animals increase the number of greenhouse gases, according to the BBC.

Climate change is real and its effects can be devastating. But there are things that individuals can do to help reduce their impact and improve the quality of life across the planet.

 

Sources

American Institute of Physics, “The Discovery of Global Warming”

American Lung Association, “The State of the Air 2018”

BBC, “Local and global effects of climate change”

BBC, “Ten simple ways to act on climate change”

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “Drought and Climate Change”

CNN, “Here’s how climate change will impact the US”

Earth Day Network Environmental Defense Fund, “How You Can Help”

Environmental Research Letters, “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions”

Greenpeace, “The threat of climate change”

Greenpeace, “Things you can do”

IMDB, “An Inconvenient Truth”

IMDb, “The Day After Tomorrow”

Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, “The Al Gore effect: An Inconvenient Truth and voluntary carbon offsets”

Live Science, “More than 250,000 People May Die Each Year Due to Climate Change”

Live Science, “What is the Greenhouse Effect?”

NASA, “Global Climate Change”

NASA, “Global Climate Change: Facts”

NPR, “’Uninhabitable Earth’ Spotlights 3 Climate Change Misunderstandings”

Obama White House Archives, “Cutting Carbon Pollution in America”

Reuters, “State Department says may ask Trump to scrap another Obama climate order”

U.S. Global Change Research Program, “Fourth National Climate Assessment”

Union of Concerned Scientists, “Climate Change, Extreme Precipitation and Flooding: The Latest Science (2018)”

U.S. Office of Naval Research, “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change”

The Nature Conservancy The Sierra Club

World Wildlife Foundation, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Wildlife”