How can we protect and restore our climate, to create a healthy planet for all life and all of humanity?
What is the simple definition of climate change?
Basically, climate change refers to significant shifts in Earth's long-term weather patterns (either warming up or cooling down). For example, our planet has experienced several ice ages. The climate crisis we’re facing today has been caused by rapid warming.
Burning fossil fuels like coal and oil for energy spews out carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the Earth's atmosphere. For most of our planet's long history, carbon has gone through its cycle in the environment and the atmosphere at a steady rate. There is now far more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the ocean, than these natural systems can handle and cycle back through.
What are some impacts of climate change?
Around the world, we're already experiencing more extreme weather conditions: longer, hotter heat waves; heavier rainfall; frequent, severe droughts; persistent wildfires; and more violent hurricanes.
Rising temperatures also affect many regions that grow food. When certain regions become hotter than their average temperature, many crops can no longer survive there, which often displaces the farmers whose livelihoods depend on crop cultivation.
Sea levels are also rising. Polar ice caps and glacier are melting at an alarming rate due to the Earth's warming. Normally, the Earth's ice acts as a natural defense mechanism against warming, since the white color of the ice reflects the rays of the sun. Darker surfaces, like younger ice and ocean water, absorb more heat. So rising ocean temperatures are melting the adjacent ice, in a vicious cycle.
The Artice Ice Project is working to restore the ice in the Arctic by using an organic substance, that is white, as a coating on the ice to help build its capacity to stay frozen.
What factors affect how the climate is changing?
Climate change is happening globally, but it looks different depending on where you are. There are six main factors that affect this, and you can remember them using this handy acronym: LOWERN (and yes, it's not an actual word, but it's close!).
L is for Latitude
The closer you are to the latitude line of the equator, the hotter the region is. Temperatures become cooler as you move away from the equator toward the North and South Poles. There, the curvature of the Earth’s surface spreads the sun’s energy out over larger areas.
O is for Ocean Currents
Ocean waters travel in predictable paths called ocean currents. Some ocean currents are warm and others are cold. The temperature of an ocean current affects the temperature of the air that passes over it: warm ocean currents raise the temperature of nearby land, while cold currents lower the land's temperature.
W is for Wind (& Air Masse)
Wind is created by differences in air pressure in the atmosphere (winds move from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure). Low-pressure systems are the outcome of warm air rising; associated with condensation (the forming of clouds) and precipitation or rain. High-pressure systems are formed by cool air sinking.
An air mass is a large volume of air that drifts over an area of land and brings with it the weather conditions of the area the air mass formed over. Air masses are characterized based on their temperature and moisture content.
E is for Elevation
A region's average height (or altitude) above the Earth’s surface is its elevation. In general, the higher you go up, the colder that area's micro-climate is.
R is for Relief Precipitation
Relief precipitation happens when air condenses as it rises up a mountainside. The side of the mountain that's getting wind gets a lot of relief precipitation, while the other side receives little, if any. The likelihood of a region experiencing relief precipitation depends on the direction of wind currents and the difference in elevation of that region in comparison to the elevation and positioning of nearby areas.
N is for Nearness to Water
Any area near any large body of water such as the ocean or a large lake experiences a change in their climate as a result of their proximity to that body of water. Because bodies of water are a source of moisture, winds are able to carry that moisture over nearby land, creating a moderating effect on climate.
Bodies of water can also affect locations seasonally. In the summer, bodies of water often remain cooler than the surrounding land. Wind that blows over the surface of the water creates a cooling effect for nearby land. In the winter, bodies of water retain their heat and are often warmer than surrounding areas of land. When winds blow over the surface of the water, the nearby land is warmed.
What is the history of climate change?
For anyone wondering how to stop climate change, it is helpful to first review the history of climate change. As with most things, when we understand the context and the root causes, we're better at implementing the right solutions.
Below are excerpts from a BBC News report providing a short history of climate change, up until 2013. Note: they do not include the work of Eunice Newtown Foote, a female amateur scientist who predicted the root cause of global warming way back in 1856.
Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius concludes that industrial-age coal burning will enhance the natural greenhouse effect.
Another Swede, Knut Angstrom, discovers that even at the tiny concentrations found in the atmosphere, CO2 strongly absorbs parts of the infrared spectrum. Although he does not realize the significance, Angstrom has shown that a trace gas can produce greenhouse warming.
Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and industry reach one billion tonnes per year.
Using records from 147 weather stations around the world, British engineer Guy Callendar shows that temperatures had risen over the previous century. He also shows that CO2 concentrations had increased over the same period and suggests this caused the warming of the Earth. The "Callendar effect" was, at the time, widely dismissed by meteorologists.
Using a new generation of equipment including early computers, U.S. researcher Gilbert Plass analyses in detail the infrared absorption of various gases. He concludes that doubling CO2 concentrations would increase temperatures by 3-4 degrees Celsius.
Charles David (Dave) Keeling begins systematic measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii and Antarctica. Within four years, the project (which continues today) provides the first unequivocal proof that CO2 concentrations are rising.
A US President's Advisory Committee panel warns that the greenhouse effect is a matter of "real concern".
First UN environment conference, in Stockholm. Climate change hardly registers on the agenda. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is formed as a result.
US scientist Wallace Broecker puts the term "global warming" into the public domain in the title of a scientific paper.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed to collate and assess evidence on climate change.
Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and industry reach six billion tons per year.
CO2 concentration, as measured at Mauna Loa, has risen steadily.
IPCC produces First Assessment Report. It concludes that temperatures have risen by 0.3-0.6C over the last century, that humanity's emissions are adding to the atmosphere's natural complement of greenhouse gases, and that the addition would be expected to result in warming.
IPCC Second Assessment Report concludes that the balance of evidence suggests "a discernible human influence" on the Earth's climate. This has been called the first definitive statement that humans are responsible for climate change.
Strong El Niño weather conditions combine with global warming to produce the warmest year on record. The average global temperature reached 0.52C above the mean for the period 1961-90 (a commonly used baseline).
IPCC Third Assessment Report finds "new and stronger evidence" that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause of the warming seen in the second half of the 20th Century.
The Stern Review concludes that climate change could damage global GDP by up to 20% if left unchecked, while curbing it would cost about 1% of global GDP.
Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and industry reach eight billion tons per year.
The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report concludes it is more than 90% likely that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for modern-day climate change.
The IPCC and former US vice-president Al Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."
Half a century after beginning observations at Mauna Loa, the Keeling project shows that CO2 concentrations have risen from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to 380ppm in 2008.
Data shows concentrations of greenhouse gases are rising faster than in previous years.
Arctic sea ice reaches a minimum extent of 3.41 million sq km (1.32 million sq mi), a record for the lowest summer cover since satellite measurements began in 1979.
The Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawaii reports that the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since measurements began in 1958.
The first part of the IPCC's fifth assessment report says scientists are 95% certain that humans are the "dominant cause" of global warming since the 1950s.
What are greenhouse gases?
Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are considered greenhouse gasses.
Greenhouse gasses are given this name because they do to the Earth the same thing that the glass walls in a greenhouse do— they allow the sun to provide heat and warmth, while preventing that heat/warmth from escaping. Unfortunately, when too many greenhouse gases are produced, Earth's atmosphere gets clogged up and starts to overheat.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years.” In the United States, burning fossil fuels is the main source of greenhouse gasses.
The EPA compiled the following climate change statistics on the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018:
28% of the greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to burning fossil fuels in cars, trucks ships, trains, and planes.
29% comes from coal and natural gas used for electricity.
22% comes from industry. This includes the fossil fuels that are burned for energy and also the chemical reactions that happen when goods are produced.
12.3% come from fossil fuels burned to heat homes and businesses.
9.9% come from agriculture, including cows, agricultural soils, and rice production.
11.6% come from land and forests that absorb more CO2 than they emit.
How does global warming affect ecosystems?
The impacts of climate change can be seen everywhere on the planet. The National Wildlife Federation identified a few of the many ways the global ecosystem is harmed by the environmental changes associated with global warming:
Sea levels are rising.
The rate of rising sea levels has accelerated. It’s estimated that a 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit increase could cause the global sea-level rise by about three feet by 2100. This has the potential to displace approximately 56 million people around the world. Also, it can harm the habitat birds, invertebrates, fish and other coastal wildlife depend on.
Sea ice is melting.
Arctic sea ice has declined by more than 30 percent since 1979, negatively impacting the ecosystem of polar bears, seals, walruses, and other marine life.
Precipitation patterns are changing.
In the United States, annual precipitation has increased by 5 to 20 percent in the Northeast, Midwest, and Plains, while the Southeast experienced more drought and floods.
Oceans are acidifying.
The extra carbon dioxide has changed the pH level of seawater.
Invasive species and diseases are increasing.
Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns will enable invasive plants to move into new areas and insects will be able to harm drought-weakened plants.
What places is climate change affecting the most?
Global warming data compiled by scientists isn’t the only factor used to determine the geographic areas that are most vulnerable to climate change. It is also important to consider socio-economic and governance factors. Developing countries, where many people are dependent on natural resources to make a living, face some of the worst impacts from climate change.
Research by TIME identifies six places vulnerable to climate change impacts:
This city is considered one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Located on the Gulf of Guinea, rising sea levels could lead to coastal erosion and harm potable water. Climate change could also negatively impact agriculture in the countryside and harm the large fishing industry.
The rising sea levels, which are caused by climate change, could lead to saltwater contaminating freshwater. This would harm a major source of income for Haitians, agriculture. Haiti is also located in an area prone to hurricanes and studies show hurricanes are becoming wetter and more intense, because of climate change.
A United Nations report showed famine caused by wars are often made worse by natural disasters. The civil war that happened in Yemen in 2015 has resulted in famine, poor sanitation, and lack of clean water. The country has a long coast, making it susceptible to rising sea levels.
A flood in 2009 submerged 80% of the city. However, the Philippines created a Climate Change Commission to manage future floods.
This Pacific island nation is only six feet above sea level. Rising sea levels could threaten the island’s existence. They purchased 5,000 acres of land in Fiji in case they need to relocate.
The United Arab Emirates.
Like other countries on this list, the UAE’s location causes many climate change problems. However, they have the financial means to look at ways to combat climate change such as produce its freshwater, develop crops that can withstand hotter temperatures, and build temperature-controlled spaces.
What are some examples of climate change solutions?
In order to slow down climate change, and eventually reverse it, we must end the era of fossil fuels and achieve carbon neutrality in every sector of our society: energy, agriculture, buildings, transportation, etc. Big companies and institutions have most of the responsibility and the ability to make big changes. If you're interested in these broader systemic solutions, check out Project Drawdown— though they also have resources for communities and individuals.
We also found a good list of climate-positive individual actions from The Years Project:
Use solar or wind to power your home.
Eat less meat, choose local foods, and purchase foods with less packaging.
Use less water. (e.g. switch to high-efficiency showerheads, sink faucets, dishwasher, etc.)
Choose public transportation, ride a bicycle, walk, or carpool to work.
Reduce the number of items you purchase; this will shrink the carbon footprint related to the transportation of those goods.
Recycle and re-use products.
Install a smart thermostat in your home.
Switch your lightbulbs to those that use CLF or LED bulbs.
Purchase appliances, electronics, and office equipment with the ENERGY STAR label because these are proven to be more efficient.
Have an energy audit performed on your home.
Insulate your home to reduce energy consumption.
Compost food scraps. Approximately 18 percent of methane pollution comes from food scraps in landfills.
See if you qualify for Property Assessed Clean Energy to finance climate-smart building upgrades.
Use this carbon calculator from The Nature Conservancy to see what your biggest sources of emissions are, so you know how to reduce your footprint.
Eliminate your junk mail. (Saves paper/trees!)
Plant trees. Trees help to pull carbon out of the air.