What is climate change? The science and the solutions

The term “climate change” has been pretty much ubiquitous for the past couple of decades – although concern about it arguably spiked with Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the US presidency.

It’s one of those phenomena that everyone knows is bad, and rallies against accordingly, but put on the spot, how many of us would be able to provide a satisfactory answer as to what it actually is?

To help you out at dinner parties, environmental rallies and post-coital pillow talk, here’s the low-down on climate change: What is is, what it does, and how we can help.

What is climate change?

It’s *kind of* in the name. Climate change refers to the process of fluctuation that our planet’s climate undergoes over geological time. Our current global average temperature is 15C, although history tells us that average temperatures have been both much higher and lower in the past.

Recently, there’s been furore about climate change as our planet has been warming up with increasing speed. The problem with this – other than the obvious environmental ramifications (melting ice caps, rising water levels, sinking ocean beds) – is that the bulk of it is caused by humans.

“It is clear,” says the American Meteorological Society in an information statement, “from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and nitrous oxide.”

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Human activity emits lots of so-called greenhouse gases; “greenhouse” because, like the eponymous garden structures, the gaseous substances trap heat from the Sun in the Earth’s atmosphere. This, in turn, fuels the “greenhouse effect” (“fuel” being the operative word – but more on that later) where the Earth heats up to unhealthy levels, triggering a cascade of undesirable side effects.

In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the following sobering statement: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”

What is the “greenhouse effect”?

As mentioned above, the greenhouse effect is what happens when energy from the Sun is trapped within the Earth’s atmosphere. Solar energy radiates from the Earth’s surface, only to be absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and re-emitted back.

The greenhouse effect happens naturally to some degree, but human activity contributes massively to the emission of greenhouses gases, with industry and agriculture most at fault.

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Greenhouse gas emissions come from a variety of sources, with the most culpable being carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel use, making up 57% of the net output, according to IPCC. This is followed by CO2 produced as a result of deforestation and decay of biomass (17%), with methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases bringing up the rear (at 14%, 8% and 1% respectively).

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen by more than 30%, with methane increasing by a whopping 140%. Thanks to the expansion of the automotive industry and beef-rich fast food outlets, we now inhabit a world which has the highest concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere for 800,000 years.

And we’re most certainly feeling the ramifications, with the news that 2016 was the hottest year on record, for the third time in a row. The data is still being processed for 2017, but analysts don’t think it’s likely to deviate from this trajectory, with speculation abounding that it’ll remain in the top three hottest years on record.

Climate change doesn’t just mean incrementally warmer temperatures worldwide. It also contributes to the melting of polar ice caps, and, ensuing from this, rising water levels worldwide. In turn, this means flooding, and destruction of homes and agricultural lands (particularly rice paddies), triggering a domino-effect of destructive events, putting livelihoods and lives at stake.

Global warming has also contributed to the death of coral by bleaching, a phenomenon which destroys coral reef ecosystems, areas known for supporting the highest marine biodiversity in the world.

Recent news also shows a hitherto overlooked impact of climate change – our ocean beds are sinking. Weight from the extra volume of water the oceans are taking on thanks to all those melting ice caps has led the ocean beds to sink 2.5mm over the past ten years. Not only is this a troubling phenomenon in itself – the planet is literally depressed as a result of climate change – but it could mean that we’ve been underestimating the extent of the damage, with measurements pertaining to rising water levels not accounting for the extra room at the bottom of the ocean.

What can we do to stop climate change?

What can us mere mortals do to halt the incineration of our planet? Actually, there’s lots.

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  • Switch off your lights – Household energy efficiency is one easy step you can take to slow down climate change’s relentless onward march. Light bulbs can be changed to fluorescents or LEDs, and electronic devices unplugged when they’re not in use (if you’ve ever owned a hair straightener, this will also ease your anxiety immeasurably).
  • Renewable energy – It’s worth asking your utilities provider if you can switch to a cleaner energy source, such as solar, wind or hydropower. If this isn’t a service they offer, you can request that they do. Make a phone call, send an email, @ them on social media. Technology facilitates activism at the touch of a button.
  • Change your diet – The beef industry is a huge driver of climate change, thanks to methane emission and deforestation associated with cattle-rearing. Try and avoid it where possible, or endeavour to eat at least one meat-free meal a day. 
  • Travel smarter – whether this means flying less or cycling to work, there are several ways you can tweak the way you navigate the Earth for the greater good (and, y’know, the longevity of Earth itself). Businesses should also consider swapping transcontinental travel for cheaper, and more environmentally friendly video conferencing. 
  • Recycle – Landfills produce methane and CO2, which, as discussed before, makes up 14% of greenhouse gas emission. Instead, opt for a recycling bin or compost heap, reducing the masses of rubbish that gets unnecessarily chucked in landfills. In the meantime, lobbying companies to stop unnecessary use of plastics can help. This doesn’t have to mean chaining yourself to guilty firms’ HQs – social media is a powerful tool, with accounts like Step Into Sustainability promoting green activism
  • Environmental activism – Granted, this one’s not for everyone, given the energy, time and wherewithal required to properly engage in it. If you can though, writing letters to your local MP and campaigning on the ground for environmental change with advocacy groups such as Greenpeace, the Woodland Trust or the Environmental Law Foundation, makes an enormously visible and valued contribution to the cause.

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