All around us, the effects of climate change are as real as ever. From more intense storms and hurricanes to harsher droughts and extreme heat, millions of humans, animals, and plants around the world are reeling under the impact of our rapidly changing climate. This article contains the basics of what you need to know about climate change, and how you can contribute to the fight against it.

What Is Climate Change?

Climate change is a broad term used to describe significant changes in the average weather conditions of any given area over an extended period. Climate change is often used interchangeably with global warming, but this is wrong. Climate change encapsulates warmer, drier, and wetter weather conditions, so global warming is just one facet of the changing climate around the globe.

How Is Climate Change Measured over Time?

Today, remote meteorological stations, ocean buoys, and earth-orbiting satellites help scientists to monitor the climate. The measurements generated are compared to climatic records dating back to millions of years ago.

The paleoclimatology data that serve as the benchmark for the measurements were gleaned from analyzing tree rings, corals, ice cores, as well as ocean and lake sediments. The data from the past and the present are then fed into highly sophisticated algorithms to make near accurate predictions for the future. That said, it is important to keep in mind that reliable worldwide measurements only date back to 1880.

What Causes Climate Change?

Generally, the earth cools when the sun’s rays are bounced back into space through the actions of clouds, ice and, most especially, greenhouse gases. If these elements prevent the heat from escaping back into the atmosphere long enough, the earth warms up. Several natural and artificial factors influence how these gases affect the earth’s climate system.

Natural causes of climate change

Some of the natural causes of climate change include the sun’s intensity, volcanic eruptions, as well as changes in the natural concentration of greenhouse gas concentrations. However, the level of warming since the mid-20th century to date can’t be attributed to these natural causes alone.

Anthropogenic causes of climate change

The warming influence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased substantially over the last several decades. In 2017, the AGGI was 1.42, which represents an increase of more than 40% since 1990.

The greenhouse gases (GHGs) we generate—especially through fossil fuel burning—while carrying out daily activities are the leading cause of the rapid changes to our climate. GHGs are not entirely harmful to us. Without them, the earth will be too cold to support life.

In excess, however, they lead to climate change. The concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere have risen greatly over the last 800,000 years, with the carbon (a major GHG) in the atmosphere increasing by 40% since the preindustrial era.

Quick Facts about Climate Change

Humans and Climate Change

There are numerous myths and deliberate misinformation around the climate change conversation, but what are the facts? What does proven science say? Here are some of them.

The world is getting warmer, and it’s because of us

The earth’s temperature fluctuates up and down from year to year. In the last 50 years, however, it has gone up mostly. The years 2014-2016 saw a steady rise in record-breaking temperatures with each year higher than the last.

Humans are largely at fault for the rising temperatures because we have nearly doubled the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in the last 60 years.

There is no doubt about this - we are sure

More than 95% of scientists agree that we are at fault for climate change due to our carbon emissions. The scientific connection between carbon and climate change was made as far back as 1896 by scientist Svante Arrhenius. Since then, scientists from around the world have completed thousands of research to remove all reasonable doubt that human activity is the chief reason for climate change.

Ice is melting fast

This map shows the flow of the Antarctic ice sheet as measured from the tracking of subtle surface features across millions of Landsat repeat image pairs. The “donut hole” marks the maximum latitude visible by the Landsat satellites. The data used for this map is an early version of the NASA MEaSUREs ITS_LIVE project and was produced by Alex Gardner, NASA-JPL. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens

Worldwide, glaciers are retreating. The ice in the Arctic is disappearing. This has led to estimates that the sea level could rise three feet or more by 2100. The ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland are a source for concern as they can increase sea levels by 200 feet if everything melts.

Weather is wreaking havoc

The number of climate-related disasters around the world has more than tripled since the 1980s. Climate change doesn’t directly cause any disasters, but it can increase the regularity or intensity of these disasters.

Species are being disrupted

The rising temperatures have forced many plants and animal species to either find new habitat or die. A study suggests that up to 47% of plant and animal species have vanished from the areas they previously occupied. For some of those that have already adapted to new environments, it remains to be seen if they can cope with another climate-change-induced habitat loss.

Climate Change Unknowns

Over the past few decades, scientists have put in a lot of work hours into helping us to better understand the climate situation. While they have done a fantastic job on that front, there are a few things we are still not certain about. These are covered below.

Just how much hotter things will get

Current trends suggest that the world’s temperature could be higher by 4 °C as early as the 2060s. However, the environment could be a lot hotter. Computer models and multi-century CO2 studies agree that the plant will warm up by 2°C within that time frame, but some studies have suggested a rise of up to 6°C.

The discrepancies can be attributed to the core differences between paleoclimatic studies and the use of climate models, but the reality remains that the planet will warm up significantly. We just don’t know the exact figures.

How quickly sea level will rise

If the melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica is a very slow process that will take thousands of years to complete, we may have enough time to get the planet’s temperature back down before the sea level rises to a level where coastal cities come under risk of a wipe-out. If the melting happens very fast, however, the world’s coastline will look very different in the not too distant future.

We don’t know how quickly sea level will rise because we don’t know how much hotter the planet will get in the next few years, and exactly how much of the heat will get transferred to the ice sheets. As we have seen above, we are still a long way off from reaching a consensus on this front.

How things will change in each region around the globe

If computer models are right and the average global temperature only rises by 2°C by the 2060s, there will still be a lot of extreme changes around the world. We don’t know which regions will turn to tropical havens or those that will become unlivable due to extreme heat and humidity.

The general scientific view is that we can expect to have more places qualifying as tropical regions while high latitudes will become warmer and wetter. The dry zones on both sides of the tropics will get even dryer. In terms of narrowing things down further, scientists are still unsure.

How great our cooling effects are

The pollutants from our cooling add small droplets to the atmosphere. These have a wide range of effects on the environment, but we are still unsure of how it directly affects global warming.

How serious the threat to life is

If the world was warming at a pace that plants and animals can adapt to, there’d be little or no risk to life. Unfortunately, the planet is warming way too fast and is now hotter than it has been for centuries. This means species have to move if they are to find a habitat with tolerable temperature. Animals also have to change their migration patterns to avoid going hungry.

Unfortunately, estimates suggest a third of terrestrial species won’t make it. For humans, the combination of warming, extreme floods and droughts and more could lead to leaner food sources and mass migration—and we are not yet sure of the ferocity of these risks.

Whether there will be more hurricanes

With the increased warming and wetness of the lower atmosphere over the next few decades, there’ll be more energy to power extreme storms. However, we are not sure just how frequently these storms will happen. Hurricanes, especially, need the conditions to align perfectly before they happen.

While the warmer sea-surface temperatures help their formation, stronger high-level winds can hinder it. As the planet warms, we could see fewer hurricanes. When they do form, however, the power could be a lot greater.

One area where we are sure to see more hurricanes is around the North Atlantic. IPCC reports have clearly shown that tropical cyclones have increased and will continue to increase in the Northern Atlantic, and this applies to hurricanes.

If and when tipping points will come

Tipping points are great environmental changes that can cause a huge geographical shift around the globe. For example, the ice sheet in Antarctica has collapsed a number of times in the past, forcing sea levels to rise by at least three meters. The Sahara only turned to a desert between 8000-4500 years ago.

Other tipping points, that scientists expect to happen, include the Amazon changing from rain forest to grassland and methane hydrates getting released from under the sea. Unfortunately, just like the humans around when the Sahara started changing, we won’t know when we are about to pass any tipping points. By the time we realize we are facing one, it’d already been too late to stop it from happening.

Common Questions about Climate Change

Understanding the climate change conversation and joining in can be daunting. You most likely have lots of questions. Some of the questions may seem rhetorical while others could simply be as a result of misinformation. The section answers some of the most common.

Why’s everyone so down on carbon?

Fossil fuel emissions per capita from four groups of countries, in 1999 (first column in each group) and three different predictions for 2020 based on different amounts of economic growth. Source: Congressional Budget Office based on Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2002, DOE/EIA-0484 (2002).

Carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas. With just enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to trap the sun’s radiation, the earth will remain warm enough to support life. When they are in excess, however, too much of the sun’s radiation will be trapped in the atmosphere.

Carbon gets the wrap because we produce too much of it as a result of fossil fuel burning—which is why it is only second to water vapor in the atmosphere.

Won’t it just be a bit warmer?

When you hear that the average temperature of the world will rise by 2°C, it may sound like it’s nothing. However, that level of increase in temperature is enough to hasten up ice melts and force sea levels to rise.

Other chain reactions include drought and extreme heat in vulnerable places, a shift in food chains, increased wildfires, stronger rainfalls and flooding, and more. So, an average temperature rise of 2°C isn’t “just a bit warmer”; it is still dangerous for some parts of the world.

How do we know carbon in the atmosphere is increasing?

Scientist Charles David Keeling started measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere in 1958 and gave birth to what we now know as the Keeling Curve. To figure out the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere before then, paleoclimatologists analyzed ice cores to find evidence of how the greenhouse gas concentrations have changed over the years.

A combination of the Keeling Curve and paleoclimatology research has helped us to know that the carbon in the atmosphere is in an upward curve. It is also how we know that the concentration of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere was stable until the 19th century when it started to rise rapidly.

How do we know the Earth’s warming?

Scientists are constantly measuring the earth’s temperature through thousands of weather stations around the world. Ships also test sea temperatures while satellites and weather balloons measure temperatures from the atmosphere. They started collecting accurate measurements from the 19th century.

To find out the earth’s temperature before modern records began, scientists once again relied on paleoclimatology and the study of ice cores, tree rings and thermal imprints deep underground.

How long have we known about climate change?

We’ve known about climate change for centuries. French physicist Joseph Fourier first pushed the greenhouse effect idea in the 1820s. In 1861, John Tyndall, an Irish Physicist, first identified gases that make up the greenhouse effect.

In the 1890s, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first stated the fact that cutting carbon in the atmosphere can help to reduce temperatures in Europe. In the 1930s, Guy Callendar used the records from weather stations to show that temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations had risen over the past century and suggested a connection. Since then, we’ve had tons of research backing the positions of these scientists.

When did humans first begin to cause climate change?

Scientists generally agree that the Industrial Revolution was when humans started pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere heavily. Population growth, increasing energy demand and fossil fuel burning led to the Anthropocene age—an era marked by human impact on the ecosystem.

How much more can we burn?

Over the last few years, scientists have mapped out carbon budgets showing how much fossil fuel we can burn without the planet warming more than two degrees. One of such budgets, released in 2015 by UCL’s Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, said that a third of oil reserves, half of the gas reserves and over 80% of current coal reserves globally should remain in the ground and not be used before 2050 if global warming is to stay below the 2°C target.

Why two degrees? It’s all ok before then, yes?

The two degrees target is just a consensus reached in climate conversations amongst policymakers around the world. It still leaves many species and cities at risk of climate-change-related problems. Unfortunately, there’s not been enough evidence to suggest that the world is serious about sticking to this limit.

What does hunger have to do with climate change?

Climate Change and Food Security

Around the world, more than 60 million people are in danger of facing a food crisis. The ‘super El Niño’ of 2015/16, combined with climate change, led to the severe droughts and flooding across Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific, Asia, and Central America. So how does climate change relate to hunger?

i.) Lost livelihoods

Harvests and livelihoods are affected around the world in regions facing drought. It is an ongoing concern in equatorial regions where the cycles of different crops have been disrupted. Without a proper plan to adapt to the changes, communities and individuals that rely on farming and fishing now have to migrate in search of new sources of livelihood or risk hunger.

ii.) Food trade and prices spikes

Extreme weather events can wipe out harvests and lead to food price spikes around the world. Even when harvests are unaffected, such events can cut off roads, harbors, and railway tracks, making it difficult for food to reach markets.

By 2030, a drought in the US can lead to a rise of 140% in food prices at the time. In Africa, the effect of a drought could be more pronounced as the region is expected to grow 95% of the coarse grains it consumes by 2030.

iii.) Dwindling water resources

Oxfam distributing water in the Horn of Africa. The region experienced a severe drought in the period between 2010 and 2011.

Drought in many parts of the world has led to extreme water shortages. In the US, farmers now resort to underground wells as a source of water for farming. In countries like Ethiopia, battling its worst drought in 30 years, the situation is dire as women have to walk eight hours per day to get water.

iv.) Malnutrition and diseases

The drier conditions have made it more difficult to grow quality food. This hit on food security also affects nutrition and health. In some parts of the world, people have to cut down on the quantity and variety of food they eat, leading to malnutrition.

Currently, around 45 million people need urgent food aid across southern Africa. Climate change has also worsened the threat from malnutrition, malaria, and diarrhea which are one of the biggest killers of children under five. Between 2030 and 2050, this triple threat is expected to cause around 250, 000 additional deaths per year.

v.) Climate change as a driver of inequality

The impact of climate change will be higher in developing tropical countries that are too poor to implement any changes. Women bear the brunt of the situation as the responsibility often falls on them to take care of their small families and their farms. When the crops are gone due to climate change, they are left with little to no alternative livelihoods.

What are world leaders doing to tackle climate change?

Plenary session of the COP21 for the adoption of the Paris Accord, United Nations Climate Change Conference (Paris, Le Bourget).

It took a while for world leaders to start paying attention to climate change and scientific research. But in the last 50 years, there have been several attempts at taking action on climate change. The first UN environment conference was held in 1972. It led to the establishment of the United Nations Environment Program.

In 1988, the program gave birth to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC plays a pivotal role in the fight against climate change as it is at the forefront of summarizing and interpreting scientific advice on the environment.

The Rio Earth Summit of 1992 led to the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The primary duty of the body is to lead climate-change-related negotiations, but they have also helped in making the topic louder around the world.

The Paris Agreement, drafted in 2015, was another effort from world leaders to tackle climate change. Unfortunately, the signatories are not doing enough to abide by the tenets of the agreement. To make things worse, the US government, led by Donald Trump exited the agreement, giving client change deniers more validation.

What can I do?

Five things we can do to combat climate change

There are several things you can do to contribute your quota in the fight against climate change. Some of these include:

  • Switching to environmentally-friendly light bulbs
  • Cutting down your energy use
  • Using renewable energy
  • Embracing sustainable transportation
  • Avoiding food wastage
  • Planting trees
  • Respecting green spaces
  • Cutting down on beef and dairy
  • Investing your money in non-fossil-burning funds

{All these are talked about in detail in this Augurisk article you should definitely check out: Is my house energy efficient enough?}

However, for the best results on climate change, we need collective action. We need to fight it at a political, social, economic and cultural level. Take election cycles more seriously and find out what your local politicians are doing about climate change. Cut down patronage for companies that are not paying attention to climate change and global warming.

Most importantly, discuss climate change with as many people as possible and encourage them to do the same in their own small circle. More people becoming receptive to the climate change message gives us a shot at success with slowing down the impacts.

Is it hopeless?

The fight against climate change is a long-term one, so it is not hopeless. We still have some time to get to work, and everything we do now makes the challenge a bit less daunting in the future. If there is a lesson the human race can learn from the Coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged through many countries around the globe, it is that we can unite and face down anything that threatens our existence.

By working together, we can slow down and perhaps even reverse some of the effects of climate change. Our human spirit has the capacity to rise up to the demands of this moment, and by so doing, preserve the earth’s posterity.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.