What is climate change?
Climate change is a massive and long-term shift of the earth’s climate that occurs over a period of tens of thousands to millions of years. Over its approximately 4.5 billion years’ of history, earth’s climate has underwent repeated swings, both radical and gradual, from ice age to extremely warm weather - and back again. These changes are precipitated by a variety of factors, ranging from solar variability to geological shifts and volcanic activity to orbital variations.
The last major shift in global weather occurred about 11,000 years ago, when the earth started moving away from an ice age which eventually ended about 7,000 years ago. The earth’s temperature has remained relatively constant since then, averaging at about 14°C. However, since the advent of the industrial revolution in the 18th to 19th centuries, there has been a marked change in global temperatures owing to the vast amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, ozone, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons that are being pumped into the atmosphere. In fact, the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere alone has not been seen for at least 800,000 years!
The earth is essentially getting warmer, and as a result, its climate has begun to change.
Global annual average of temperature and carbon dioxide concentration. Image courtesy of National Centers for Environmental Information.
Climate change indicators
The effects of climate change can already be seen now, and they are projected to get worse. Some of the observable changes that we can presently see include:
• Global temperature increase: Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 0.9°C since 1880, with the majority of the increase occurring over the last 35 years. In addition, not only is 2016 the warmest year on record, 10 of the warmest years ever have been recorded in the last 12 years.
• Melting polar caps: The Antarctic and Greenland glaciers and ice sheets have melted and lost about 400 billion tons of mass between 1993 and 2016 due to temperature increase. This phenomenon, called glacial retreat, is also affecting glaciers in the Himalayas, Alps and Alaska, among other locations.
• Rising sea level: Average sea level globally has risen by eight inches over the past century. Highly accurate satellite data from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center show that sea level has been rising at an average rate of 3.2mm annually since 1993.
• Ocean Acidification: Oceans absorb about a quarter of carbon dioxide (CO2) released naturally into the atmosphere. This natural process triggers various beneficial chemical reactions in the water, such as reduction in pH balance (hence why it is called ocean acidification) and elevation in carbonate ion concentration. However, as the level of carbon dioxide released from agricultural and industrial activities increase exponentially over the past couple of centuries, the pace of acidification is beginning to spiral out of control. The acidity of water on the surface of the ocean, for instance, has increased by 30% over the last two centuries. Current projections indicate that the ocean’s acidity will increase by another 150% by the end of the century.
• Extreme Weather Events: The number of extreme weather events - rainfall, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, tornados - is increasing with alarming regularity with each passing year. In UK, there have been three extreme weather events in 2018 thus far: Storm Hector on 14 June, the hot spell between 18 and 22 April, and severe winter from late February to early March. Scientist Mr. Peter Stott of the UK’s Met Office claims that the frequency of extreme weather events have gone up from once every thousand days to every 200 days – a fivefold increase!
Why does climate change matter?
Climate change is capable of changing the way we live. Climate change can ultimately lead to loss of life, property and infrastructure. It can also destroy livelihoods, communities and ecosystems. According to an assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which comprises of more than 1,300 scientists from countries around the world, the following sectors will be among the most affected in coming years.
• Scarcity of freshwater resources.
• Extinction of freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, owing to habitat modification, scarcity of supply, specie invasion, and competition.
• Submergence, permanent flooding, and erosion of coastal systems and low-lying areas (the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Thailand will be among the first countries to experience this).
• Destruction of marine systems, leading to lower fisheries productivity. The death of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems will also lead to a cascading chain of events that will effectively stop the supply of cheap protein to a large number of people.
• Food insecurity. Owing to weather fluctuations and scarcity of fresh water, crop yields in temperate and tropical regions are projected to drop drastically, barring any future adaptations. This could lead to major food insecurity in high population areas. Compounded effects of climate change could also lead food production and delivery systems issues.
There are literally dozens and dozens of other ways how climate change could negatively impact our lives. Some worst case scenario projections even claim that large sections of the planet will no longer be inhabitable within a few hundred years. The threat is very real folks, regardless of what Donald Trump and the U.S. Republican Party will have you believe.
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IPCC: Climate Change 2014 - Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability
How do we beat climate change?
Climate change is real; the facts are indisputable. Nevertheless, unless a brand new energy source is found, it’s nigh impossible for the world to fight back against climate change. Our dependency on fossil fuel is absolute, from power generation to transportation and heating to manufacturing. So, how and what can you, with your tiny carbon footprint, do to combat climate change and ultimately, help the planet and yourself?
1. Reduce Your Emission: Start carpooling whenever possible. Speak to your neighbours and colleagues to create a schedule. Use public transportation if it’s an option, and use a bicycle, or walk, for short journeys. Stop using plastic bags and bottles that can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.
2. Reduce Your Energy Usage: 80% of the world’s total energy is generated from fossil fuel. If you use less energy, there will be less coal, peat, natural gas, etc. that will be burned to generate electricity or other forms of energy. So turn off lights you don’t use. Adjust the air conditioner and thermostat in your home and office to optimal levels. Don’t leave your electronic devices on standby; unplug computers and chargers from outlets. Try to use low emission, hybrid or even fully electric vehicles.
3. Be sustainable: Support local recycling efforts. You can actually save up to 730 KGs of carbon dioxide annually by recycling just half of the waste from your home. Pay extra attention to electronic and electrical products. In the wrong hands, they can contaminate soil and take a couple of thousand years to decompose. Visit farmers’ market and flea markets to shorten supply and manufacturing chain. Most importantly, consume and support products and services that are sustainable!
Sure, you can’t stop massive deforestation, pollution and fossil fuel abuse with your efforts. But every little bit counts, particularly if millions of ordinary people and family start caring for the future of the planet. More than that, your children will grow up more sensitive to the environment, and as they grow older, they will lead more sustainable and less polluting lifestyles.