What is Climate Change?
Climate change refers to variations in the average conditions of the earth’s climate over a long period of time—anywhere from decades to millions of years. “Climate change” and “global warming” are terms often used synonymously, but global warming is technically a subcategory of climate change that specifically focuses on the earth’s increasing average temperature. Climate change incorporates global warming along with other effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHG emissions), such as changes in wind patterns and precipitation.
It’s not unusual for earth’s climate pattern to change over a long period of time due to natural causes. However, since the Industrial Revolution, the planet’s climate has changed at an alarming rate specifically due to human activity. In fact, each of the past three decades has been warmer than all preceding decades on record. The earth’s rapidly changing climate has many harmful effects, including frequent and intense extreme weather events, rising sea levels caused by ice melting, food insecurity caused by prolonged droughts, and the extinction of numerous animal and plant species.
How do Greenhouse Gases Impact Climate Change?
One of the largest contributors towards global climate change is the increase of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. Greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere prevent heat energy received from the sun from escaping back into outer space, resulting in higher temperatures worldwide. Carbon dioxide and methane are the most commonly produced greenhouse gases from human activity. The Paris Agreement specifically regulates six greenhouse gases, as these gases have the largest effect on climate change: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, perfluorocarbons, and hydrofluorocarbons.
Causes of Climate Change
The primary causes of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are:
1. Burning fossil fuels: Burning oil, coal, and gas produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fossil fuels burned for heat, electricity, and transportation are the United States’ biggest contributor to climate change. Transportation specifically (planes, cars, trucks, ships, and trains) causes the largest percentage of CO2 emissions.
2. Deforestation: Trees regulate the climate by absorbing CO2 from the earth’s atmosphere, so cutting down trees reduces forests’ capacity to pull CO2 from the atmosphere. Not only does deforestation cause climate change, but climate change also causes deforestation in the form of wildfires and other extreme weather events. In addition, deforestation can result in the extinction of plant and animal species due to loss of habitat.
3. Livestock farming: Waste from livestock like cows and sheep produces harmful methane emissions, and the entire meat production process requires a significant amount of water, land, and feed
4. Nitrogen fertilizer: Global agricultural producers rely on nitrogen fertilizers to increase their crop yields, but these fertilizers produce harmful nitrous oxide emissions. Although nitrous oxide represents a much smaller percentage of greenhouse gas emissions than carbon dioxide does, nitrous oxide is significantly more dangerous to the climate because it traps in heat at 300 times the rate of carbon dioxide.
Climate Change Solutions
Solving the problem of climate change will require a massive shift in behavior, technology, and government policy. Proposals for addressing the problem of climate change include:
1. Implement a carbon tax. Creating a financial incentive to produce less carbon could reduce the amount of global carbon pollution in favor of more climate-friendly alternatives. Many countries already price carbon emissions in some manner, but the governments of the biggest carbon-polluting countries in the world must become part of the solution for carbon pricing to have a significant impact.
2. Stop deforestation and restore depleted forests. Deforestation involves replacing forest land with land used for grazing or agriculture, and/or using the timber for manufacturing or fuel. Tropical carbon-sequestering forests in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Central Africa are disappearing at a rate that’s accelerating climate change. Ending deforestation and restoring degraded forests would ensure the removal of a significant amount of carbon from the earth’s atmosphere every year.
3. Promote clean energy and end reliance on fossil fuels. Many world leaders already support subsidies for renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Eliminating government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry would further promote the shift away from oil, coal, and natural gas.
4. Close coal power plants. To meet the IPCC’s climate change goals, global coal consumption must be reduced by two-thirds by 2030. As part of attaining this goal, countries can shut down as many older coal power plants as possible and prevent new ones from being constructed.
5. Restore land rights to Indigenous peoples. While the general public may think of electric vehicles and energy-efficient air conditioners as solutions to a changing climate, forest ecosystems have been regulating the climate long before any of these technologies existed, and Indigenous peoples have served as effective stewards of forests for millennia. Land controlled by Indigenous communities is significantly less likely to be lost to deforestation, and traditional methods of forest habitat preservation can help forestall climate change.