Climate change has become a remarkably “hot” topic among environmentalists and politicians alike. Setting the bad pun aside, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has identified that 15 of the 16 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. A denial of climate change may exist; however, the current trend is very apparent that something is happening.
The trend appears to continuing into 2016; however, only time will tell if the year will follow suit. What’s a more relevant observation isn’t which year is the hottest but that the trend is clearly indicating that the earth is in a period of warming.
Many people understand that global warming has an association with climate change. In fact, many people use these terms interchangeably; however, that is not entirely accurate. While global warming is a symptom of climate change, there are many more localized symptoms that have been observed around the globe. The most common factors include the following:
- Elevated global and regional temperatures. Complex factors drive how different regions are affected by climate change. Regions such as the arctic, for example, experience profound changes, while others see mild variability.
- Localized droughts or flooding. Greater surface warmth on the planet has the potential to create stronger storm activity; but also has the potential to cause storms to move slower. A slower moving storm will dump more rainfall in some areas; while leaving other areas dry and barren.
- Elevated ocean temperatures. This has been observed consistent with increased surface temperatures.
- Ocean acidification. 30-40% of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) is absorbed into the ocean. This absorption changes the chemistry of the water by making it more corrosive / acidic. The affect has been mild to date; it has been enough where NOAA scientists have observed cases where ocean acidity has dissolved the shell of snails.
- Decreased snow, glaciers, & sea ice. Increased temperatures equates to decreased ice levels. As the ice melts, it also has a direct impact on sea levels.
- Thawed permafrost. As permafrost is heated it slowly warms. This also causes the carbon dioxide tied up in the frost to be released into the air.
- More frequent and intense tornados, hurricanes, and localized storms. Increased global temperatures are driving increased violent storm activity on a global scale.
We’ll cover many of these challenges as we continue; but first, let’s dig into what the drivers for climate change are.
Sources of Climate Change
Climate change is driven through changes to the environment. Those changes are a combination of natural factors such as volcanic activity as well as manmade factors such as the combustion of fossil fuels. Both of these activities trigger climate change through their release of greenhouse gases. The most prevalent greenhouse gases in our atmosphere include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone.
As increased greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, they trap heat within rather than allowing it to escape into space.
Human driven activities such as burning oil or coal for energy causes carbon dioxide to be released into the air. Other activities that contribute to climate change would include deforestation or the raising of livestock for human consumption.
Naturally occurring sources of carbon dioxide have taken place for as long as the planet has been in existence and increased as life developed on the planet. For example, natural decomposition is another natural source of carbon dioxide. The problem is that scientific observations indicate that the long-term carbon dioxide levels on the planet are increasing at an accelerated rate never seen in history.
Scientists are able to measure carbon dioxide levels throughout history by extracting the gas trapped in glaciers. Through this research, they have identified some frightening observations.
The global carbon dioxide level has remained fairly stable between 200 parts per million (ppm) and 280 ppm over the course of the past 400,000 years. Cooler periods maintained levels at the lower end of the range, while warmer epochs held at the high end of the range.
Global carbon dioxide levels in 2013 rose to over 400 ppm for the first time in human history. Further, the growth in airborne carbon dioxide levels can traced directly back to humanity’s growth through the industrial revolution.
As humanity consumes more fossil fuels, more carbon dioxide is found in the air. For context, carbon dioxide levels have grown by over 25% in just 50-years and that growth is at a more accelerated rate each year. Unfortunately, that number could be even worse; however 30-40% of carbon dioxide released into the air is absorbed into the oceans.
It has been over 25-million years since current carbon dioxide levels have been experienced on the planet.
Research has shown that short term variability in climate and carbon dioxide data. The problem is that the concentrations are changing at an unprecedented rate and coincide with human activities that influence those levels.
Climate Change Science
The big question asked by many people is how do we know that human activity is driving climate change – how do we know it’s not tied to natural processes? The short answer is that we don’t know; however, we do have a scientific community that is actively engaged to understand.
Scientists have measured that global surface temperatures have risen 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. This figure represents a global average and it’s important to note that not all areas are impacted the same.
This temperature variance sounds remarkable insignificant; but we need to expand on what this means when we look at it on a global scale. One climate researcher, Dana Nuccitelli explains the temperature increase this way – 1.7 degrees applied to the entire planet represents the equivalent heat energy of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding daily.
This figure comes from Nuccitelli’s research publication “Comment on Ocean heat content and Earth’s radiation imbalance. II. Relation to climate shifts | Dana Nuccitelli, Robert Way, Rob Painting, John Church, and John Cook March 31, 2012”
With such a bold claim, the research results published by Nuccitelli et al have been hotly contested amongst climate researchers since it was released in 2012.
While Nuccitelli’s work represents one team’s efforts, let’s look at the approach used by another team.
Researchers (here referred to as the Cook study) specifically conducted an analysis of peer-reviewed research papers published by the scientific community over a 20-year period. The intent was to identify if there is a consensus within the scientific community that the current climate changes were the result of human activity.
John Cook, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah A Green, Mark Richardson, Bärbel Winkler, Rob Painting, Robert Way, Peter Jacobs and Andrew Skuce
Published 15 May 2013 | 2013 IOP Publishing Ltd | Environmental Research Letters, Volume 8, Number 2
Researchers for this project analyzed a total of 11,944 climate abstracts. These abstracts targeted were specifically on global warming.
The research team identified the following observations:
- Over 66% of research papers do not provide a position or opinion on the cause for climate change.
- 0.7% of the papers reject the idea of global warming.
- Over 32% support the existence of global warming.
- 97.1% of the papers that support the existence of global warming also provided consensus that humans are the source of global warming.
The researchers’ final observation was that 97.1% was the level of consensus for the full 20-year period studies; however, the trend is that this figure is growing every year.
Problem with Climate Research
The Cook et al study referenced above is far from the final word. While environmentalists and conservationists will tout that this is the end of the debate, it’s just not that simple. There is full consensus that the release of greenhouse gases into the environment by humans is bad and has the potential for negative implications. That is where the consensus stops. There is absolutely no consensus on how humanity has impacted the environment, the extent to which humanity has impacted climate change versus natural variability.
Next, opponents have argued that the Cook study did not sufficiently review all the published materials during the 20-year period. Specifically, while this study went through 11,944 abstracts, there were over 43,000 total articles published regarding climate change and over 128,000 articles published regarding climate during that same period of time. The opponents contend that the sampling is simply too small for a topic so critical.
It is important to note that similar studies were conducted in 2004 (928 abstracts reviewed) and 2008 (539 abstracts reviewed) with similar results to the Cook study.
Next, opponents contend that the scientific models simply don’t match what’s going on today and they are unable to use those models to show how they align with what’s been going on few the past few decades. Unfortunately, this is not true. There are plenty of models showing how carbon emissions from humans are driving climate change. Those models may not provide an identical match to real-life; however, climatologist are quick to point out that the recent global temperatures are all taking place during the same period where there has been a decrease in solar activity. Something is obviously going on that needs to be explained.
Climate Change Myths versus Facts
To further our understanding of climate change, let’s examine some of the more prevalent myths out there.
Climate Change Myth # 1: If the planet is warming, why is the ice sheet around Antarctica expanding?
This is a great question. It is true that the surface area of the ice sheet has been expanding. Before I lose you, let me further explain some other important points about the region.
- Antarctica may be extending the ice sheet around the continent; however, the thickness of the ice across the center of the continent is shrinking dramatically.
- Ozone is one of the 4 primary greenhouse gases surrounding our planet… except for Antarctica. The ozone hole above the continent means that the natural blanket that surrounds the rest of the planet is actually missing across a vast area extending through the center of the continent.
- Strong storms consistent with a hole in the ozone layer are driving moisture out of the center of the continent and towards the coasts. As the storms reach the western coast of the continent, the relocated water is dropped into the Ross Sea where 80% of the expansion is taking place. Since fresh water is more buoyant that sea water, the fresh water rapidly freezes causing an expansion of ice into the sea.
- While the surface area of Antarctica is expanding, the total amount of ice present appears to be dropping.
As you can see, this myth fits right in line with what climatologists would expect.
Climate Change Myth # 2: The warming trend has stopped.
This myth simply isn’t true. Look at how 15 out of 16 of the hottest years ever recorded take place since 2000.
Climate Change Myth # 3: The scientific models don’t work.
There have been countless models used to predict what will happen to future climate change. Those models all require inputs for assumptions such as future carbon emissions. Additional research has demonstrated that the models do provide consistent and reasonable projections as seen in an in-depth analysis conducted by Nature magazine.
Nature 517, 565–570 (29 January 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14117 Received 06 August 2014 Accepted 26 November 2014 Published online 28 January 2015
In their summary, Nature identified that most of the disputes regarding models use 1998 as their baseline year. By demonstrating a data set of only 15-17 years, the perception is that the models are wrong and that warming has halted. Moving the baseline back to the 1970s give a much more frightening perspective. In that small period of time, global temperatures have increased over 1 degree Celsius. While that may not sound like much, the difference between now and the last ice age is only 4-degrees. Since the 1880, the global temperature has risen by 1.7-degrees and is continuing to rise.
Climate Change Myth # 4: Climate change is a naturally occurring process.
This is absolutely true. The problem is that climate change has historically taken place over thousands of years. The changes we are experiences are occurring in the span of just a few years.
This myth is also very dangerous because it suggests we should turn a blind eye to what’s going on in the environment without working towards a deeper understanding.
Climate Change Myth # 5: Scientists don’t agree on global warming.
This myth is designed to deceive and misdirect. It is true that scientists do not agree on the extent to which humanity has affected global warming; however, there is broad consensus that humanity has had an impact through our carbon emissions.
A bold act of misdirection was launched under the name Oregon Petition Project. This project was a broad attempt to gather names on a petition showing non-support for climate change research. While it claimed to only include top climatologists, it in actuality does not. No validation was conducted for who could sign the petition which famously includes the Spice Girls amongst the “climatologists” proclaiming climate change and the science supporting it as invalid.
Additionally, several scientists had their emails distorted and then leaked online in 2009. This action was investigated by the Department of Commerce, National Science Foundation, UK House of Commons, the EPA, and several institutions of higher learning, and in every case proven to be a matter of deception to distort perception of the climate scientists. It was proven that the scientists were not perpetuating any sort of hoax or engaged in an attempt to distort perceptions through their research. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done and a vast number of the people that bought into the concept of a vast conspiracy or hoax have refused to accept the truth once investigated.
Climate Change Myth # 6: Warmer temperatures are not a bad thing.
The argument here is that a warmer climate means there will be extended growing seasons and more productive agricultural yields. The challenge here is that this myth ignores a few different considerations. Let’s get into those:
- A sustained change to temperatures means more invasive species. As the climate adjusts, it allows for plant and animal species to migrate into previous unviable locations. Hardy invasive plants take over farm and wetlands while invasive predators can wreak havoc on a local ecosystem’s balance.
- Climate Change is more than warmer weather. Additional effects of climate change are sustained droughts, localized floods. Both of these activities have the ability to completely destroy farmlands.
While warmer temperatures may present a longer growing season, it also opens the door for other risk factors not previous experienced by farmers.
Where We Stand Today
Debate will continue to rage regarding the source climate change. The key however, is to move past this debate and into action.
It has become clear that unprecedented action on a global scale is needed to solve for this problem. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be curbed if we are to leave this planet in a better place for future generations.
Action is not limited to corporations or governments. It’s our day-to-day actions that also have a profound impact.
How You Influence Climate Change
Consumers have the ability to influence climate change in more ways than they realize. Virtually all purchasing decisions have an impact, for example. Let us get into some of the ways we all have an impact on the climate.
- Learn Your Family’s Carbon Footprint: Learn what activities your family engages in and how those activities impact your carbon footprint. By understanding what is driving your family’s carbon emissions, you can make a positive influence on the future.
- Energy Consumption: The amount of energy we consume has an obvious relationship to climate change. Assuming you are not using solar panels or some other renewable source for your power needs, this means you are likely relying on the combustion of fossil fuels for your energy. By reducing your consumption, you can reduce your impact. You can certainly consider installing solar panels; but simple solutions such as Energy Star appliances, LED lighting, and programmable thermostats go a far way to cut your energy costs.
- Reduce Amount of Red Meat Consumed: While we won’t get into the details here, this is probably one of the simplest things you can do that will have a positive impact on climate change. The process of raising cattle for meat and milk production results in massive amounts of methane and nitrous oxide being released into the environment. Methane is a very problematic greenhouse gas as it traps between 70 – 100 times more heat in the atmosphere.
- Carpool: It’s not hard to figure out that taking more cars off the roads will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Organize a carpool where you work and stick to it.
Not everything climate change related is doom and gloom. Regardless of your belief or support in the science, there are plenty of reasons to remain positive.
While not everyone agrees that climate change is taking place, there is consensus that the pollution being pumped into the air is a problem. Nations are working together to implement global standards to bring carbon emissions down, curb massive deforestation efforts, and begin to undo the damage.
Everyday people are making the decision to live a more sustainable life.