How Serious Is
Climate Change?

Understand how climate change is studied and why it’s become a major concern for humanity and the planet. 

By Nikky Engelen

What Is Climate Change?

Climate change refers to a change in the average weather conditions of a place over a long period of time. 

Changes in the climate have been naturally occurring for millennia but in the past two centuries, the phenomenon has been accelerated by human activity. Carbon emissions from industrial development, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, have increased the greenhouse effect, driving average global temperatures up faster than at any other time in history. 

With a warmer climate, extreme weather events become more likely. Shrinking glaciers can cause sea levels to rise, which can then cause floods in coastal areas that wash away human settlements and animal habitats. Stronger tropical storms may also become a more regular occurrence as ocean waters evaporate at faster than normal rates.

Is Global Warming the Same as Climate Change?

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, global warming is just one facet of climate change. Global warming refers to the warming of global temperatures due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, while climate change refers to all of the unexpected and abnormal changes happening in the climate, including variations in precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns. 

Of the two terms, “global warming” was the first to enter popular usage. First used by oceanographer Wallace Smith Broecker in 1975 to describe the regulation of heat by atmospheric jet streams, the term became popularised following NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 Congress hearing about the relationship between global warming and greenhouse gases.

What are Greenhouse Gases?

Greenhouse gases are gases that trap solar energy in our atmosphere and keep the Earth habitable. They remained in balance for billions of years until recently, when large-scale industrial activity produced too much of them. As more and more greenhouse gases accumulate in our atmosphere, we run the risk of pushing global average temperatures by more than 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. 

Carbon dioxide is the most well-known greenhouse gas, entering the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, trees, and solid waste. Also widely known are methane, emitted by farting cows and the decay of organic waste in landfills, and nitrous oxide, produced during the treatment of wastewater and agricultural processes.

Is the Earth's Climate Changing?

There’s no doubt that the Earth’s climate is changing. Rising surface air temperatures are warming the atmosphere and the ocean. Sea levels are rising and heat waves are becoming more intense. Scientists have found that the most recent decades are the warmest in the last 2,000 years.

When Was Climate Change First Discovered?

Climate change was first discovered in the 1890s by a Swedish physicist and chemist, Svante Arrhenius. 

A keen observer of human activity, Arrhenius noticed that agricultural practices, such as the clearing of forests for land, could alter local climates. He went on to study carbon dioxide released by factories – an investigation that led him to believe that if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were to double, the Earth’s surface temperature would increase by 4 degrees Celsius. It was to be this discovery that laid the future foundations for climate studies.

Top Causes of Climate Change on Earth

Human activity is the leading cause of climate change. Whenever we burn fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal, we emit carbon into the atmosphere which increases the greenhouse effect. Scientific research has found that since 1750 (just before the start of the Industrial Revolution) the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has increased by 48%.

The leading industries that contribute to climate change are fossil fuels, through the extraction of oil, gas, and coal; agriculture, from the rearing of livestock; and logging, from the clearing of forests that help absorb carbon dioxide. 

Will Temperatures on Earth Continue to Rise?

Climate models suggest that global temperatures will continue to rise decades into the future as a result of continuous human activity. How we use the land and the quantity of fossil fuels we consume will largely determine the amount of warming, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts that global temperatures will rise by 1.5 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

How Is the Weather and the Climate Studied?

Scientists use a variety of land-, water-, and air-based tools to keep track of climate changes. Since their introduction in the late 1950s, these tools have provided a detailed record of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and global surface temperatures. 

To measure the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, satellites and weather balloons are deployed, while for the measurement of ocean surface temperatures, ships and buoys are used. 

From the climate data that has been collected so far, temperatures over land and sea look set to rise steadily. This may further precipitate other changes in the climate, such as sea level rise, stronger El Niño events, and the continued melting of glaciers. If left unmitigated, these changes could affect global food systems and economic development.

How Does Climate Change Affect Us?

Humans are vulnerable to climate change, just like any other species on this planet. Stronger heat waves, poor air quality, and an increase in diseases transmitted by insects are likely to decrease our life expectancy. The changing environment may also impact our food, water, and energy supplies, further reducing our quality of life.

Temperature-related Death and Illness

If carbon emissions are not controlled, many parts of the world may become considerably hotter. According to major climate studies, a warmer climate may exacerbate already difficult conditions in dry and poor regions, making it unbearable for the populations living there. 

The mortality rate for heat-related deaths could rise up to 73 deaths per 10,000 people by the end of the decade – almost the same amount of deaths today from all infectious diseases. 

A warmer climate may also allow tropical diseases to travel away from the equator to more temperate and cooler regions of the planet, creating a net increase in vector- and animal-borne infectious diseases around the world. 

Extreme Weather Events

A warming climate may also increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. Higher temperatures have accelerated the rate of evaporation globally and altered global atmospheric currents, creating the wildfires, droughts, and tropical storms of recent years. 

We don’t have to wait another decade to understand what a warmer climate will mean for our future – just a quick look at temperatures in California, which have risen by nearly 2 degrees Celsius in the past century, shows that drier conditions lead to uncontrollable wildfires and droughts.

Air Quality Concerns

Scientists warn that climate change could bring about a variety of negative changes in our air quality. As the climate warms, pollen seasons could become longer – which can increase allergic sensitizations in both adults and children. 

Hotter temperatures may also lead to a boost in ground-level ozone and wildfires, making smog more likely. 

The rise in outdoor fine air particles may increase hospital admissions for reduced lung function and asthmatic episodes, and cause premature deaths.

Impacts on Surrounding Ecosystems and Animal Life

Most worrying of all, climate change can fundamentally transform ecosystems and food webs. Extreme weather events such as floods and droughts can overwhelm the ability of ecosystems to maintain balance. In arctic and mountain ecosystems, for example, climate change has already caused a loss of habitat and food supply for polar bears and walruses. 

These impacts are not limited to the natural world only. The loss of pollinators, such as bees, to climate change can complicate our ability to grow fruits and vegetables, while ocean acidification, caused by high levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean, can lead to a significant reduction in fish stocks. 

Our survival as a species is highly dependent on the health of global ecosystems. Unfortunately, climate change has already begun to damage them.

What Industries Impact the Climate the Most?

Over the last 150 years, human industries have altered the state of the planet. Nicknamed the “Anthropocene”, this era of human domination has drained the Earth of its natural resources and reshaped the chemical composition of the atmosphere and ocean.

Among the industries most responsible for this change are transportation, electricity production, and agriculture. They are the largest source of greenhouse emissions, and in the United States, total about 77 percent of the nation’s 2019 greenhouse gas emissions. 

Most emissions come from the individual burning of fossil fuels when we drive or fly, as well as when we generate electricity and produce goods for our communities. 

Even banking, to an extent, is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Oil and gas companies rely on capital from major banks to operate. The interconnected nature of the global economy, is in many ways, keeping fossil fuels alive.

Take Climate Action: Simple Ways to Get Started Today

Despite the rather bleak future that climate change brings, there are many ways for you to help limit it. Small changes in your lifestyle can help reduce your carbon footprint and encourage others to follow suit. Here are five simple things you can do today to fight climate change. 

Monitor Your Energy Usage

The easiest way to start is by monitoring and reducing your energy usage. Just turning off lights and appliances when you don’t need them can help you save on utility bills and keep your carbon footprint to a minimum. You could also replace light bulbs with energy-efficient models to reduce your energy consumption over the long term. 

Turning down the heat on your thermostat or using the air conditioner occasionally can also help reduce carbon emissions. These appliances use large amounts of energy and may release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Consider Your Sources of Food

The food that you eat has a major impact on the environment. The need to feed the global population has led to a rise in factory farming, where livestock is reared in cramped, inhumane conditions to increase output. Factory farms contribute to major deforestation, as forests are cleared for farmland. 

They also produce up to 1 million tonnes of manure per day, which if mismanaged, can cause severe water and air pollution. 

Choosing to eat meat, grain, and vegetables that are organically grown might be a better way of living responsibly. Unlike factory farms, organic farms grow meat and produce sustainably without overburdening the soil or water supplies.

Reduce Your Transportation Emissions

Our reliance on fossil fuel vehicles is one of the main causes of climate change. If you live in an area where public transportation is available and easily accessible, try to use it as frequently as possible to help drive down air pollution. 

Public transportation produces lower quantities of air pollutants than single occupancy vehicles per passenger mile as it’s able to transport more people over longer distances on a single journey. 

Switching to an electric vehicle (EV) can also help you reduce your carbon footprint. EVs can be charged using renewable energy such as solar or wind, which can further minimize carbon emissions.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Every product or service we buy requires a lengthy supply chain to support its production and delivery. When we produce waste, even just by buying a single-use bottle of water, we squander the resources taken to produce the product. The waste ends up in a landfill that releases methane and toxic sludge, which over time can contaminate our water supplies and kill animals. 

The alternative is to reduce, reuse, and recycle the products you consume. Doing so helps you save costs and prevent environmental pollution. And where possible, rely on renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy to produce power for your home and office. 

Renewable energies are now becoming more cost-effective than fossil fuel-generated power, and can help you reduce your carbon footprint significantly.

Divest from Fossil Fuels

You can also fight climate change with your bank account. Major banks are well-known for funding the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, from providing loans for drilling equipment to facilitating stock investments in oil and gas companies. 

By closing your accounts with these banks, you help limit the amount of capital they have for providing loans to fossil fuel companies. Divestment also signals to big banks that you, and other customers, are unhappy with their fossil fuel lending policies. 

At Aspiration, we made it our commitment to not invest in any fossil fuel projects since our founding. As a B Corp certified online financial institution, it’s our mission to help our customers grow their wealth and do good for the planet.

Future Effects of Climate Change: Why We Must Act

We must take action to fight climate change before it becomes irreversible. Leading climate scientists predict that unmitigated climate change could raise global temperatures beyond conditions bearable for regular life. Megadroughts may become widespread and heat-related illnesses could claim thousands of lives per year. That’s not to also mention the impact that rising sea levels could have on coastal cities and marine habitats. 

By acting now to reduce our carbon emissions wherever possible, we have a chance at keeping warming below 2 degrees celsius. It’s only through sustainable development that our planet can have a chance at recovering from the impacts of human activity.

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