There may be no hotter topic (no pun intended) in today’s world than climate change. While protestors take to the streets demanding action and change from governments and companies, others deem the idea nothing more than a waning fad that will fade into the background over time. Yet, science and data are clear. Climate change is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon, and without direct intervention and global changes, the planet as we know it could be doomed.
What is climate change?
Climate change (also referred to as “global warming”) is the effect of rising surface temperatures of the Earth. The term, which was originally referred to as, “climatic change” was first coined in 1966 by the World Meteorological Organization to account for long-term changes in climate regardless of their cause. By the 1970s, however, it became clear that human activity played a critical role in altering the Earth’s ecosystem.
Decades before the term climate change was coined, scientists began collecting data and research on this phenomenon. It was back in the 1820s that the French physicist Joseph Fourier identified the greenhouse effect, and over the next several decades various experiments would identify the types of gases that absorb sunlight and contribute to a changing climate. Instead of being worried about a warming planet in the late 1800s, the idea of a warming global climate was welcomed by scientists. Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius noted, “By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid [CO2] in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s that a warming planet created red flags for scientists. The summer of 1988 was the hottest on record, leading NASA scientist Dr. James E. Hansen to emphatically state that he and NASA were “99 percent certain that the warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere.”
More than 30-years and hundreds of millions of dollars of research after Hansen’s claim, and climate change is still a point of contention in the modern age.
Are humans responsible?
There are two theories when it comes to the cause of climate change. The first states that the rise in surface temperature is a phenomenon that was bound to happen regardless of human intervention and decision-making. The second theory believes that through the use of fossil fuels, poor agricultural practices, and other actions that have degraded the environment, human beings have had a direct negative impact on climate change, making it the primary global catastrophe facing our world.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. While natural drivers of climate change, such as a change in the output of solar radiation from the sun, do play a role in changes in climate, the negative impact of humans in this process is hard to overlook.
For the last 800,000 years, there has never been more than 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. Today, there are roughly 420 parts per million and growing. Not all carbon dioxide is created equal, and the CO2 released as a result of fossil fuels is distinctly different than other carbon sources. Therefore, a direct link between the burning of fossil fuels and the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is evident. There have even been computer models designed to simulate the effect of climate change with and without human intervention.
The potential impacts of climate change
Unlike other issues affecting the world, climate change has the potential to impact almost every area of human life, and even a slight increase in the Earth’s surface temperature can have a profound effect on the planet as a whole.
In 2019 Europe experienced a record-breaking heatwave across the region. The effects ranged from air traffic control issues to lost crops and other damaging effects. Even once the heatwave ceased in Europe, the hot air moved toward Greenland, where it began to melt ice sheets at a record pace.
There are already small effects of climate change being seen by human beings. Seasonal allergies are becoming more intensified as increased temperatures have led to longer pollen seasons, which could lead to an increase in hospital visits for allergy-related asthma. Diseases transmitted by ticks and mosquitos have already more than doubled and continues to rise. Foods grown in higher CO2 atmospheres are less nutritious, leading to nutrient deficiencies in iron, zinc, and protein. People are even losing their homes in devastating wildfires and hurricanes which are a direct result of a changing climate.
Still, some are dismissing climate change
Even with all of the research and data pointing to the negative effects of climate change, there is a vocal minority who continues to brush aside these issues. According to a study conducted by YouGov, between 0% and 6% of people across various countries believe that no climate change is currently occurring. In some countries climate change skepticism is more common than others. For example, in Norway and Saudi Arabia, only 35% of people believe that humans are the main driver in climate change.
One of climate change’s biggest dismissers is United States President Donald Trump. While scientists in the US have made it clear that climate change is a real problem, President Trump has brushed aside these claims. Trump has gone as far as to say the issue will not be discussed at the next G7 global summit, a gathering of world leaders in which climate change has historically been a major point of discussion.
The government in Brazil is also valuing economic growth over combating climate change. President Jair Bolsonaro claims that climate change initiatives are “suffocating the economy” and instead opted to increase agriculture and mining exploration in indigenous areas and rainforests.
Even Google has made political contributions to a dozen companies that campaign against climate legislation, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and State Policy Network, both of which have been active in fighting former US President Barack Obama’s environmental protections.
Is climate change really that dangerous
The short answer is yes. Climate change, if not corrected, has the potential to be the biggest problem facing the Earth in millennia. In fact, we are already seeing the horrific effects of climate change take effect in our lives today. Natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires are at least somewhat caused by changes in climate. In 2017 in the United States alone there were 16 natural disasters that caused $1 billion in economic losses.
An increase of just 1.5o C could result in up to 30% of species being put at risk of extinction. Any higher temperatures and almost all of the planet’s ecosystems will struggle to survive. Marine ecosystems, for example, will see irreversible ecological change, including an increase of disease, a decrease in ocean productivity, and changes in the ecosystem’s food web.
The research is conclusive: if we do not limit the global temperature rise to 1.5º C by 2050, the planet is in for a rude awakening.
How companies can prevent damage
Large corporations are key players in the fight against climate change. In fact, it is estimated that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1998. Without buy-in from large institutions, there may be no turning around this sinking ship.
In food production, companies are now toying with a new farming practice known as regenerative agriculture, which actually pulls carbon from the air and stores it in the ground. Global food supplier General Mills plans to use regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of its farmland by 2030.
More than 150 companies have committed themselves to 100% renewable energy by signing on to RE100, an initiative bringing corporations closer to zero carbon emissions.
What individuals can do
For individuals it is simple: the less carbon you emit as a result of your daily life, the less you contribute to climate change. Ironically, the biggest thing an individual can do to curb their emissions might not be what you expect.
In his book Drawdown, author Paul Hawken cites the proper disposal of refrigerants as the number one action an individual can take to fight climate change. One of the most overlooked ways for individuals to fight climate change is to dispose of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) found in air conditioners and refrigerators cleanly. In some places, such as the UK, recycling companies will dispose of these appliances in an environmentally-friendly manner for a fee.
There are also some obvious changes you can make to play your part in reducing the impact of climate change. Taking fewer international flights will drastically cut down your carbon-emission output. This can be huge, as the carbon output from a single flight can emit more emissions than the average person in a dozen countries around the world.
Diet is the other factor that individuals can change to help balance climate change. Meat consumption is much worse for the environment as it takes significantly more carbon to produce. In order to curb climate change, the average person would need to eat “75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs” in their diet.
An issue that isn’t going away
Climate change is a phenomenon that has been studied for decades. And while there are those who see rising temperatures and an increase in weather-related disasters as a natural unfolding of the Earth, it is clear that humans are playing a large role in these catastrophic series of events.
Many countries have signed the Paris Agreement in an attempt to limit the overall rise in the Earth’s temperature to 1.5 °C or lower. However, reducing climate change will ultimately be in the hands of companies and individuals who have the power through their actions to change the course of history and stave off the impending doom that a warming planet will surely bring. Anything less could mean the end of the human race as we know it.