Climate Change Broken Down

Ceilidh Kern, Editor-in-Chief


Severity of global warming around the world. Source: Scientific American

Over the past several years, the health of the Earth has become a critical issue for consumers and activists alike. Whether it is the debate over single-use plastics, water pollution, or climate change, many countries and communities are gradually transitioning towards more sustainable practices even as the debate over these highly politicized subjects rages on.

The term “climate change” can be misleading to many people learning about the subject because there are two types of climate change, one natural and the other caused by humans.

The former has to do with the natural shifting of the Earth’s climate over thousands of years as a result of the planet going through cycles of cooling and warming. It is this kind of climate change that is responsible for periods like ice ages, where the Earth naturally cooled before it warmed again.

The latter of the two, change caused by human activity, is a more recent phenomenon, a result of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This gas, along with others like methane, enter the atmosphere and prevent solar radiation from being reflected back into space, leading to rising temperatures as more heat energy is locked in the atmosphere.

This is called the “greenhouse effect” because it functions in the same way—solar radiation is trapped in a greenhouse, preventing it from escaping, and consequently warming the space.

There is no denying that the climate is warming—it has already warmed by about 1°C (1.8°F) since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-1700s—or that carbon dioxide levels are rising; both of these factors are easily provable and are widely accepted. The debate over this subject is born from what is actually causing the warming and increased carbon dioxide levels, and what can be done to stop it.

While many people argue that the current warming of the atmosphere is the result of the Earth naturally entering a new cycle, others point to scientific evidence and the history of the Earth as proof that what the planet is currently experiencing is anything but natural, but rather a result of human activities—such as burning fossil fuels and accelerated deforestation—that contribute to rising temperatures.

Those who argue that Earth’s current warming is natural contend that the atmosphere already had plenty of carbon dioxide prior to the Industrial Revolution—when emissions of the gas began to skyrocket—and that emissions of it have little effect, and that what little effect they do have is counteracted by so-called “carbon sinks,” like forests or oceans, that absorb that carbon dioxide.

However, those who believe the phenomenon is human-driven point to the unprecedentedly rapid rise in temperatures as proof that it is not one of the Earth’s normal cycles—as American University Professor and Environmental Science Department Chair Stephen MacAvoy explained, “[The problem is] not that the climate is changing. The climate’s always changed, but we’ve just increased the rate of things.” In response to arguments that the rising carbon dioxide levels are from natural sources, MacAvoy points out that the atomic signature of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels is different from that of the carbon dioxide produced naturally, meaning that the ratio of the two types of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be easily compared. When the ratios are compared, it is clear how high the ratio of fossil-fuel derived CO2 is compared with naturally occurring CO2.

Regardless of these two schools of thought, the undeniable truth is that the planet is warming. Contrary to a common myth, rising temperatures have not been and will not be the only repercussion of climate change. As the Earth warms, weather patterns are dramatically altered, which has already had or will have an effect on nearly every place on the planet, with the exception of the deep ocean.

The change in these weather patterns has already proven deadly: arguably all of the “once-in-a-thousand-year” storms that have been regularly destroying communities around the world in recent years are a result of these changes—as these patterns are altered, the likelihood of even more destructive storms increases.

But storms are not the only natural disasters that climate change affects: droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and rising sea levels have become more frequent, less predictable, and deadlier in recent decades. In the past few years, weather events like Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean, and a heat wave that hit India and Pakistan, causing temperatures to rise to 123°F, have occurred, to cite just two examples. Currently, the bushfires raging across Australia surpass any in that nation’s history.

Although all countries on Earth have experienced the impacts of rising global temperatures, recent studies have proven that some will be hit much harder than others. Places such as Haiti; Lagos, Nigeria; Yemen; the United Arab Emirates; Manila, Philippines; and Kiribati were named by Time magazine as being at the most risk due to a number of factors including weak infrastructure and high poverty levels that leave them without resources to protect vulnerable communities.

Despite agreement on the effects of climate change, how to resolve it remains a subject of vehement debate. Those who argue that the change is caused by human action have called for government regulation of corporations and increased investment in developing renewable energy, as well as lifestyle changes for residents. Those who believe rising temperatures are natural oppose these measures, arguing that since the crisis is not human-caused, it cannot be fixed by human intervention. They also claim that there will be negative economic repercussions that would arise from transforming energy and food sources.

It should be noted that there have been and will continue to be economic ramifications for climate change felt everywhere in the world regardless of whether actions are taken to combat it. In the past several hundred years, globalization has connected the continents in an unprecedented way and made economies increasingly interdependent. However, climate change has led to droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and other disasters that have destroyed crops around the world, leading to shortages of many items and global economic and political instability. Additionally, as storms become more frequent, they will increasingly disrupt the paths of airplanes and ships, also disrupting global trade.

Despite this, economic prosperity is possible: as Professor MacAvoy explained, “without even really trying [the U.S. has] decreased [its] emissions down to 1990s levels, [due to increasing efficiency] in some sectors, [and] the economy’s been in the largest economic expansion, I think ever.” The argument that adaptation will lead to economic ruin is simply not plausible—the United States has already reduced emissions even as the economy improves, meaning that although there may be some immediate blows to the economy, felt particularly in fossil-fuel industries, long-term economic growth is more than conceivable.

Thus far, the politicization of this issue has thwarted efforts to persuade the U.S. government to take action on climate change. Many bills have been introduced to regulate industrial pollution and implement measures to counter rising temperatures, though few have been particularly successful. Many administrations, from President Nixon to President Obama, have worked with Congress to pass laws to protect air and water quality and prevent fossil-fuel companies from drilling in national parks and wilderness areas. In more recent years, the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has sought to weaken these laws and provide loopholes for corporations, with some success.

The reality of climate change cannot be ignored—regardless of its causes—and individuals, corporations, and governments alike must take action to prevent it from claiming more lives. City governments across the United States and around the world have implemented policies to become carbon-neutral or better in the coming decades, but measures to become more sustainable must be adopted by individuals, corporations, and federal governments, as well. The past 270 years of unchecked assault of the planet cannot continue, or the coming generations will find themselves facing a never-ending assault of retaliatory natural disasters.