Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today – and it is set to have a huge impact on generations to come. But what is it, and why is it important?
Don’t blame it on the weatherman
Climate refers to the weather typical for a particular region. So when people talk about “climate change”, we are actually referring to changes in normal weather patterns across the globe. The term “climate change” is often used interchangeably with “global warming”, which refers to an increase in the average temperature of the planet. But actual climate change goes beyond warming to include weather extremes, including more frequent and heavier storms, longer and more intense drought, or even unusually cold weather.
The human touch
The climate is always changing, including due to natural forces such as the distance of the earth from the sun or volcanic activity. But in recent decades, scientists have begun to look at how human activity has been affecting the climate. The scientific consensus is that human-caused release of greenhouse gases is currently causing the climate to change. In other words, driving, flying, agriculture, deforestation and many other human activities are contributing to increasing temperatures and resulting unstable weather.
It’s getting warm in here
Such human activities emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which act as a heat-trapping blanket around the earth. This so-called greenhouse effect is increasing temperatures, which is leading to changes in the weather, melting ice caps and rising sea levels.
Animals can be affected in a number of different ways. In many ecosystems, changing weather affects growth of native plants, or makes conditions less suitable for local animals. But warmer weather also provides a boon to some species, which are able to migrate to new regions where they had not typically been found before. These invasive species can cause problems for other animals that are native to the region.
For example, warming-related pest infestations have killed millions of acres of trees in the American West, while increased water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean is helping the spread of tropical fish such as the poisonous lionfish.
Climate victims and refugees
Humans are also being ever more affected by the results of climate change. People living on low-lying islands such as Kiribati, in the Pacific, are being displaced by rising sea levels, which are eroding the land. More severe weather conditions are also affecting countries like the Philippines and the Bahamas, which has experienced stronger storms – conditions that some scientists have attributed to climate change. The UN estimates that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed as a result of weather catastrophes in the last 20 years.
Insecurity and war
Increasingly, politicians and academics are also looking at climate change as a security threat. Changing weather is leading to food and water shortages, which cause problems in already unstable regions, such as in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
More than 80% of the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere comes from the burning of fossil fuels – and almost half of that is from the energy sector, according to the World Bank. China is the country that emits most CO2, followed by the United States, and then the European Union bloc.
A global solution
Ministers and heads of state from more than 190 governments across the world will be meeting in Paris for the 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21, with the aim of creating a new global climate agreement that would be implemented from 2020 onward. The goal for the climate summit, to be held in Paris, is to get countries to agree to emission targets that will ensure that average global temperature does not rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
The 2-degree limit is an internationally agreed goal. While it won’t stop the impact of the changes that have already been put into motion, experts say it will prevent the worst of the effects. Global temperatures have already risen by around 0.85 degrees Celsius – and, according to the United Nations, will continue to rise by around 0.5 degrees Celsius even if emissions were to immediately stop.
What you can do
It might feel like there is very little you can do to affect what is seen as one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. But every little bit helps. Deciding to walk or cycle instead of driving can cut CO2 emissions, as can learning to turn off lights and the heating when you are not at home.
If you are feeling a little more ambitious, you can also check out what some of Europe’s climate heroes have been doing to combat climate change – maybe they will inspire you toward further action!