Climate change is a complex scientific process that’s hard even for climate scientists to fully understand. You might have heard someone joking about how it’s making the seasons nicer (at least in some parts of the country and continent), so what’s the big deal?
The thing is, even without a complete picture, there is scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is “extremely likely” due to human activities. This consensus has been around for the past 10 years or so and is only growing stronger as technology helps scientists create more accurate models for understanding and predicting planetary shifts.
And yet, many of us still find it taboo to talk about climate change in our communities. We don’t want to confront those who may not agree or don’t understand. We default to relying on politicians and the media to convey the important information. And in the face of such a huge challenge, we feel helpless to do anything.
This article will break down some of the specific ramifications of climate change and talk about how we can take action as individuals to change our current course. This second part is critical because there’s no doubt that humans are the biggest contributors to climate change. We are scientifically linked to climate change, causing more greenhouse gases and creating more waste than anything else. And humans in developed countries bear most of the responsibility for this.
Greenhouse gas emissions
The greenhouse gas effect has been observed since the mid-20th century and is a root cause of climate change. Gases released into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, live for a long time and trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere rather than allowing it to escape into space. These gases come from deforestation, burning fossil fuels, decomposition of waste in landfills, domestic livestock, soil cultivation practices, and the production of synthetic compounds.
As is apparent from that list, there are myriad human activities contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. A few years ago, climate change was still called global warming, because the focus was still on the greenhouse effect (a warming planet). While areas of the planet with extreme temperature ranges may become more habitable over the course of time (areas where few humans currently live), others will become less so (areas already supporting large populations). Unstable water supply is already becoming more common due to the warming planet.
A warming planet means glaciers and permafrost are melting at a highly accelerated rate. Why does this matter? For one, more water creates more heat in the atmosphere. The melting permafrost releases additional greenhouse gases. As the oceans get hotter, they become more acidic, which harms sea creatures. And as Arctic ice disappears, animals that depend on that landscape are becoming endangered. Glacial melting also reduces the world’s supply of freshwater, since they store about 75% of the world’s supply.
There’s also a scientific belief that melting permafrost will release infectious diseases thought long-gone into human populations, threatening human health on a large scale.
Extreme weather events
While extreme weather events are not 100% attributable to climate change, a warming planet exaggerates such events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an independent group of expert climate scientists, explained: “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”
Consider Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Each of these events cost multiple billions of dollars in damages and recovery efforts. And that’s only one type of weather event. Increasingly common and severe tornadoes and flooding are threatening critical food supplies in the Midwest. On an international scale, the entire economy of Sri Lanka is being threatened by a series of catastrophic weather events.
Loss of biodiversity
Changing ecosystems are affecting the other living beings (plants and animals) with which we share the Earth. At first glance, this may not seem to matter, but it affects humans in a number of ways. In addition to the warming planet, human behaviors such as pollution and exploitation of land use are contributing to the loss of biodiversity. Some ways this affects humans include: a loss of opportunities to discover new medicines in plants, loss of carbon sequestration in forests, and reduced availability of food sources.
For example, what is now known as Colony Collapse Disorder, first brought to US public attention back in 2006 after being observed for years around the world, is one example of a threat to biodiversity. There are thought to be multiple factors contributing to this phenomenon, including pesticide poisoning, changes to natural habitat, and new or emerging diseases that threaten the health of bees. It’s directly related to human food supply because bees pollinate many of our crops.
As has become clear, climate change is a nuanced process that involves a number of interconnected activities, consequences, and feedback loops that worsen it. In the face of such a massive shift in our world, what can we do? First of all, remember that individual action does matter. Here are some ways to take part in reducing climate change.
How you can fight climate change
Talk to each other and to your politicians. The people who create policy and pass laws have tremendous power to turn the tide in land use, pollution, and fossil fuel use. Without action on their end, individual action likely won’t be enough.
However, that doesn’t mean individual action doesn’t matter. The more people take part in this fight, the stronger are our chances of reducing how much the planet warms. Start by changing the choices you make in your daily life.
Reduce your plastic use by opting for reusable shopping bags, refillable metal water bottles (as of 2017, 60 million plastic water bottles were thrown away every day in the US), and other durable products made with alternative materials. Such actions reduce our dependence on the fossil fuels required to make plastics and reduce the land use dedicated to storing trash.
Drive less, carpool or use public transit more, and consider switching to an electric vehicle if you can afford it. Fossil fuel use is a huge driver in climate change.
Support local farmers who employ sustainable land use practices. Shop at your local co-ops and farmers markets, and look into seasonal CSAs. Mainstream agriculture releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases and reduces the amount of topsoil, which is important because it contains nutrients plants need to survive.
Make more responsible shopping choices. Spend your money with companies implementing real changes that support the environment, such as zero waste policies, ethically sourced food materials, and renewable energy use. When possible, shop locally to reduce the fossil fuels needed to ship goods.
These are just a few of the many possible steps you can take. Climate change is a huge threat to our way of life, but we can also change the course of it if we’re willing to make shifts and remain vigilant about policy changes.