This is a break from my norm on this site, and is Part 1 of 2 well-researched articles about the effects of climate change, how worried we all should be, and what we can do about it.
Scientists pretty much everywhere agree that the earth is getting hotter. Climate Change deniers can be safely put into the same camp as holocaust deniers – one set of nasty people attempts to deny the existence of a horrifying and preventable tragedy that claimed the lives of millions of people, while the other set of nasty people attempt to deny the existence of a horrifying and preventable tragedy that will claim the lives of BILLIONS. 14 of the hottest 15 years on record have occurred in this Century. The last three decades were the hottest thirty years in the last FOURTEEN HUNDRED YEARS. If it seems like every year is the ‘hottest summer ever’ that’s because it actually, literally is. Every year. The earth’s getting warmer, folks, it just is.
Okay, but why? There’s a few possible explanations for this, so let’s look at them. (Hint: The right answer is greenhouse gasses)
1) The Sun’s getting hotter. It’s all the Sun’s fault. Curse you, the Sun!
Well, that’s broadly true. Our local star, over the last hundred years has gotten a bit hotter. On average. But since the 1960s, its temperature has actually started to drop a little, while temperatures on Earth have risen constantly over the same period. Moreover, the temperature rise that has been recorded in the lower atmosphere (on Earth) is not observed in the upper atmosphere, while it would be universal if the Sun were getting hotter.
2) The Earth just changes its temperature on its own! Ice ages! Mammoths!
Yep, this is true too. Over the last 500 million years or so, the Earth’s temperature has varied massively. The thing is, it’s been an erratic curve tending towards stability – for the last twelve thousand years or so, in the Holocene epoch we’ve had a pretty constant temperature of about 16°C. As a consequence, modern humanity has existed for around twelve thousand years. Funny that. It turns out that we’re pretty good at surviving at this temperature, and that’s the problem: If we don’t change our current behaviour, we’re on course for a 4-5°C rise by 2100. The last time a 5°C swing in temperature happened naturally was about thirteen thousand years ago, and it took over a THOUSAND years. It was the swing in temperature that allowed humanity as we know it to form. We’re looking at a similar temperature change but this time over the span of about a hundred years. There are people alive today who may very well witness the extinction of our species.
3) Human culture causes Climate Change – it was inevitable!
Sort of. Well, no. Not really. All of human civilization has only existed for around six thousand years, and in all that time the Earth’s temperature change has been… well, it hasn’t. It’s been more or less the same for twelve thousand years, and for six thousand of those, we were building cities and farming, practicing science and creating art and culture. Y’know, being modern humans. Temperature has really only started to deviate from this norm in the last hundred years.
So what changed?
4) Greenhouse gasses. Industrialisation! Factories and cars, baby!
We use the Earth’s temperature in the year 1880 as a baseline for comparison to modern temperatures and we call it ‘pre-industrialisation’. From the 1880s, we humans have been doing some dumb, dumb things. I mean, we didn’t know they were dumb back then but we do now and we’re still doing them. We started building factories and producing cars and airplanes, and churning out more and more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Why are greenhouse gasses bad? Let’s find out – it’s Science time, kids.
Okay, so the Sun sends energy into the earth via rays of light and heat. This is good, we like this. Some of the energy is reflected from the surface of the earth by the polar ice caps and the oceans, and some dissipates naturally, while the rest is trapped by a ‘greenhouse’ of gasses. This greenhouse is comprised of a bunch of gasses, MOSTLY water vapour (H2O) but also methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in much smaller parts.
Industrialisation and human activity over the last hundred years has significantly increased the concentration of these greenhouse gasses. Nitrous Oxide is produced by fertilizers that we now use. Methane is released by the degrading of our waste in landfills as well as through agriculture and management of domestic livestock. Carbon Dioxide is produced by… well basically everything. Anything you think of as a pollutant. Cars, planes and factories – oil, coal and gas power stations, us BREATHING…
So greenhouse gasses cause global warming? Fine. I don’t get the bad of this.
The bad of this is pretty bad. Heat is a type of energy, right? So as the earth warms, the amount of energy on our planet grows, which leads to horrendous weather patterns: more violent storms – hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters like floods and forest fires. We’re seeing this already. These violent weather patterns affect the polar ice caps and the polar ice caps start to melt. We’re seeing this already. On December 29th 2015 (that’s about 4 months ago at time of posting) The temperature at the NORTH POLE in the MIDDLE OF FREAKING WINTER, had been recorded at around 1.1°C. That’s above freezing point. It was warmer at the north pole in winter than it was in your freezer. It was 40°C warmer than the average temperature of the high arctic at that time of year, and the first time in human history that the North pole has gone above freezing point in winter.
All of this has several terrible consequences:
1) Dead polar bears.
We lose a precious and necessary global ecosystem and many animals and organisms are rendered extinct. But they’re just animals, like us, so who cares? Well, on our current course more than one million species will be extinct by 2050 as a direct result of climate change, and it’s definitely not limited to polar bears. Plants and animals all over the globe are adapted to very specific environments and bio-habitats. By messing up their environments, we are killing them off. This is a horrifying blow to our already dwindling biodiversity and makes viruses and diseases in the remaining populations much much deadlier. Ecosystems that are less biodiverse are worse at providing necessities for life like food, clean water and stable weather climates. In fact, the lack of clean, drinkable water as a result of climate change is one of the major threats to humanity. It will force mass migrations on a scale never before seen and will likely render the planet ungovernable.
2) The polar ice caps melting makes climate change much worse.
How’s that you say?
Methane. Methane is 30x more dangerous as a greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide, but there’s much much less of it in the atmosphere and we release much less methane than we do Carbon Dioxide. The same is not true of the antarctic. Under the ice caps is stored billions of tons of methane in the form of biomass and swamp-gas reserves. As the ice caps melt, they release this methane and speed up global warming immensely, which melts the ice faster, which releases more methane…
3) We lose our mirrors.
Ice is a huge white reflective expanse that covers 10% of our planet and reflects 80% of the sunlight that reaches it. sea water on the other hand absorbs 90% of the sunlight that reaches it, which warms the ice further and melts it quicker – less ice, more water, hotter planet. Bad for us.
4) When the levee breaks…
Sea level rise is hotly contested, because while it is definitely happening, the models that have been used to predict its rise have massively underestimated the impact of climate change so no-one knows exactly how much Sea levels will rise or how quickly. But with 44% of the world living in coastal areas, and even at conservative estimates one third of coastal areas set to be flooded in a hundred years, that’s 15% of the world displaced. Not to mention that the 15% displaced include 60% of the world’s biggest cities with all their infrastructure. Currently 14 of the largest 17 cities are coastal. The world looks set to have a population of around 11 billion people by the year 2100, which puts us at 1.65 billion people to rehome, having lost most of our developed coastal land. That’s about the combined current populations of China, Russia and Japan. You think the Syrian refugee crisis is bad? Just wait…
So what can we do about this? How can we avoid catastrophe, ruin, and the end of humanity? Well there are several answers to that very complex question and I will address them all in my next article: How do we solve Climate Change.
Hate this? Want to know more? Wish I’d stop writing tl;dr articles and get back to short bits of fiction? Tell me! I’d like to know! I’d be more than happy to discuss any or all aspects of this article, so please respond in the comments below or tweet me @Sellpen.