Science, Now + Beyond

ASK A SCIENTIST: What really is climate change?

You trust the scientific community, but do you actually know what climate change is and how it works? Find out here!

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you believe climate change is real (though if you don’t, please keep reading!) — but do you really understand what it is?

Sure, you believe the scientific community; after all it’s their job and not yours to understand these things, and the overwhelming consensus among the experts is that it’s real. But as climate change becomes more of a hot button political topic, it’s becoming more important for all of us to understand what’s going on.

So, let’s break climate change down, piece by piece, and get a rudimentary understanding of what it is, how it started, and what it may do in the future.

But before we get started, let’s be clear about something really important: the difference between global warming and climate change.

Global warming is the constant, increasing trend in average global temperature that’s caused by increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It causes climate patterns to change, but it’s only one aspect of climate change! Climate change is any major change in climate, like temperature, precipitation, wind, etc., that lasts for an extended period of time.

So while global warming is part of what’s going on, you’ll hear most people say “climate change” in order to acknowledge the full scope of what’s happening. It’s not just hotter temperatures, it’s stronger storms, colder winters, increased acidity in the oceans, etc.

What causes global warming?

When sunlight hits the earth, it’s reflected back up and some of it is absorbed by greenhouse gas molecules in the atmosphere. The absorbed heat is redistributed through the atmosphere, which is usually a good thing because it helps keep the earth warm enough for us to live.

Greenhouse gases are water vapor, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons. Greenhouse gases occur naturally but since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a huge increase. Human activities like burning fossil fuels (releasing carbon dioxide), deforestation of trees that absorb carbon dioxide, and synthetic chlorofluorocarbons from industry have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus causing more sunlight to be absorbed and kept on Earth. So instead of just enough sunlight, the atmosphere is trapping more and more of it.

What are the effects of climate change?

We’ve already begun to see the effects. The polar ice caps are melting. Certain populations of animals have to migrate or adjust behaviors because of the different climate. Sea levels are rising. There’s more precipitation worldwide. We’re already starting to see strong storms become more normal. It’s amazing how much a difference these make.

I mean, did you know that climate change was a big factor in why Hurricane Sandy did so much damage?

The warmer, higher ocean levels provided more water vapor, which contributed to Hurricane Sandy’s heavy rainfall. The changing ocean currents were part of the reason why the East Coast, particularly New York, was hit so hard by surges. Hurricane Sandy didn’t behave anything like we’re used to.

What could happen in the future if nothing changes?

If you look into the future, things get dicey:

  • Increasing sea levels could flood major cities like Boston, New York, New Orleans, and that’s just in the US.
  • The kinds of crops we eat now may not grow anymore.
  • Temperature increases could get so drastic that your great grandchildren could grow up in the same city as you, but with totally unrecognizable weather.
  • Areas closer to the Equator could become uninhabitable altogether.
  • There will be more precipitation worldwide, especially in Northern areas, and both hurricanes and winter storms will be more intense. Warmer oceans allow storms to keep up their strength as they move towards land.
  • Humans could find themselves more prone to disease due to increased mold from heat and humidity. That’s right, climate change could make your allergies worse.

Check out this graphic from the EPA to see what scientists think future greenhouse gas concentrations will look like, give or take some social, economic, and technological conditions.

As you can see, not all the paths are dire. There’s a possibility that we could be on the green or blue lines, maybe even the red one.

But in order to get to that red line, we have to get a handle on emissions.

What we can do now?

You know the obvious things like recycling, less driving, and using energy efficient appliances. You probably also know how important it is to vote for officials who want to stop climate change. But don’t get discouraged by corporations who refuse to make the necessary changes. There’s still plenty to do! The next time you move, try to pick a place that is close to your job. Reject consumerism and buy less stuff. Try to eat less meat, especially red meat (cows release sooooo much methane gas). Better yet, donate towards clean energy research.

Image result for infographic climate change

Humans are responsible for climate change, but we can work to stop it. And one of the things you can do it is to get other people informed so more people are concerned.

Pass this article around to your friends. Read up on more explanations of how it works to really hammer it into your brain. The EPA, NASA, and PBS are awesome resources, as is our good friend Bill Nye the Science Guy. Get the facts, and take baby steps if you’re not a science-brain.

And the next time you’re at a cocktail party and someone says something skeptical about climate change? Blow their minds with science!