Last updated January 18, 2024.
This photo is the typical emotion-evoking imagery of a polar bear suffering from the effects of climate change. I love polar bears, and I of course would like to protect them and all wildlife. But the hard truth about climate change is that if we don’t act and make big changes now, the Earth will become uninhabitable for humans. For us.
There is also the common phrase, “Save The Earth!” But the Earth will survive us, as it has survived 5 major extinction-level events already. It’s not the Earth that we need to save. It’s ourselves. We need to save the humans.
We are experiencing a climate change crisis. But I’ve discovered that many people don’t really understand what climate change is or what it means. Climate change is a complicated combination of physical science, meteorology, oceanography, physics, and chemistry. But that doesn’t mean it has to be incomprehensible. So I thought I’d write an article that explained it, simply.
It’s a series of events that combined, will spiral out of control.
What is Climate Change?
Climate is the pattern of weather conditions over a long period of time. Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. It is a natural and gradual process, allowing life on Earth time to adapt to the changes. But human activities are making climate change happen faster than life can adapt.
The greenhouse effect is the natural process that keeps our planet warm, liquid, and habitable. If all the water on the planet was frozen or gas, nothing would survive. The balance of gases in our air traps the warmth in our atmosphere, keeping the temperature just right. But human activities have thrown off the balance of gases in the air, which is making the Earth warmer. Typically, some of the heat from the sun enters the atmosphere of Earth and then bounces back into space. But CO2 traps and holds heat, causing the Earth to warm.
On top of that, humans are releasing other, more harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, throwing the balance off further. These include methane from animal agriculture, F-gases (fluorine) from air conditioning, and nitrous oxide from fertilizers. This imbalance has resulted in global warming, which is the long-term heating of the Earth’s surface.
The ozone layer is a thin part of the Earth’s atmosphere that absorbs almost all of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) light. Think of it as a protective layer. The ozone layer is thinning because of the changes in greenhouse gases. The thinner the ozone layer, the more radiation and UV enter and warm the Earth. (Conversely, when less radiation and UV from the sun reaches Earth, the colder the global temperatures. This can happen when volcanic eruptions create huge clouds of ash and block the sunlight.)
What are humans doing to cause this?
It starts with carbon. Carbon is in all living things as well as in the air, rocks, and soil. Carbon dioxide, which is carbon and oxygen together, is the main cause of the greenhouse effect. The carbon cycle is simply the transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to living things to Earth and the oceans and back to the atmosphere again. So when things die and we expend energy from dead animals and plants, such as burning fossil fuels, we release extra carbon.
Fossil fuels refer to coal, crude oil, and natural gas, which are made from the remains of plants and animals that died millions of years ago. Coal comes from ancient tree trunks that were buried under many layers of rocks. Oil, or petroleum, was made from the remains of tiny sea creatures that formed a thick sludge on the seabed millions of years ago. That sludge also created chemicals that bubble out as “natural” gas. The burning of these creates energy that humans use to power machines and factories, as well as generate electricity. But when they are burned, they release carbon that was previously trapped and not part of the regular carbon cycle. This extra carbon is causing the greenhouse effect.
Eighty-one percent of the total energy used in the U.S. comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. “This is the energy that is used to heat and provide electricity to homes and businesses and to run cars and factories. Unfortunately, fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource and waiting millions of years for new coal, oil, and natural gas deposits to form is not a realistic solution. Fossil fuels are also responsible for almost three-fourths of the emissions from human activities in the last 20 years.”1
We are using up something that took millions of years to form in just under two hundred years. It just doesn’t make sense.
“Our careless use of fossil fuels has set us the greatest and most urgent challenge we have ever faced. If we do make the transition to renewables at the lightning speed required, humankind will forever look back on this generation with gratitude, for we are indeed the first to truly understand the problem and the last with the chance to do anything about it.” -Sir David Attenborough, A Life on Our Planet
The Role of Forests
Trees, forests, and rainforests absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. But we are cutting down thousands of trees and forest daily, a process referred to as deforestation. Deforestation not only depletes the oxygen released by the trees and plants previously there, but it also increases the amount of carbon dioxide released. When forests are cut down, the trees and plants release the carbon dioxide that was stored inside of them.
Forests maintain soil structure and moisture. Deforested areas become very dry and warm because there are no trees or plants to release water vapor into the air. This is called transpiration, which also helps keep the air cool and is sometimes called “nature’s air conditioner.” Trees also prevent erosion because their roots keep the structure of the ground stable. When trees are removed, that structure disappears and can allow landslides and floods to happen.
Also, forests of all kinds are home to thousands of plants and animals that lose their habitats during deforestation. Some animals will migrate, but many species die off as a result.
“From the 1950s to today, about one-fifth of earth’s forests have been cleared.” -Tom Szaky, Terracycle2
The Role of the Ocean
The oceans play a huge role in the climate and climate change. More than half of the Earth’s oxygen is produced by algae and phytoplankton that live on the ocean’s surface. The more we deplete the ocean of phytoplankton through global warming and pollution, the less oxygen is produced. The ocean also absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, about one-quarter of the CO2 that we create when we burn fossil fuels.
However, all that extra carbon is causing the ocean to become more acidic. This is called ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is contributing to the destruction of coral reefs. Additionally, warmer ocean temperatures are causing coral bleaching, which is essentially the death of the coral reef system. Coral reefs provide food to sustain about 25% of marine creatures; marine creatures that humans rely on for food and money. Coral reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion and provide jobs for local communities through tourism.
“To date, the ocean contains 90 percent of the heat from human-induced global warming, and the year 2020 was the warmest ever measured for the global ocean.”- NASA3
The Role of Ice
Warmer ocean and air temperatures cause ice to melt. Melting permafrost (frozen ground) and melting glaciers release greenhouse gases. Those gases that were previously trapped could further speed up global warming. Ice melt causes sea levels to rise. Further, water expands as it warms. For each 1.8°F the global temperature rises, sea level rises almost 1.3 feet.
Seas rose in the 19th century by half an inch. The 20th century saw almost 7 inches in sea level rise. In the first two decades of the 21st century, we’ve reached a rate of 12 inches per century, and it continues to increase. It will continue to spiral. Scientists expect another rise of 10 to 12 inches in just 30 years, by 2050.
Further, the more ice that melts, the less white reflective surface there is, thus heating up the Earth’s surface even more. Between rising heat, sea level rise, drought, and floods, millions of people will be displaced and have to migrate. This will put a strain on already overpopulated areas and food sources.
“Never before have the actions of humans been able to change the sea level on Earth.” -Keltie Thomas, Rising Seas4
Climate Change Causes Extreme Weather
Climate change also creates more extreme weather events. This includes stronger storms, hurricanes, and tornados; more rain at one time and then flooding; drought in other places; and wildfires (to which droughts directly contribute). Our natural disasters are getting worse and more extreme.
Dr. Reed Timmer, an extreme meteorologist and storm chaser, has personally witnessed the impacts of climate change. As he explained to News24.com, “The impact of global warming is obvious with the hurricanes because the frequency is increasing so dramatically, especially over the last 10 or 20 years. The hurricanes are thriving off of the warmer ocean temperatures and intensifying as they’re making landfall, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Usually there’s a little bit of a ribbon of cooler water, or a lot of times those hurricanes will wrap in dry air as they’re about to make landfall in the Gulf of Mexico, which will cause them to weaken a little bit. But these days, they’re intensifying and ramping up.”5
Other Climate Change Problems
The spiral effects of climate change are exponential. Here are a few more examples, though this certainly is not an exhaustive list.
Warmer temperatures allow insects to survive and thrive. For example, mosquitos thrive in warm climates and spread diseases. The warmer it is, the more mosquitos, and the more disease they can spread. Viruses, too, spread more quickly in warm climates, so we could see more pandemics in the future.
Harmful algal blooms are when algae grow out of control. Some can produce toxins that are harmful to fish, mammals, and birds. But even non-toxic algae depletes oxygen as they decay, creating dead zones in waters. Life cannot survive in places depleted of oxygen. Algae can also clog fish gills, and smother corals and plants. While algal blooms do occur naturally, their increase in occurrence and intensity results from human activities, such as human-induced global warming.
Wildlife suffers from climate change, too. Not only do they lose habitats from deforestation, pollution, wildfires, and storm damage, but they also have to adapt to changing temperatures and access to food and water. If we lose biodiversity, the health of our own habitat will suffer too. This will lead to a decrease in food and clean water for us.
Drought and severe flooding threaten our access to freshwater sources. Additionally, pathogens and waterborne diseases from extreme rain or snow melt flow could threaten drinking water supplies.
“The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependent on that world. It provides our food, water and air. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.” -Sir David Attenborough
We Must Change
Our population is increasing exponentially. This is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Our population will keep increasing, putting stress on the land, food, water, wildlife, and other natural resources. The garbage we create and put in landfills releases methane and carbon dioxide into the air. The more people, the more waste we create.
Our lifestyles, especially in the western world, are not sustainable. We have to change and consume less – of everything. As filmmaker and environmental activist Rob Stewart wrote, “Our species has been here on this earth for 200,000 years, and in the last thousand, we’ve grown from 100 million people, to more than seven billion. We’ve created enormous advances, and lifted our species higher than anyone dreamed possible. But in the next hundred years, we face a problem so large it threatens our species as well as every other.”6
The solution to saving ourselves is to come together, as a globe, and make great changes. We have to set aside politics, commit to change, and put policies and procedures in place as soon as possible. We cannot keep setting far-off dates for goals and new practices. Waiting until 2035 or 2050 to worry about the climate change crisis isn’t going to help. We just don’t have that kind of time before it spirals out of control.
We need to consume less of everything – all of us. Save the humans! Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!
- Page, “Fossil Fuels,” National Geographic Resource Library, accessed October 2, 2022.
- Book, Make Garbage Great: The Terracycle Family Guide to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle, by Tom Szaky and Albe Zakes, Harper Design, New York, 2015.
- Page, “Frequently Asked Questions: Is the ocean continuing to warm?” NASA Global Climate Change, accessed October 22, 2022.
- Book, Rising Seas: Flooding, Climate Change and Our New World, by Keltie Thomas, Firefly Books, Buffalo, NY, 2023.
- Page, “The hurricane hunter: Meet extreme meteorologist Reed Timmer and his tornado-chasing terrier Gizmo,” News24.com, September 30, 2021.
- Book, Save the Humans! by Rob Stewart, Random House Canada, Toronto, 2012.