Understanding Climate Change
Climate change is the gradual heating of our planet through the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG). This is a sentence that we seem to hear everywhere. In fact, today, it would be safe to assume that everyone has calculated their carbon footprint at some point.
Yet, how often have we received an explanation to what climate change is? Is carbon really the only gas that we should worry about? And could someone please explain what are all these scopes, or why they even exist?
If you have ever asked yourself one of these questions (or all of them), you have come to the right place. The goal of this climate series is to answer some of these questions along with what we are doing as a group to get involved. In this first blog, we will start from the basics: what is climate change?
Besides the well-known “gradual heating of the planet” definition, we can also explain climate change as the negative effect of human activities on our planet, more specifically industrial activities. However, climate change is also a natural phenomenon in our planet’s evolution. As a matter of fact, our Earth has already gone through several heating and cooling seasons throughout its 4.3 billion years.
But more importantly, according to NASA, Earth’s previous heating and cooling seasons have all happened as a response to natural drivers in our planet’s daily activities (volcanic activity, the sun’s intensity, etc). So, if climate change is a natural phenomenon, perhaps a more accurate question would be: why is this climate change such a big deal?
The simple answer is the greenhouse effect, but more accurately, the significant increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions coming from our industrial activities on the last century. The constant release of gases such as N2O, water vapor, methane (CH4), and the infamous CO2 gather in our planet’s atmosphere and form a type of wall that allows heat to come in but “block it from escaping.”
(Credit: NASA Global Climate Change)
These gases all have special chemical properties but what makes them so important is their two common elements: one, is their strong heating capabilities, and two—they are all emitted from basic human needs like the burning of fossil fuels used to power our cars and electricity generation.
Heating capabilities vary from gas to gas, for example, methane (CH4) is 25 times more capable at retaining heat than CO2, but it only stays in our atmosphere for ~12 years. On the other hand, CO2 remains in our atmosphere and environment for 200 years before it is fully broken down. In other words, methane can be hotter, but it will be out of the atmosphere in our lifetime.
This prolonged stay of GHG is then further enhanced by their second common element: daily industrial activities and consumption of goods. For example, just making a pair of jeans can produce as much as 33kg of equivalent CO2. If we take into consideration the residency of this gas in the atmosphere (~200 years), this means that the CO2 released by only one pair of jeans will still be around by the time our grandkids start a family, but more importantly, is the fact that not just one pair of jeans will be made, but thousands.
Think about it, how many jeans are there in your house?
Then, there are the side effects. As the temperatures and emissions continue to rise, droughts, sea levels and melting of ice layers are also increased. Much like in a domino effect pushing one tile makes the others fall in sequence: increased GHG emissions lead to increased temperatures, hotter temperatures mean more evaporation of water and faster melting of ice layers, these, in turn, lead to droughts in already warm areas and as such affect people living in the region.
A visible example of this is the melting of the Sea of Ice in Chamonix, France. The Sea of Ice, despite what the name suggests, is one of the oldest and largest glaciers in existence today. When the tourist section was installed back in 1988, only three steps had you walking on ancient ice. In 2015, there were already 370 steps, and it continued to lose four to five meters of ice on average since then.
But not all is lost. Since the late 90s, countries around the globe have gathered to discuss climate change and came up with viable solutions to reduce emission levels caused by human activity. In 2015, through the Paris Agreement, countries around the globe agreed on one thing: climate change is real, and more importantly—it affects us all.