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What Is Climate Change—and How Do We Stop It?

Climate change can be confusing. Here, we break down what it is (and isn't!), how it happens, how it affects us, and how to stop it.

Written by
Kylie Fuller

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a landmark report announcing climate change is occurring at a rapid, unprecedented rate. The findings spurred environmentalists to increase their calls for a more sustainable future, but also generated a lot of eco-anxiety in the process.

Considering the intensifying rate of climate change, it's time to revisit a few important questions: What is climate change? How does climate change happen? And how might it affect you?

First Thing's First: The Myths

Climate science is complicated, to say the least. And there's a lot of misinformation floating around on the internet about what climate change is and what causes climate change. So before we continue, there are a couple common myths to dispel about climate change.

1. Climate change is natural and has happened before.

While our climate has shifted before (think of the Ice Age), the current warming trends are drastically different than those caused by natural forces. This warming is not only occurring at a much faster rate, but scientists at MIT found that, according to previous trends, the Earth should be cooling right now. Scientists have also shown that intensifying sun rays are not causing climate change.

2. If the Earth was warming, winters wouldn't be so extreme.

Considering the extraordinary heatwaves occurring around the world, fewer people are throwing this myth around. However, it was once so common that a U.S. senator brought a snowball into the Senate to prove global warming is a hoax. The Earth, as a whole, is unquestionably warming, and 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have all taken place since 2001. But this is affecting large-scale weather patterns, resulting in hotter summers and colder winters.

Now that we've addressed what climate change isn't, we can address what it really is.

Climate Change 101

First, let's establish some definitions. What is climate change? And how is it different from weather and global warming?

Put simply, climate change is a change in the usual weather. While weather is temporary (as in, today it's raining), climate is (usually) fixed. When the typical weather patterns start shifting—such as more extreme rain, heatwaves, and out-of-the-ordinary winter storms—the climate is changing. Climate change can happen naturally. However, today's climate change is the result of global warming.

Global warming, like climate change, is exactly what it sounds like. It's the long-term heating of the Earth's climate system. Starting in the Industrial Period (which is when large-scale fossil fuel burning began), the Earth's average global temperature has increased by 1.18 degrees Celsius.

That may not sound like a lot, but for the past 10,000 years, the Earth's average temperature has only fluctuated by approximately one degree Celsius. For all of human existence, we've been within this range. Now, not only have we surpassed the maximum of this range, but the Earth's temperature is now increasing by 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade.

Based on current and past trends, scientists believe an increase to two degrees Celsius could change life as we know it on Earth.

How Does This Relate to Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions?

This warming trend, and subsequent climate change, started in the late 1800s. Not-so-coincidentally, this was the start of the Industrial Revolution. Burning fossil fuels release copious amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. These emissions have heat-trapping abilities.

As the CO2 collects in our atmosphere, it's more difficult for heat to escape Earth. That's why CO2 emissions are called greenhouse gases: They trap the heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet.

This brings us full circle: human activity (i.e. burning fossil fuels) causes CO2 to collect in the atmosphere, which traps Earth's heat and warms the planet, which causes the temperature-sensitive climate to change.

How Do Scientists Know This for Sure?

Scientists first noticed Earth's warming trend in the 1800s, but it wasn't until the 1970s that climate scientists realized this ever-growing trend was correlated with CO2 emissions. While the granular science is very complicated, scientists have since used many reliable lines of evidence—from physics to the patterns of temperature changes in layers of the atmosphere to complex mathematical models—that the warming trend from the past 50 years is due to human activity, particularly burning fossil fuels.

The Consequences of Climate Change

Unfortunately, many of us are beginning to experience the effects of climate change. From heatwaves to unprecedented winter storms, it's easy to recognize that climate change is happening all around us. But with language like "climate tipping point" and "climate change dead zones," it's even easier to catastrophize the effects of climate change in the future.

What will climate change look like in the coming years? Will it be a scene out of The Day After Tomorrow? Fortunately, that's not the case. To clarify what climate change might look like for you, we've covered the most ubiquitous effects of climate change.

1. Sea Level Rise

Rising sea levels were the first obvious effect of climate change. As the Earth warms, the ice sheets melt. As this thawed water empties into our oceans, the ocean's volume increases and sea levels rise.

The sea levels have risen about 0.1 inch every year. Runoff from melting ice in Greenland and West Antarctica is expected to increase the rate of sea level rise in future decades. Estimates reach upward to an increase of approximately one meter (three feet) by 2100.

Not only does a rising sea level put coastal regions at risk for obvious reasons, but elevated sea levels also make tropical storms and hurricanes more severe, as evidenced by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

2. Heat and Humidity

As we've all seen this summer, global warming is also having direct effects. As temperatures rise, cities across the world are experiencing heatwaves that cripple infrastructure and put many at risk.

The "wet-bulb temperature" is a critical number for quantifying the risk of these heatwaves. Wet-bulb temperature is the lowest temperature a damp surface can have. Once this number is exceeded, the surface will start to evaporate and dry.

Humidity increases this temperature, meaning a surface doesn't evaporate as easily when it's more humid. When the wet-bulb temperature exceeds about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the human body cannot exchange heat with the environment fast enough to cool down, leading to dangerous overheating.

While this rarely happens in today's climate, such values are projected to become common in some regions if temperatures continue to rise.

3. Extreme Weather

With warmer temperatures, violent tropical storms are expected to become more common, which intensify in warm waters. Scientists suspect this phenomenon explains recent tropical storm seasons' extreme nature.

Hotter temperatures also increase the likelihood of forest fires and create conditions for larger, fast-moving fires. Fires have plagued the U.S. West Coast and the Mediterranean, particularly Greece, this year. The hot, arid air also increased the risk of drought, which affects food and water supplies.

What about winter storms? Shouldn't they become less common? While this may seem intuitive, the exceptionally high amounts of moisture over the oceans intensifies even winter storms. Think of the unprecedented winter storm in Texas that left thousands without running water or power in February of this year.

How to Take Action

There is one more important myth about climate change we must dispel before continuing: Climate has irreparably changed and there's nothing we can do to fix it.

With the effects of climate change devastating some regions and more distressing news from scientists, reading about climate change can be overwhelming and disheartening (to say the least). But scientists agree on two very important facts: Climate change is happening and we have the tools to stop it. We simply need to act now.

According to the scientists behind the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, we can significantly limit climate change with "strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases." Immediate and comprehensive action to reduce CO2 emissions would mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

What can you do to help limit change? While climate change feels like an insurmountable issue, the urgency of our situation requires everyone to become an eco-activist in their own way. There are many ways to help the environment (using less plastic, buying secondhand, etc.), but climate change is all about emissions.

Here are some ways you can reduce your personal carbon footprint and ignite change within your community.

1. Create an Energy-Efficient Home

Our homes use a lot of energy. From electrical appliances to water heating to lighting, most of our daily comforts run on fossil fuels. Switching to renewable energy is ideal (and becoming cheaper across the world), but this isn't accessible to everyone—especially for those who don't own their homes. Fortunately, there are some very simple actions you can take to reduce your daily footprint, which adds up over time.

Compact fluorescent light (CFL) or LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs use 75% less energy than regular bulbs. If 20 million light bulbs to changed to CFLs, it would cut down on greenhouse gases equal to that of more than 150,000 cars each year. And don't forget to turn off the lights when you're not in a room and unplug unused appliances (like your phone charger or toaster). These actions may seem small, but they can save a lot of energy over time.

The majority of our home's energy consumption comes from heating and cooling. By turning your thermostat to 68˚F in winter and 78˚F in summer, you can save 10 to 15% on your energy bill and 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually.

2. Reconsider Your Mode of Transportation

According to a 2017 study, the number one action people can take to mitigate climate change is living car-free. Almost one-fourth of an individual's emissions is due to driving. While going 100% car-free isn't realistic for everyone, reducing how often you drive can still cut your emissions down significantly.

Consider taking public transportation, joining a car pool, or asking your job if you can work from home occasionally. If the distance is short and the weather is nice, walk or bike. Leaving your car at home only two days a week can save up to two tons of greenhouse gases a year.

3. Plant a Tree (Or Two)

Other than burning fossil fuels, destroying carbon sinks (like trees) is one of the most detrimental human behaviors driving climate change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, reducing greenhouse gases. Not only do trees act as mini carbon sinks, but they also help you save energy by shading your home.

The US Department of Energy reports planting three shade trees can save homes hundreds in energy costs annually. This saves you money and makes your home more energy-efficient.

4. Exercise Your Right as a Citizen and Consumer

This is arguably the most important action item on this list. According to the recent IPCC report, limiting climate change will require large-scale changes from governments and corporations. Just 100 companies create 71% of carbon emissions.

IPCC scientists urge individuals to put pressure on their governments and on companies to implement these very necessary changes. This can manifest in myriad ways: voting for climate-friendly legislation, contacting your representatives about climate change, boycotting high-polluting companies, voting with your dollar, and joining or supporting environmentalist organizations.

However you feel most comfortable using your voice, call for change on a societal level.

5. Reduce Your Meat Consumption

After fossil fuels, the food industry is the largest contributor to climate change. The cattle industry makes up the brunt of this industry's emissions. In fact, the aforementioned 2017 study found that a plant-based diet is one of the top ways individuals can help mitigate climate change.

However, you don't have to be 100% vegetarian or vegan to make a difference. By cutting your consumption of animal protein in half, you can reduce your diet's carbon footprint by more than 40%. Consider cutting down on your meat consumption—especially on red meat.

The Takeaway

According to Debra Robert, co-chair of the IPCC, the monumental task of limiting climate change will require everyone. That includes you. While the actions of one individual may be a drop in the bucket, it's a necessary drop.

Recent findings from social scientists suggest a more apt analogy may be falling dominoes. When one person makes a sustainable decision, others are significantly more likely to follow. So your sustainable choices not only reduce your own carbon footprint, but could reduce someone else's, too.