What is going on with the planet these days? Some are saying it’s warming, others that it’s cooling. What everyone agrees on though is that there is something going on. Whichever way you lean today, we believe that the centre of this conversation should be facts and understanding. Here’s to our first batch of objective, cold, sometimes unpleasant, never unverified climate action facts.

What is climate change? How is it different from global warming?

Climate change and global warming are two of the hottest (no pun intended) buzz words out there right now. Often times, though, they’re used interchangeably. So what’s the right way to call what?

Climate change is the umbrella term for all the ways that the world we live in is changing. This could mean anything from the ozone layer getting bigger in New Zealand, to erratic rain patterns in Northern Africa. 

Global warming is a type of climate change, and the term means exactly what it sounds like… the globe is getting warmer. 

A large group of scientists argue that the planet has entered a new geological era in which human activity is now the dominant force over the climate and the environment. This era is called anthropocene. It concerns climate change, but also all the other effects of Humans on their planet.

Why does global warming matter?

The planet’s average temperature has already risen by 1.2°Celsius since pre-industrial times. Doesn’t seem like a whole lot, right on a planet that ranges from Antarctica to the Sahara? Wrong.

This variation has already had a wide range of effects on our planet’s ecosystems, landscapes, and day to day life. The most immediate, perceptible symptoms are natural disasters.

Researchers at the National Resource Defence Council write, “A warmer climate creates an atmosphere that can collect, retain, and drop more water, changing weather patterns in such a way that wet areas become wetter and dry areas drier.” As the world gets even a little bit warmer, weather patterns change and intensify. According to the UN’s disaster-monitoring system, the number of natural disasters has almost quadrupled since 1970.

Why is the world getting hotter?

There are a variety of factors that have influenced world temperatures over the last century, but Greenhouse gases are by far the biggest.

Greenhouse gases are a group of molecules (such as CO2, Methane and water vapour) that “are able to trap heat in the atmosphere, keeping the Earth’s surface warmer than it would be if they were not present.”

Here is a simple equation for any math fans out there!

More gases = more heat trapped in the atmosphere. More heat in the atmosphere = a warmer Earth. This does not mean that greenhouse gas needs to disappear! Without them, our planet would be c

Over the last 100 years, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has risen by 25%. It’s up to us to write the final conclusion. Can we get this number within acceptable measures to maintain a climate and a gas composition compatible with life.

Why are Greenhouse gas levels increasing?

 

The answer has three key ingredients: burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial farming.

Fossil fuels:

Fossil fuels such as gas, coal, and oil, contain large amounts of CO2. They are called fossil because they actually are fossils of trees and other carbon sources (i.e. all life) Burning these fuels to power our homes, cars, and factories releases the CO2 that had been trapped for so long into the atmosphere. In 200 years, we have released 15 gigatonnes of CO2, more than half of which since 1988. 

Deforestation:

When we cut down forests, we take away one of the most important regulators of global warming: plants. Plants absorb massive amounts of CO2 and turn it into oxygen via photosynthesis.

Fewer plants = less CO2 being absorbed = more greenhouse gases = warmer Earth.

What’s more, deforestation often happens by burning the dense rainforest. As trees are mostly made of dried carbon, this releases even more CO2 as it reduces the size of these “carbon sink”. The replacement of forested land by agricultural exploitations is considered the first and foremost reason for the loss of tree cover and the dramatic disappearance of wildlife on Earth. 

Industrial farming:

Farming is also a major cause of global warming. Livestock, particularly cattle, release not just a little methane through their farts, a greenhouse gas that is “twenty-one times more potent at trapping heat from the sun than carbon d.ioxide.”

In Australia, for example, farming contributes 16% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This number rises with the taking into account of the replacement of forests by farms. 

So cow farts are actually contributing to global warming?

Yes. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. And with over 1.5 billion cows walking the Earth as we speak, the amount of methane that they fart out per day is astounding.

In fact, a United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization report found that cows generate “more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent — 18% per cent — than transport.” By the way, those “farts” come from their mouth. Stay away.

How fast is the earth heating up?

The Earth has gotten roughly 1-1.5°C warmer since 1880. Because climate has always varied naturally, following rotation variations and other factors, it is important to understand the speed of this phenomenon to get the Human factor influence. And it’s not looking good for deniers of the human responsibility in this.

The average rate of temperature change in North America since 1970 has been 0.3°C per decade since that date. This is 10x faster than when the planet exits its glacial periods. It doesn’t look good for deniers of the human factor. 

If global warming is real, then why was it so cold and snowy last winter?

Just because global warming is taking place doesn’t mean that certain areas can’t experience colder-than-usual winters. What climate change deniers fail to realise is that this question actually disproves their own point.

Erratic weather patterns, including the massive snowstorms that you had to shovel out of last winter, are actually symptoms of climate change, not proof against it. With the weakening of structuring patterns such as wind or ocean currents, chaotic weather events are actually more likely to happen. This explains the rare weather events we have witnessed recently such as the Irish hurricane last year or the exceptional snowfalls of this Winter.

Regardless of frosty winters, the fact still remains that the average temperature across the Earth is rising. Eleven of the last twelve years have been the warmest on record. When does it become urgent to start reacting?

Do scientists agree that Earth’s climate is warming?

Yes. 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that Earth’s climate is warming. Climate change is not a government conspiracy, it is a scientific reality. Regardless of the statistical insignificance of climate change deniers in the scientific world, there is no credible alternative to that advanced by the vast majority of experts on the numerous fields studying the planet, its biology, its geological behaviour and its variables and variations. To give you an idea, the human-induced factor of climate change is about as doubtful as gravity. That is to say, it is still a scientific theory. But it fits pretty well with the rest of our science, which is math, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, geothermal science, palaeoclimatology, astronomy, astrophysics and a few more we skipped. 

How do we know recent climate change is caused by humans and not due to natural factors?

Over the course of thousands of years, our planet goes through natural cycles of cooling and warming. The average temperature on Earth during the Jurassic period, for example, was around 5°C warmer than it is today (and as far as we know velociraptors had not yet figured out how to make a diesel car).

That being said, the trends in climate change since the industrial revolution are inconsistent with the trends that would be expected from natural factors.

The accelerated rise in global temperature over the last hundred years is, however, consistent with the amount of greenhouse gases that we have been pumping into the atmosphere. Paleoclimatologist Richard Alley explains it better than us.

How does climate change affect ecosystems?

Climate change is hitting plants and animals just as hard as humans. Many ecosystems have not been able to adapt to the rapid fluctuations of air and water temperatures. 

In the United States, for example, climatologists expect droughts and rising to “put some of the 750 million acres of forest acres of forests under greater stress, cause decreased productivity, and increased risk of fire.”

Life can continue onward and adjust to changing climates over the course of many millennia, but not in a 100-year span. We estimate that around 50% of species are modifying their range to move farther North or South. Just check this mindblowing map by cartographer Dan Majka for the Nature Conservancy to understand how influential can 2°C be on living things and general balance of the living and mineral world.

Finally, according to a 2015 report published by climatologists, vertebrate species are vanishing 114 times faster than they should be. This has been labelled the Sixth Mass Extinction Event by scientists, and its happening faster than the fastest one before that, which got rid of dinosaurs.

How fast are the poles melting?

Polar amplification

(Credit: Climate Change Institute)

Due to a phenomenon called “polar amplification,” the North and South pole are experiencing more severe climate changes than any other area on Earth. Ice caps have melted more in the last twenty years than in the last ten thousand years combined. In addition to the destabilising effects on arctic ecosystems, this has had a profound effect on global sea levels.

Greenland’s ice sheet alone holds the equivalent of 7 metres worth of sea level rise. In 2012, the sheet experienced a massive melt, the likes of which had never been seen since researchers began gathering date in 1979. By July 12th, 98% of the entire ice sheet was submerged under a layer of water.

Theoretically, if all of the world’s ice were to melt, sea levels would rise by 216 ft, effectively submerging coastal cities across the world. But don’t run to the hills just yet. This reality would require unchecked greenhouse gas emissions and hundreds, if not thousands of years. 

However, in some low-lying parts of the world such as Bangladesh or Louisiana, only a few centimetres can drastically change the coastline and cause massive floodings in highly populated areas and wreak havoc in communities and ecosystems alike.

How fast are the world’s oceans rising?

In 2014 global sea levels were 6 cm above the 1993 average, and the levels continue to rise at around 0.3 cm per year.

The NASA analyses: “About one-third of sea level rise is caused by expansion of warmer ocean water, one-third is due to ice loss from the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and the remaining third results from melting mountain glaciers.”

It is also important to understand that sea levels do not rise at the same speed – this is a common misconception. The height of water levels varies greatly depending on where in the world the sea is located. Although all oceans are connected, they do not warm at the same rate and do not get affected by the same source of melted water. 

How will global warming affect us 100 years from now?

As of now, climatologists are only able to give a rough picture of how the world will look in 100 years. There are still variables that we do not fully understand. One thing is for sure, though: If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current pace, our planet will be a very different place.

Without a change in our behaviour, the Earth’s mean temperature will increase by 3-5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Even in the best case scenarios, Scientists predict a 2-degree temperature increase. The Paris Agreement set an extremely ambitious target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels. 

The resulting ice melt is projected to raise ocean levels by 1 meter. This would likely spark a refugee crisis for the millions of people living in at-risk coastal areas. By the way, this is a crisis that has already started, and that could become, in the words of the US Army, the first cause of conflict and unrest within the next fifty years.

The rise in temperature and alteration of weather patterns would also likely lead to widespread water scarcity. According to PNAS, “the availability of water is expected to decrease in some areas such as the Mediterranean by up to 50%.”

To answer the question, the Earth could change drastically, at every end of it.

How much does climate change cost?

A lot. And we’re not talking millions, we’re talking trillions. Aside from the environmental impacts of climate change, there are also huge monetary repercussions. In the U.S. alone, the extreme weather due to climate change, as well as the health consequences of burning fossil fuels, have cost the government $240 billion dollars a year for the last ten years. Put in perspective, $240 billion dollars would be enough to provide free college tuition for 11.2 million students. Plan A strives to bridge the gap between the actual level of investment and the necessary steps to be taken now if we don’t want the check to spiral out of control some more.

Is climate change unstoppable?

Climate change is like a freight train. “It takes a big push to get it going, but it is moving now and will continue to move long after we stop pushing it.”

Global warming has reached a point where it is now impossible to completely revert. Even if we were to cut all carbon emissions at once, the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere would continue to heat the planet for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. But this does not mean that we should give up hope! Action can still be taken to limit the environmental impacts of climate change. The very fact that humans now have this tremendous power of influence should convince anyone that it is within our capacity to mitigate and adapt at a very rapid rate and at a large scale. 

The difference between the scenarios of giving our best shot versus not acting at all are as a big as day and night. Ready, set GO! 

What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide that someone (or something) releases into the atmosphere. Calculating your own carbon footprint is a difficult task, but certain online calculators have simplified the process and can allow you to look at a rough estimate of how much carbon dioxide you pump into the atmosphere.

Global footprint map of the world (Credit: Global Footprint Network)

 

*Bonus* Here’s a simple, easy to use calculator that will tell you “how many planets we need if everybody lives like you.” Where do you stand?

What is the world doing to reduce carbon emissions?

If you ask the Bulletin of the atomic scientists, the organization behind the “doomsday clock,” not enough.

But our time has not quite come. States from every corner of the globe are finally beginning to recognize the gravity of the climate change crisis. This increase in political awareness helped foster the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The Paris Agreement, “aims to respond to the global climate change threat by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius” — a huge step forward in the fight for our planet.

196 countries were party to the creation of the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw  the United States in 2020.

Lest we forget to mention the success of the Stockholm protocol in 1982, which eradicated the aerosol and other persistent pollutants which destroyed the ozone layer of our atmosphere with dramatic consequences for our planetary health.

What can I do to reduce my carbon footprint and help in the fight against global warming?

The transition to a sustainable society will require unprecedented international cooperation, groundbreaking public policies, but also game-changing individuals and grassroots initiatives from across the planet.

The scope of the fight is massive, but that does not mean that you should think of yourself as small or insignificant. Each of us can do something to make a difference in our daily lives, and together, our individual acts can become large. Contribute to your local and global community with Plan A

What are the greenest countries on Earth?

According to the environmental performance index, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Slovenia are the top 5 greenest countries on Earth. The index notes that Finland’s spot at the top of the list “stems from its societal commitment to achieve a carbon-neutral society.”

The Index’s researchers also go on to say: “Finland’s goal of consuming 38% of their final energy from renewable sources by 2020 is legally binding, and they already produce nearly two-thirds of their electricity from renewable or nuclear power sources.”

Germany ranks 13th on the list, and the United States is 33rd. 

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy is energy that can be produced using natural, renewable resources, like sunlight, and wind. These sources are already part of the Earth’s natural structure and because they constantly replenish themselves they offer a potential energy reserve that will never run out. There are 5 types of resources in particular that currently dominate renewable energy production.

  1. Solar Energy
  2. Wind Energy
  3. Geothermal Energy
  4. Hydro-Energy
  5. Ocean Thermal Energy

And they’re coming up strong. As the graph above shows, renewable energies dominate the new market and are in full expansion in comparison to fossil fuels.

How does recycling help the environment?

We’ve all (hopefully) dropped a piece of paper, or maybe a cereal box into the recycling bin before. It’s the right thing to do! From the first days of grade school, kids are taught to memorize the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

But what actually happens to that piece of paper after you drop into the metal bin? How does it help preserve the beautiful planet that we live on? The concept is simple: “take something that isn’t useful  anymore and make it into something new instead of just throwing it away.”

What people often forget is that recycling is not limited to paper-based items. The idea of reusing something instead of expending energy to have it remade can be applied to literally anything. You can diminish your consumption, reuse for other purposes your old stuff, and recycle what you can when it’s time to say goodbye.