We'll start with climate change for two reasons. First, of all of the specific issues in this lesson, this is the one that potentially has the most devastating impact because of the scale of the problem. If the climate continues to change, the impacts will likely be catastrophic and on a global scale. Second, climate change will likely impact all of the other sectors of sustainability and society, including all of those listed in this section. It is absolutely essential to understand climate change if you want to address sustainability. The following is a short list of facts that indicate why we should be concerned about the human influence on the climate.
First, a few important terms:
- Greenhouse effect: the term used to describe the phenomenon whereby infrared heat warms the lower atmosphere of the earth or another planet due to the gaseous content of the atmosphere.
- Enhanced greenhouse effect: This occurs when the magnitude of the greenhouse effect is enhanced by human activity, due to the emission of greenhouse gasses at an unnaturally high level.
- Greenhouse gas: a gas that absorbs infrared radiation and contributes to the greenhouse effect.
- Anthropogenic: caused by humans.
- Anthropogenic climate change: the component of climate change that is believed to be caused by humans.
Fact 1: The Greenhouse Effect is Settled Science
The greenhouse effect is a universally accepted natural phenomenon, and carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the primary greenhouse gases. Without it, life on earth would not be possible. The video below from NASA does the best job of succinctly explaining the greenhouse effect of any video I've found. It is not the most high-tech video out there, but don't let that distract you from the content. (For those of you who have been around long enough to remember a teacher popping a tape into a VCR player connected to one of those big CRT televisions, this may spark some memories.)
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Please also note that methane is considered approximately 30 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in terms of causing increased warming (over a 100 year period). Methane is the primary component of natural gas and is what gives natural gas its energy. If natural gas is burned, it releases about half as much CO2 as if you burn an equivalent amount of coal. But if natural gas leaks or is otherwise emitted, it is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Despite this, carbon dioxide reduction is the focus of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions because it is far and away the biggest contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Fact 2: Carbon Dioxide Levels are Increasing Due to Human Activity
There are a few fundamental things to know in regards to the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. First, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is measured in parts per million (ppm). A concentration of 1 ppm means that there is one unit of mass of a fluid for every million units of mass of the enveloping fluid. The current concentration of carbon dioxide is a little more than 400 ppm. This means that if you took 1 kg of air, there would be about 400/1,000,000 kg, which is 0.0004 kg or 0.4 g of CO2 in that kg of air. Second, the atmosphere is considered the same everywhere you go on earth. Localized variations occur, but the current CO2 concentration of is considered to be effectively the same no matter where you are on the earth.
There is no dispute that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been rising for about the past 150 years. We have been directly measuring the atmospheric concentration since 1958 in the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. We know with a very high level of certainty the concentration of the ancient atmosphere through time as well through proxy measures such as ice core samples from ancient ice (click here for some links to explanations of how this is done- click on CO2 Past at the top of the page). The current levels of CO2 are almost certainly unprecedented in the past 800,000 years (source: National Academy of Sciences). The chart below depicts the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere for the past 400,000 years.
It is an established fact that the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and that the concentration of carbon dioxide has been increasing rapidly since around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. The Industrial Revolution is characterized by the increased use of fossil fuels - first coal, then oil, then natural gas. All of these non-renewable energy sources release CO2 when burned, and aside from minor natural occurrences like volcanic eruptions, are what has primarily caused the increased carbon dioxide concentration over the past 200+ years.
In short, energy is the primary culprit in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, two-thirds of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are due to energy use and production (source: IEA, "Energy and Climate Change," World Energy Outlook 2015). This boils down to the fact that we are emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at rates faster than can naturally be absorbed. This causes an imbalance, and thus the concentration increases.
Mythbusting: The Global Carbon Cycle
It is not unusual to hear something like the following as a reason to be skeptical of anthropogenic climate change: "The earth naturally emits WAY more CO2 than humans do. The emissions are so relatively small that they cannot have an impact on CO2 concentrations, never mind climate change."
The earth does, in fact, emit significantly more CO2 than humans do! The image below is from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) most recent report, called the Fifth Assessment Report or simply AR5. This is an illustration of the global carbon cycle. Carbon, like most other elements, is constantly moving around the earth, e.g. being emitted and absorbed by oceans, being taken up by plants, being released by decaying plants, being released by volcanoes, etc. The carbon cycle illustrates this process.
This is a pretty busy image, so I'll summarize it for you: Humans directly cause about 9 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon to enter the atmosphere each year. Natural emissions are on the order of 170 Gt per year. Hmm, okay, so there are way more natural than anthropogenic emissions. So why care so much about the measly 9 billion anthropogenic tonnes? As it turns out, if there were no anthropogenic emissions, the carbon cycle would likely even out, or perhaps even cause a reduction in carbon in the atmosphere. There are many natural processes that absorb carbon, mostly oceans, and vegetation. According to the IPCC, the total increase in carbon in the atmosphere is only about 4 Gt per year (including anthropogenic emissions). If you do a little math it becomes apparent: if those 9 Gt of emissions caused by humans were not there, then there would likely be no increase in overall concentration. Even though the relative contribution is small, anthropogenic emissions throw the global carbon cycle out of whack.
One good analogy of this process is weight gain. Let's say you average around 2,000 calories of food intake each day, and on average you burn off the same amount each day. If this continues over time, you will not gain weight. But if you add one extra 100 calorie snack each day, it will throw this balance (think of it as a calorie or energy cycle if you want to) out of whack. Even though you are only increasing your calorie intake by a measly 5%, over time this will cause weight gain. Well, it appears that the earth has put on some serious carbon weight in the past ~200 years, and it is almost entirely due to the extra human emissions!
Fact 3: The Climate Is Warming
Humans have been taking direct temperature measurements since about 1880. There has been an upward trend in global temperature since around 1900, and the increase has become very sharp since about 1980.
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Fact 4: If Climate Change Occurs as Many Scientists Believe, the Results Will Almost Certainly Be Catastrophic
There is wide consensus that if the climate continues to change and CO2 levels continue to rise the results will not be good (okay, "not good" is a pretty big understatement). As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in their 2007 report: "Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time" (source: IPCC, quoted by NASA). This is a stuffy way of saying that "things will probably be really bad and continue to get worse." The short report below outlines some of the possible impacts, some of which have already begun to occur. Note that I am not saying that all of these things will happen, even if climate change continues, but it is meant as a survey of some of the most commonly cited negative impacts of climate change. Also note that some of the likely consequences may be positive in some areas, including extended growing seasons in cool climate zones and some increased growth of plants due to extra carbon being available, but the overall impact will very likely be overwhelmingly negative.
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- "Global Warming Impacts: The consequences of climate change are already here." Union of Concerned Scientists
It is also very important to note that the most vulnerable to these impacts will be low-income and otherwise marginalized people all over the world. As the IPCC states in their 2014 assessment: "(Climate change) risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development" (IPCC, Climate Change 2014 Syntheses Report, p. 13). Translation: the people with little power and/or resources will be disproportionately affected by climate change, regardless of whether they live in a low- or high-income country.
Fact 5: There is Broad Scientific Consensus that Humans are Most Likely the Primary Driver of Observed Climate Change
Multiple reports in peer-reviewed journals have found that at least 97% of scientists actively publishing in the climate field agree that the climate change observed in the past century is likely due to human influence, i.e. it is anthropogenic. See these links to some studies. In 2015, 24 of Britain's top "Learned Societies" - groups of scientific experts, basically - wrote a letter urging that we need to establish a "zero-carbon world" early in the second half of the 21st century. In the past 15 years, 18 U.S. scientific societies have confirmed that climate change is likely being caused by humans. Big players in the private sector are concerned as well. For example, CEOs from 43 companies in various sectors (with over $1.2 trillion of revenue in 2014) signed an open letter urging action in April of 2015. Even Exxon Mobil states as their official position on climate change (as of the summer of 2017) that:
The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action. Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect. There is a broad scientific and policy consensus that action must be taken to further quantify and assess the risks.
Exxon Mobil, the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company, is not known to be a friend of carbon reduction advocates. In fact, a study published in August of 2017 found that they systematically misled the public for nearly 40 years about the dangers of climate change, even though they acknowledged the risks internally.
Putting it All Together
Let's consider these facts together:
- We know that the greenhouse effect warms the planet and that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.
- We know that humans are emitting greenhouse gasses at a rate that is increasing their concentration in the atmosphere.
- We know that the climate is warming.
These three facts alone indicate that there is likely a problem. But, on top of this, you add that:
- The vast majority of active climate scientists agree that climate change is a problem and that climate change is at least very likely being caused by humans. So, the people that we trust to understand the climate widely agree that it is a problem.
- Finally, if climate change is happening, then the results will likely be devastating and on a global scale.
Even if we are not certain that humans are impacting the climate (we can never by 100% certain because we only have one planet to run this global "experiment" on), it is probably worth taking the precaution to prevent it if it is true. Yes, it is possible that so many climate experts are wrong - it is a rare occurrence that so many experts are wrong, but there is a possibility, however slim. And yes, we do not know for a fact that humans impact the climate, though basically all signs point to it being the case. And yes, there will be costs associated with making the change to a low-carbon society. But why do people buy life insurance? What about fire insurance? As silly as it sounds, what about buying an extended warranty on a new piece of electronics, or extra insurance for a rental car? The point is that even though the likelihood of using those insurances is minimal - probably less than the likelihood that climate change is caused by humans - people are willing to pay the cost in order to avoid catastrophe. The same could be said of climate change. Taking steps to avoid the worst-case scenario, or perhaps something near the worst-case scenario, is known as the precautionary principle. This may cost money or other resources in the short term, but is seen as worth it because of the situation it may prevent.
One quick addendum to this: If steps are successfully taken to reduce climate emissions to a sustainable level, it is very likely that there will also be cleaner air, less environmental damage, more energy security (not being dependent on another country for energy), and probably more active/healthy citizens. Something to think about.
Check Your Understanding
Carbon dioxide is a more potent greenhouse gas than methane, which is why it is such a big concern.
Further Reading - OPTIONAL
If you are interested in reading more about this topic, here are some suggested readings.
- "Climate Change Evidence & Causes: An overview from the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences." The Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences.
- "Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers." Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
- Link to a number of IPCC documents.
- "Energy & Climate Change." World Energy Outlook Special Report. International Energy Agency, 2015.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change Website