International Climate Change Day
Today, June the 21st, is International Climate Change Day. Today also kicks off National Volunteering Week here in New Zealand.
Climate change is a strangely polarizing topic. It’s one of the few subjects where people are completely unable to have a rational discussion without throwing down insults at complete strangers. And yet, it is something that is already affecting many of us and that will in time, affect us all. We are all in this together. Climate change is something that the vast, vast majority of published scientific evidence asserts is occurring.
Globally, 88% of people believe climate change is a global threat.
Just 12% of people don’t believe in climate change, or don’t perceive it as a threat. Yet, if you judged global consensus by the comments on most articles, you could believe it was the other way around.
Delving deeper into these numbers, and the people behind them, it becomes apparent that some of this ‘disbelief’, is usually down to two factors. The first being that the fear of acknowledging something scary and life-changing, such as climate change, requires the person to reflect on themselves and their actions, which can be very uncomfortable. So, the easier option is to ignore it.
Secondly, many people lack an understanding of what climate change actually means, usually through no fault of their own. Of course, then there are the minority, who benefit from the status quo, but no amount of science will probably change their minds.
But consensus is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what people believe; it matters what is true.
‘Science’ is simply a way of testing a theory, through repeatable testing. If a test confirms a hypothesis, and subsequent tests by others find the same results, the hypothesis is considered to be true. If evidence of the contrary is found, the same process of peer review is carried out and if it still contradicts the initial hypothesis, the researchers change their opinion. That is how proper, rigorous science works and how the vast majority of scientists live their lives and conduct their research.
I am not a climatologist or an oceanographer, but I am a scientist, so I understand the scientific process. I cannot explain the finer details of climate science to you, as whilst it is a passion of mine, I am certainly no expert. If you want to understand the deeper science behind climate change, there are some fantastic, non-biased, science-based resources listed at the bottom.
Climate change will affect us all – every living thing on this planet. Some organisms will embrace the rising temperatures and changing environment and increase their populations and extend their ranges. Organisms like the Ixodes tick, which carries Lyme disease, which, due to the warmer temperatures already occurring across parts of the USA, is already expanding its territory and therefore the risk of Lyme disease.
However, climate change is not beneficial for the vast majority of living creatures.
There are lots of poster animals for the climate change movement, like polar bears, which are of course fluffy, charismatic animals that many photographers and documentary makers focus on to try and make their viewers sit up and take notice about what is happening on our planet. But it is believed that 200 species go extinct every hour, solely due to climate change or human activity.
And of course, climate change disproportionately affects indigenous people and minority groups.
The UN has stated “Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of Indigenous communities worldwide, even though Indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions".
Indigenous groups worldwide are still losing their homes, due to deforestation, sea level rise and climate change making their previous homelands no longer livable. They are suffering first and yet their contribution to the problem is negligible. It is our duty to do something about this and join with them, to fix what we have broken.
Black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) are more likely to live near toxic facilities, be subject to environmental pollution and health ramifications (remember the Flint water crisis?) and yet are often excluded from the environmental movement. They are also more likely to care about environmental destruction, to vote for environmentally friendly leaders and to campaign for climate change action.
There is a term out there I only learned of recently, called intersectional environmentalism. It is the simple, yet obvious idea that environmentalism is the protection of the planet and all people on it, including the most vulnerable communities. Whilst perhaps a new term, this shouldn’t be a new idea. Social ramifications should always be considered alongside environmental ones. Systems of oppression need to be removed within environmentalism too.
Interested in learning more? Green Girl Leah coined the term, and she has some fantastic resources here: https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com/.
So, in light of international climate change day, I wanted to touch on what climate change is, who and what it is affecting and what you can do to protect our planet and its people.
What is climate change?
Climate change is not weather. It is not brief periods of warming or cooling.
Climate refers to the long-term general weather conditions in an area. So short term, unusual events (like snow in spring), are irrelevant in the climate change debate, unless they become a long term, consistent change. These unusual occurrences are often used by people who don’t want to believe in global climate change, with comments like “weather always changes” or “snow in spring?! Obviously global warming is a myth”.
But say snow in spring somewhere did become long term and consistent. Would this indicate that global warming was a myth? No, because the term global warming is a little misleading (which is why it’s not really used anymore). Global climate change will result in an overall higher global temperature - we are currently headed for a 3+ degree change, which is considered catastrophic. But some areas will get colder. North America is expected to get longer lasting, harsher winters. Remember the ‘polar vortex’? Those will happen more frequently.
Some areas will get wetter and flooding will increase. Parts of New Zealand will get 15% more rain. Floodplains in the USA are expected to grow by 45%. The UK will get 10% more rain (and frankly, that seems a little unfair as they already get more than their fair share!).
Conversely, other areas will get drier. Other parts of New Zealand will get 5% less rain. Our largest city, Auckland, is currently facing its most severe drought ever and is under severe water stress. Australian rainforests are getting dryer, which is a contributing factor to the enormous wildfires they experienced this year. They may become a common occurrence.
Climate is complex, but it is not short-term weather. To properly understand climate and climate change, this distinction is important.
Climate change is global, long term change of weather patterns. It is absolutely a natural phenomenon and our climate has gone through enormous changes in the past. But never have these changes occurred as fast as they are today, and that is solely down to our activities.
So, what causes climate change?
Greenhouse gases (GHG) cause climate change. Carbon dioxide is the GHG most people are familiar with. Methane is another. GHGs are simply gases that absorb and emit heat (thermal energy).
Others you may not be as familiar with are water vapour, nitrous oxide, ozone and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) - CFCs are the refrigeration gases that were banned in 1996 as they ate holes in our ozone layer.
Earth receives heat from the sun. 48% of this energy is absorbed by the planet, whilst about 30% of this energy is reflected back out, primarily by clouds but also reflective surfaces like ice and snow at the poles. The remainder is absorbed by the atmosphere. Naturally occurring GHGs in the atmosphere absorb and radiate thermal energy, which is why Earth is warm and not a frozen ice-ball like other planets.
However, we are increasing the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere dramatically, which is increasing the amount of heat that is absorbed and also preventing the heat from being reflected back out. This is why the temperature of the planet is increasing. More heat is trapped by the greater concentration of GHGs. As the concentration of GHGs in our atmosphere increases, so will the temperature.
What releases greenhouse gases?
The reason we have any kind of atmosphere in the first place is due to a natural geological process; volcanic eruptions which released vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane (alongside hydrogen sulfide), into the air, forming the first atmosphere. Through photosynthesis by tiny single-celled algae, about two billion years ago, they eventually cleared this haze of poisonous gas and released enough free oxygen, making way for life as we know it.
Decomposition of dead animals, plants or food releases carbon dioxide and methane. Respiration (using energy), releases carbon dioxide too. Methane is released by digestion.
GHGs are critical for life on Earth. But, as with anything, a balance is necessary.
Humans are upsetting the balance of GHGs in the atmosphere because we are releasing enormously old deposits of fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) and burning them at a tremendous rate. Fossils fuels are carbon heavy, combustible substances, created by decomposition of aquatic photosynthetic organisms, like phytoplankton in no to low-oxygen environments. This decomposed material was then subject to enormous pressures and temperatures over millions of years and after undergoing chemical changes, results in the oil and coal you know today.
An often-used argument by those who argue against climate change science, is that we release so little GHG emissions in comparison to natural sources, that our effect is meaningless. But this goes back to the idea of balance. We have thrown that balance off by adding more to only one side of the equation.
What are the main sources of anthropogenic (human activity) greenhouse gas emissions?
This is probably the bit that gets most people’s backs up. The idea that, however, inadvertently, we are all responsible for the situation we face is a painful one. Blame and self-flagellation are unnecessary and unhelpful. Every single one of us does something that helps our environment and something that doesn’t.
The world we live in, is not one that is designed to live in harmony with planetary limits. But that will change, if we keep working towards it. So, beating yourself up because you don’t live a zero-carbon lifestyle (which is almost impossible anyway), is a waste of time and energy that you could use to make changes that would help.
Farmers seem to bear the brunt of it, certainly in New Zealand and in fairness, a large proportion of emissions do come from land use and agriculture. But pointing the finger at farmers is unkind and unhelpful nor is it reflective of the whole truth. By blaming one group above all others, you are pitting people against one another when ultimately, we need to work together. Many farmers are putting in place some excellent sustainability initiatives. We need to encourage more of that.
The main sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions are listed in the pie chart below, from research conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Discussing climate change is scary and it is often portrayed as doomsday for us all. Well, it could be, if we continue on as we are. But we already have so many of the solutions available to us, if we just had the courage and the foresight to seize them. For more information on these solutions, visit drawdown.org, a fantastic book and now website which has analysed all the solutions and determined which would have the greatest impact and ranked them. The results will probably surprise you. What are some quick and easy ways you can immediately lower your carbon footprint?
- Buy local produce or better yet, grow your own. A large part of the footprint of the food we eat is in the transport to get it to you.
- Travel lighter. If you can utilize electric transport, that’s great (even when electricity generators are powered by fossil fuels it still produces less GHG emissions overall). If you can use bikes or your own two feet, even better.
- Reduce what you buy to only what you truly need. Industries like fast fashion are massively polluting with an enormous carbon footprint.
- Skip animal products with every meal, have you tried meat-free Mondays?
- Offset your carbon emissions. As I said, it is almost impossible to live a zero-carbon lifestyle, but you can lessen your impact by using your money to offset your footprint. Offsetting is no silver bullet, but it is buying us time to solve these issues by increasing forest cover, investment into carbon capture and low-carbon energy generation solutions and supporting indigenous groups around the world who are fighting to protect their homelands. I highly recommend offset.earth, who I use personally to offset my carbon footprint, and professionally as Ethique’s carbon offset provider
If you want to support some organisations working on climate change, here are some great orgs, and all indigenous led:
Womens Initiative Gambia (WIG)