Climate change: it has has been all over the news, especially recently with the Paris Climate Change Conference underway.
I just recently had a client of mine ask me my thoughts on climate change because he was unsure that it is as big of a deal as the media is making it seem. I could understand where he was coming from. One of the biggest issues with climate change is that it is obscured by lobbyists, politicians, private corporations, numerous jurisdictions all pushing through their own agendas, making it difficult for others outside that group (i.e., your average citizen) to understand what exactly climate change is and why we should even care.
The first big problem associated with climate change is jargon. I love this article by the BBC because they actually address the jargon issue. Anything that is too heavy in jargon (and that is pretty much all of science) quickly alienates people because they don’t speak “science language”. I am going to address some of the terms to help you through the climate change jargon mess, but also check out the BBC’s climate change glossary for a more complete list of definitions.
The first thing to understand is the greenhouse effect and greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect is the insulation of the earth by certain gases in the atmosphere. The result is a rising of the earth’s temperature. In order to support life (as we know it) on Earth, we need some of the sun’s heat to stay on our planet and keep us warm. The atmosphere of the earth helps to trap some of the heat from the sun and keep us at an optimal temperature. The general principle of the greenhouse effect is sketched
out in this diagram I grabbed from Live Science’s explanation of the greenhouse effect. The gases that trap the heat are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water (H2O). These are natural, but normally present in small amounts.
The atmosphere is comprised of approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, and the rest is every other gas. Carbon dioxide only makes up about 390 ppmv (parts per million). With this composition, everything remains in a nice balance and we live happily ever after.
The problem comes in when we (and yes I do mean human activity) start adding more water, carbon dioxide, and methane into the atmosphere. They start trapping more and more heat, which gradually warms the temperature of the earth, and puts us in the predicament we are currently facing.
Why is it now “climate change” and not “global warming”?
Excellent question. The reason that nomenclature was changed is because “climate change” is a much more accurate picture of what is truly happening world wide. Global warming, the gradual increase of the global temperature as a result of the greenhouse effect, is occurring; however, global warming implies that we should all be expecting balmier winters when the true picture of what is occurring means more erratic weather patterns around the world. Any physical scientist can tell you, temperature is extremely important to how chemistry behaves and even more so in the gas phase. The pressure and the volume of a gas is directly influenced by temperature. Since our atmosphere is made up of gases, changing the temperature means that the movement of the gases in the atmosphere is going change, drastically influencing weather patterns. That is why we are seeing more severe droughts in certain areas of the
world, crazy colder winters in other parts. I grabbed this picture from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It shows some of the ways that we can tell climate change is occurring, and it is more than just a global increase in temperature. Actually, the EPA has a very nice explanation of some of the things going on in climate change.
The biggest issue of climate change is that the Earth exists in balance. Every ecosystem has evolved for specific conditions, conditions that include temperature and weather patterns. The plight of the polar bear and the melting ice caps has become the poster child of climate change, but here is a different example for you: coral reefs. I have had the pleasure of snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. That is an ecosystem that is absolutely breathtaking. From all of the different types of coral to the fish that call that coral home. Coral are actually animals. Their sexual reproduction involves the release of eggs and sperm simultaneously. This release depends on time of year, water temperature, tidal and lunar cycles. The more erratic weather and the increase in water temperature can alter the ability of these animals to reproduce. As they begin to die off, all of the sudden the variety of life that depends on coral reefs as a habitat are now also adversely impacted.
There are many more examples that demonstrate how the Earth has evolved in a balance. Something as seemingly insignificant as an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can have long-lasting impacts on the planet.
Our actions do impact the environment. The solutions are certainly not as simple as some environmental lobbyists might suggest. But it is important that we start changing our lifestyles to be more aware of how our actions adversely impact the environment. We can all be better stewards of the Earth.
What small things can you do to help be more environmentally friendly?