The climate emergency is something that is discussed widely, but not thoroughly understood by most people, particularly those who haven’t experienced direct impacts. People in wealthier countries like the United States are less impacted, despite these lifestyles being the driving force of climate change. Yet willful ignorance is tantamount to dangerously selfish behavior. It can be difficult, and inconvenient, for people to truly grasp how interconnected the planet really is and how even moderate changes in climate patterns can have devastating impacts on people far and wide. Yet it is vital for these connections to be made.
The current impacts of climate change are already being felt, and future projections are looking dire. It behooves everyone, but particularly those in higher-income nations, to take a hard look at the facts in order to make lifestyle changes and advocate for a future in which everyone can survive and thrive.
What is Climate Change?
Climate change issues were thrust into the international spotlight when former US vice president Al Gore released the documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2007. And while the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists and climate experts agree that we are teetering on the brink of a true climate disaster, the general population of the United States isn’t sufficiently concerned. Even the current US president makes dangerous, and racist, claims that climate change was a hoax created by China to take manufacturing jobs away from America.
Generally speaking, climate change happens when the earth’s climate system adjusts and displays new weather patterns that can last for as little as a few decades or up to millions of years. The climate is constantly changing, and unfortunately, this is a common argument made by people who don’t believe that climate change is something to worry about.
But what turns climate change into a climate emergency is the speed at which it is changing and the reasons for which it is changing so rapidly. Thanks to human-caused factors – known as anthropogenic – never have such drastic changes occurred in such short periods of time.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the rate at which atmospheric CO2 has risen is unlike anything the planet has ever seen.
While the global population has grown significantly as well, it is the industries that came online at the turn of the 20th century, to produce goods for people particularly in places like North America that have skyrocketed the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The increases of CO2 in our atmosphere produces a greenhouse effect, trapping more sunlight and gradually increasing temperatures on both land and sea.
What Causes Climate Change?
There are many different factors that are contributing to the accelerated rate at which the climate is changing. Some of these factors are out of our control and happen in nature without human influence. Volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes in the past have contributed to climate change by quickly and drastically altering the conditions here on earth. Other natural occurrences that have played a part in altering the climate include changes in the sun and changes in the earth’s orbit.
But the main culprit, especially when viewed in the short timeframe of the past century, has been the explosion of C02 released into the atmosphere due to human activities. A 2015 Oxfam report is one among many that stress the linkages between carbon emissions and economic inequality, finding that 50 percent of global carbon emissions are produced by a mere 10 percent of the population. People in wealthy nations, such as the United States, Australia, and Canada have highly carbon-intensive lifestyles. Between driving personal automobiles, flying in airplanes, and eating meat, people in these countries are driving anthropogenic climate change. In a twist of deeply unsettling irony, it is the “have nots” who are already bearing the brunt of climate chaos effects.
Climate Change and Animal Agriculture
In 2006, a United Nations report sounded the alarm of animal agriculture’s impact on climate change with a report titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, finding that greenhouse emissions from this sector were greater than all transportation combined. Despite these warnings, the situation has only grown more serious as emission levels have been stacking up.
Even a brief snapshot of greenhouse gas emissions paints a damning image of animal agriculture. Nitrous oxide, packing 300 times more punch when it comes to heating the atmosphere, is produced in livestock manure.
Animal agriculture is responsible for an estimated 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions. Methane, accounting for roughly 40 percent of agriculture emissions, is a potent greenhouse gas emitted from sources including the digestive process of ruminants such as cows. Yet it is the rapacious demand for hamburgers, steaks, and cheese that is the real culprit behind these emissions.
Is Climate Change Real? 9 Facts That Prove It Is.
Many people continue to believe climate change is real. And there are others out there who believe it exists but just as an expected part of nature that doesn’t have any human influence behind it. And, unfortunately, many people in high positions of power and media companies with huge influence push misinformation and false narratives to discredit the science that proves humans are responsible for accelerated climate change.
The Pew Research Center found that people in high-emissions countries, such as the United States, Australia, and Canada are far less concerned about climate change, whereas people living in lower-emissions areas of the world – who are far less responsible for climate change in the first place – are much more concerned about it, not least because these areas are already feeling adverse impacts. It’s estimated that nearly 500,000 people have died due to extreme weather events between 1999 and 2018, with countries including Haiti, Pakistan, and the Philippines affected by recurring disasters.
The Global Temperature is Rising
The average global temperature is rising, particularly in recent years. 2019 was the second warmest year on record, with a global average temperature of 1.15 degrees celsius higher than pre-industrial averages. Nine out of ten of the warmest years on record have occurred within the last fifteen years.
The world’s oceans have become a vast dumping ground for the world’s trash. Yet there is another thing the oceans take in, in vast quantities: heat. A 2013 assessment found that oceans had absorbed 93% of the excess heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions since 1970, contributing to the increased average global sea temperatures rising by about 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade over the last century.
Shrinking Ice Sheets
Ice sheets contain vast amounts of frozen freshwater and cover such a large surface area that they influence global weather patterns. NASA satellites have been tracking shrinking ice sheets for decades, documenting significant losses since 2002. The Greenland ice sheet – the biggest in the world – has been of particular concern to scientists after documenting a 30 percent decline in total mass between 1979 to 2006. 2019 saw record melting, with the sheet losing a whopping 197 gigatonnes.
Around the world, glaciers are in retreat – meaning they are shrinking and disappearing before our very eyes. The Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas, including the Himalayas, has the densest concentration of glaciers outside of the polar regions – at least, it once did. Studies have shown many glaciers enduring negative mass balance, meaning they are losing more ice than they are accumulating, leading to glacial retreat. Glaciers in the Garhwal Himalaya in India are retreating so quickly that researchers believe that many – if not most – Himalayan glaciers could essentially disappear by 2035. These findings are especially concerning given that these glaciers feed major rivers such as the Indus, providing vital water sources for millions of people downstream.
Decreased Snow Cover
Snow cover is an important cooling agent thanks to its albedo effect – the ability to reflect the sun’s rays, preventing heat from being absorbed into the earth. Globally, snow reflects up to 90% of the sun’s energy. Climate change has seen significant decreases in snow cover around the world; in the U.S., average snow cover in April was observed to have declined 21 percent since 1915.
Sea Level Rise
Ocean levels are rising at a rate of 3.3 millimeters per year. In the last century, levels have risen between four and eight inches. Though this may sound infinitesimal, the cumulative effects are going to have devastating consequences if these trends continue, as millions of people live in dense urban areas along coastlines. Sea level rise is driven by two factors caused by climate change. As ice sheets and glaciers melt, they pour extra water into the oceans. The less obvious factor contributing to sea level rise is the expansion of ocean water, caused by warming temperatures.
Declining Arctic Sea Ice
Over the last two decades, arctic air temperatures have gradually increased, thanks to a vicious cycle of warming air, which melts ice, which warms the air, ad infinitum. Warming air and ocean temperatures have caused sea ice in Arctic regions to decline by roughly 10 percent in the last three decades.
The number of extreme events in recent decades is truly mind-boggling, and unfortunately is one of the ways people can get a taste of the climate emergency first-hand. In recent years, fire seasons in California and Australia have been unprecedented. Changing temperatures in the Indian Ocean created the perfect storm of conditions for locusts, which swarmed part of East Africa and the Middle East, spurring food security issues as the insects devoured crops. In the Bay of Bengal, super cyclone Amphan killed hundreds of people and caused widespread flooding. As of 2020, Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, three years after the devastating hurricane hit.
When atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by the world’s oceans, these vast bodies of water become more acidic. Acidified ocean water inhibits calcification, a process that animals such as snails, oysters, and crabs rely upon in order to build shells and skeletons. Already, some animals are essentially dissolving, as the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic in the last two centuries, with the ocean’s pH dropping from 8.2 to 8.1 in the last hundred years alone. These changes are occurring at faster rates than has occurred in the last 300 million years.
What Are The Future Effects Of Climate Change?
The outlook for the world’s climate, and the effects climate change will have in the future, is fairly grim. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as many countries push for the development of “dirty” energies such as coal and oil. The Trump Administration withdrew from the Paris Accord in 2019, effectively proclaiming to the world that no serious action will be taken. This is despite the fact that nearly 200 other countries signed onto the agreement in 2015, with higher-income nations pledging to provide financial support to help mitigate the disasters of the climate emergency. Even so, critics say that the Accord isn’t going to do enough to stave off worst-case scenarios.
Because climate science is so complex, and given that the world still has time to make significant changes to lifestyles and curb emissions, there is no way to divine exactly what will occur over the next few decades. Below are some general examples that will occur should global emissions not be drastically curbed.
Temperatures Will Continue To Rise
Polluting greenhouse gasses from activities such as electricity generation and transportation collect in the atmosphere. When heat from the sun is reflected off the earth’s surface, it is normally sent back out to space. However, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere capture and collect this heat, causing global temperatures to rise. This is what’s known as the greenhouse effect. And as long as fossil fuels continue to be burned, this effect will only continue to magnify.
Frost-free Season Will Lengthen
The lengthening of frost-free seasons means that springtime will arrive sooner and fall will be delayed. While this might sound appealing, this can be severely disruptive for plants and animals. Plants and trees will bloom sooner, and migration and hibernation patterns of animals, birds and insects will be disrupted. In the mountain ridges of the West coast of the continental U.S., the frost-free season is predicted as lengthening by 80 days by the end of the century – causing potential disruptions with agriculture and the natural rhythms of ecosystems.
Changes In Precipitation Patterns
Changing weather patterns can bring drought to vast areas of land, where once agricultural cultivation was taking place, causing potential food security issues. Desertification is another threat caused by the absence of rain, where desert-like conditions move into once-lush areas. Conversely, more severe storms and shifting jet streams may cause increased precipitation, resulting in serious flooding.
More Droughts And Heat Waves
In the United States, serious heat waves are expected to become more common in California and the Southwest in particular. Regarding the latter, even nighttime will be much hotter, making it more difficult for fauna and flora to adjust, given the absence of respite normally expected during nocturnal hours. Hotter temperatures reduce snowpack and evapotranspiration, leading to drier soils. Droughts could become more frequent, longer and severe.
Hurricanes Will Become Stronger And More Intense
According to one model, there could be a 40 percent increase in hurricanes of category 3 or higher. These storms may take place in the North Atlantic as well as the North Pacific, which puts major cities in Asia at serious risk.
Sea Level Will Rise
One study estimates that a billion people currently live on land within less than 10 meters above high tide lines, and predicts that around 190 million people will be displaced by the year 2100 – and this is providing that action is taken to curtail emissions. Within high emissions scenarios, where little to no action is taken, up to 630 million people could be affected in that same time period. Islands in the South Pacific such as Tuvalu, and megacities including Jakarta, Tokyo and New York are all at risk.
Arctic Likely To Become Ice-free
The Arctic is projected to continue losing ice and snow on both land and sea, including ice sheets and glaciers. Many guesses have been made as to when the Arctic will become entirely ice-free; some estimates put it as early as the 2020s, with others predicting somewhere around 2040. Regardless, the consensus appears to be that this is a question of when not if.
Climate Change Solutions
Carbon mitigation efforts often focus on the world’s poorest people, partly because they will be the most severely impacted. Lower-income people tend to have less mobility in order to escape natural disasters, and less able to recover economically and otherwise. Lower-income countries can also be the focus of some climate solutions when it is pointed out that as these places become more wealthy, their lifestyles will increasingly consume more fossil fuels, demanding they take action to mitigate these future effects. However, in many ways, this is tantamount to victim-blaming and directs the focus away from where the problem largely originates: with wealthy Western lifestyles.
Some argue that more policies are needed that target people at the opposite end of the social ladder. One paper points out that the super-rich have long escaped criticism for their lifestyles, yet the top 1% of income earners could have a carbon footprint 175 times larger than low-income individuals.
Regardless, implementing solutions within a framework of economic justice can offer some of the most promising solutions. For example, a gasoline tax fund could be established that not only discourages personal cars but would fund mass transit. A carbon tax on industrial polluters would incentivize them to make their operations more efficient. Perhaps the biggest, and most obvious, solutions would be to end government subsidies to fossil fuel companies, funneling this money instead into things like affordable housing within urban areas in order to reduce sprawl.
And of course, one can’t discuss climate change solutions without mentioning green technologies. Things like wind, solar, and geothermal energy are increasingly viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Although their production currently requires the expenditure of fossil fuels and other harmful industrial processes, these technologies are improving rapidly in the hopes of creating energy sources that require relatively minimal damage to the planet.
The dangers presented by the climate emergency are real and can paint a gloomy picture of what the future holds for subsequent generations of people and all other inhabitants on earth. Already, undeniable effects are being felt throughout the world. Yet it isn’t too late to turn things around. Countries like the United States bear an outsized responsibility to curb emissions, being among the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. The incentive to create a viable future grows more each year.
Laura is a published fiction & nonfiction author. Her essay on Western dominator identity is featured in The Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity.