Climate change is more than just a change in the weather. The impacts of global warming are becoming more frequent, intense and widespread — sea levels are rising, glaciers and sea ice are disappearing and extreme weather events have become commonplace. The effects of climate instability and rising temperatures on people’s lives are only going to grow without immediate interventions, and although emissions of greenhouse gases are caused disproportionately by the wealthiest countries, the effects are most severe for lower-income countries and populations. Climate action is urgently needed, scientists say, but it’s also still possible to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and bring the climate crisis to a halt.
What Is Climate Change?
Climate change describes when the earth’s climate system adjusts and displays new weather patterns — lasting for as little as a few decades or up to millions of years. The climate is constantly changing. But climate change is now largely the result of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — notably carbon dioxide (CO2), but also methane (NH4) and nitrous oxide (NO2).
Greenhouse gases trap heat, preventing it from dissipating into space, which then increases the overall temperature of the planet and destabilizes weather patterns, ecosystems and people’s livelihoods, including our ability to grow food for the nearly 10 billion people that will populate the earth by the year 2050.
Since the increase in greenhouse gases has been caused by human activity, climate scientists describe it as “anthropogenic.” These gases are produced primarily through transport, power generation, industrial processes and agriculture, primarily the production of beef and dairy.
What turns climate change into a climate emergency is the speed at which the climate is changing and the damaging consequences if we don’t dramatically change course. Some of these changes will be hard, but others are easier than many people realize, including simple dietary changes that could significantly reduce the impact of agriculture and deforestation on global emissions levels.
Scientific Evidence That Supports Human-Caused Climate Change
There is a wealth of scientific evidence documenting human-caused climate change. And according to the most recent report compiled by an international body of climate scientists, action is urgently needed to bring down climate emissions. In 2016 the Pew Research Center found that people in high-emissions countries, such as the United States, Australia and Canada, were less concerned about climate change than people living in lower-emitting areas of the world. Yet new research shows this has changed — a 2020 study of 40 countries showed most people do care about climate change.
Rising Global Temperatures
The average global temperature is rising, and increasing more rapidly in the past few years. 2021 was the sixth-warmest year on record, with a global average temperature of 1.04 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial averages. Of the ten warmest years on record, nine have occurred within the last 15 years.
In 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that oceans had absorbed 93 percent of the excess heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions since 1970. This absorption of heat increases average global sea temperatures. To date, they have risen by about 0.08 degrees Celsius per decade over the last century.
Decreased Snow Cover
Snow cover is an important cooling agent because of the albedo effect — the way that light-colored surfaces reflect the sun’s rays. Climate change is linked to significant decreases in snow cover around the world. In the U.S., average snow cover in April has declined 21 percent since 1915. From 1972 to 2020, the average area covered by snow has decreased by about 1,870 square miles per year.
Shrinking Ice Sheets and Glacial Retreat
Ice sheets containing vast amounts of frozen fresh water cover such a large surface area that they influence global weather patterns. NASA satellites have been tracking shrinking ice sheets for decades, showing significant losses since 2002. The Greenland ice sheet — the biggest in the world — has been of particular concern to scientists due to a 30 percent decline in total mass from 1979 to 2006. 2019 saw record melting, with the sheet losing a whopping 197 gigatonnes in one month alone. Scientists estimate that shrinking polar ice sheets will cause up to 50 centimeters of increase in sea level this century.
Glaciers around the world are also on the decline. The Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas, including the Himalayas, have the densest concentration of glaciers outside the polar regions. Yet glaciers in the Garhwal Himalaya in India are retreating so quickly that researchers believe that most central and eastern Himalayan glaciers may disappear by 2035. These findings are especially concerning because these glaciers feed major rivers such as the Indus, which provide vital water for millions of people downstream.
Rising Sea Levels
Climate change causes sea levels to rise in two ways. First, as ice sheets and glaciers melt, they pour extra water into the oceans. Secondly, warming temperatures cause ocean water to expand.
Ocean levels are rising at a rate of 3.3 millimeters per year. Since 1880, sea levels have already risen by about 21-24 centimeters — and it won’t stop there. Scientists predict that from 2020 to 2050, sea levels will rise by an additional 25-30 centimeters. Though this may sound small, there will be devastating consequences if these trends continue, because millions of people live in dense urban areas along coastlines that may be flooded. Some scientists predict that Jakarta, Indonesia, will be entirely underwater by 2050.
When atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by the world’s oceans, they become more acidic. Acidified ocean water inhibits calcification, a process that animals such as snails, oysters and crabs rely on to build shells and skeletons. As a result, some animals are essentially dissolving as the oceans have become approximately 30 percent more acidic over the last two centuries. These changes are occurring at faster rates now than at any time in the last 300 million years.
Extreme Weather Events
In the last 50 years, the number of reported weather-related disasters has already increased by five times, due in no small part to climate change. In recent years, fire seasons in California and Australia have been unprecedented. Changing temperatures in the Indian Ocean created the perfect conditions for locusts in 2018 and 2019, which then swarmed parts 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 in 2020.
Why Is Climate Change Happening?
Though some climate change happens naturally, the primary reason that we are seeing these rapid changes to the Earth is because of human activities. Since the Industrial Revolution, increased burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and the expansion of high-emission activities like livestock farming have all contributed to the climate crisis.
What Causes Climate Change?
The main cause of climate change today is the explosion of C02 and other gases released into the atmosphere due to human activities. The greenhouse effect is the natural process by which Earth’s lower atmosphere traps heat from the sun, like a blanket. This process is not inherently bad — it’s actually necessary for life on Earth — but greenhouse gases amplify this effect, causing the Earth to grow warmer.
A 2015 Oxfam report is one among many that stress the link 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 red meat, residents of the countries are driving anthropogenic climate change.
Climate Change and Animal Agriculture
Many people overlook the role that food plays in driving climate change. But in 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization sounded the alarm about animal agriculture’s impact on climate change with a report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” finding that livestock contributes over 14 percent to climate emissions. The entire food sector is responsible for over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Animal agriculture is responsible for an estimated 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions. Methane, accounting for roughly 40 percent of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions in agriculture, is a potent greenhouse gas emitted mostly in the form of cow burps, as well as manure from concentrated animal feeding operations that raise dairy cows and pigs.
Effects of Climate Change by Region of the U.S.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Northeastern U.S. will experience approximately 70 percent more precipitation, more intense storms and higher temperatures. These changes will likely have a major impact on drinking water, waste storage and management, air quality and public health overall.
The Climate Impact Group at the University of Washington predicts that the Northwestern U.S. will experience increases in air temperature and more severe heavy rainfall. The coast will also be affected by rises in sea level. By 2100, the sea level in Washington may have risen up to 56 inches higher than its level in 2000, and the temperature of the ocean will increase too.
According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Southeastern U.S. has already experienced major impacts from climate change, including rises in temperature and flooding, and an increase in tick- and mosquito-borne diseases. Air quality has been impacted, which may increase cases of respiratory disease. Natural ecosystems will be damaged by temperature changes, flooding, drought, fires and extreme weather events, which will impact agriculture and food sources as well as drinking water.
The Midwestern U.S. has already become warmer, and the EPA predicts that temperatures will only continue to rise. Because the Midwest typically has colder temperatures, it does not have the infrastructure to handle the heat waves that will likely occur. Scientists also predict that air quality will worsen, causing more respiratory diseases, while insect- and rodent-carried diseases may increase. There will also likely be more intense precipitation, overloading drainage systems and compromising water quality. Climate change may also pose a threat to the Great Lakes, which comprise 84 percent of the U.S.’s fresh water, and which are likely to host more blue-green and toxic algae. All of these effects will also impact availability of food.
The EPA reports that temperatures in the Southwest have already increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. The Southwest is already dry by nature, and climate change has already led to more droughts and a lack of water. A lot of water in the Southwest comes from slow melting of ice in the mountains, but as ice has become less and less available, so has water. The Southwest is also highly urban, and the urbanized spaces full of cement and metals attract even more heat. The heat threatens the forests and natural ecosystems in the Southwest and could ultimately reduce the availability of food.
What Will Happen If We Can’t Halt Climate Change?
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 climate change examples that will occur should global emissions not be drastically curbed.
Temperatures Will Continue To Rise
Data tends to show a steady increase in temperatures over the last century as polluting greenhouse gases from activities such as electricity generation and transportation collect in the atmosphere. As long as fossil fuels continue to be burned, this effect will only continue.
Summers Will Be Longer
What scientists refer to as the “frost-free season” will continue to increase if we don’t slow climate change. The lengthening of frost-free seasons means that spring will arrive sooner and fall will be delayed. While this might sound appealing, in reality it 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 to lengthen by 80 days by the end of the century — causing potential disruptions to agriculture and the natural rhythms of ecosystems.
Precipitation Will Be More Intense
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 U.S., particularly California and the Southwest, serious heat waves are expected to become more common. Nights 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 increase evapotranspiration, leading to drier soils. Warmer temperatures mean that water will evaporate faster. According to the IPCC, droughts are already at a higher level than many natural ecosystems can tolerate. Droughts could become more frequent, longer and more severe. Climates that are already hot and dry will be most affected, but most areas will experience heat waves. These droughts affect crops and livestock, resulting in higher rates of premature death and suffering for factory farmed animals.
Hurricanes Will Be More Intense and Devastating
Hurricanes lead to massive devastation. According to NASA, hurricanes will cause increasing rainfall and floods along the coasts. Frequency of hurricanes may increase, since hurricanes are formed by warm ocean water, moist air, low wind shear and preexisting disturbances like storms — most of which will be increased by climate change. But regardless of whether or not there are more hurricanes, the hurricanes that do occur will be much more deadly and intense.
Sea Level Will Rise
One study published in Nature in 2019 estimates that a billion people currently live on land 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 provided that action is taken to curtail emissions. In 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.
No More Arctic Ice
When we think of the Arctic, we picture beautiful snowy tundras. But the Arctic is projected to continue losing snow and ice 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 have 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. In fact, Arctic sea ice has already decreased by approximately 10 percent over the last 30 years.
What Is the Solution to Climate Change?
There is no single solution to climate change. Instead, climate scientists recommend a wide range of decarbonizing solutions that can and must be rapidly implemented, particularly by governments of high-emitting countries. These solutions include reducing reliance on fossil fuels, increasing investments in green energy alternatives like solar energy, increasing carbon capture, nature-based solutions like rewilding grazing lands and rewetting peatlands and increasing adoption of plant-rich diets.
What Is Being Done Now To Solve Climate Change?
High-emitting countries including the U.S. are not doing enough to stop climate change. However, the Biden administration recently passed a significant piece of climate legislation called the Inflation Reduction Act, and much more is needed for the U.S. to draw down its emissions and help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
What You Can Do
Governments and large corporations will need to take significant action to curb global warming, but some individual climate actions are also necessary and highly effective. According to a 2021 study by Project Drawdown, some of the most effective forms of individual or household climate action include:
- Decreasing our consumption of beef, lamb and dairy.
- Reducing food waste.
- Installing solar panels as an energy source for your home.
- Taking public transportation.
Individuals can also work together to increase their collective power — for example, by reducing how much beef is served at your workplace cafeteria or increasing the number of plant-rich options served, or pushing for public transportation subsidies for employees. Despite the urgency of the climate crisis, the good news is it isn’t too late to take action.