Where to Begin…
Climate Change – A term that’s currently on everyone’s minds, and can be determined as an issue which grows all the more urgent with each passing day. It is the ultimate issue, an apocalypse-in-waiting, and something that needs to be have been solved at least a few years ago. There is so much information, and a proportional amount of discussions, protests and more going on that it is easy to get lost in all that is happening. Whilst it would be impossible to cover every facet of the discussion (which is still ongoing), instead, we’ll try to give a concise summary, as well as some pointers as to where to go from there.
The Current “Causes”
As can be expected with an issue this wide-reaching, there is a huge number of “causes” to climate change. Perhaps the easiest one to explain would be carbon emissions. Most industries (especially ones that burn a lot of fossil fuels) emit large amounts of carbon dioxide as waste gases. A common misconception is that carbon dioxide is inherently bad: not true, as there is supposed to be some level of CO2 in the atmosphere. In not-quite-scientific terms, it acts as a “blanket”, helping to keep the sun’s heat within the atmosphere, letting it bleed out at a controlled rate, as opposed to immediately bouncing it. The issue comes in when the CO2 level builds up too much. Ever slept under a super thick duvet during a warm night? That is what’s happening in regards to CO2 emissions. CO2 is not the worst offender though; that dubious honor belongs to methane gas. Whilst it is less abundant in the atmosphere, on a molecular level, it is much more effective as a “greenhouse” gas. These are also produced by a mixture of natural and human activities, but it is the human side that is growing rapidly out of control.
However, the planet does have some ways to naturally regulate these excess gases. One of them is “it doesn’t normally overproduce” (unless it’s a volcanic event), and the other is forests. Many people view them as the “lungs” of the world, helping to absorb excessive amounts of CO2 and replace it with oxygen, something that we are told is vital to life. The Amazonian Rainforest is the most discussed example, as it is the largest rainforest in the world. However, it is being very rapidly eroded by industrial activities, especially mining, livestock ranching, and logging. This is compounded by the fact that the destroyed trees aren’t being replaced, which has dire ramifications for the indigenous populations, the native species (flora and fauna) and for the planet at large.
And their consequences
The most immediately obvious consequence is that the average temperature of our planet will rise, and significantly. Some areas will appreciate warmer temperatures, but they are vastly outnumbered by the regions that will either become difficult to live in, if not outright incapable of supporting life. We can see this happening already, in areas of Africa, as an increasing amount of land becomes desert.
As the name suggests, climate change involves a (you guessed it) change in the climate. We’re already feeling this one, as the UK leaves its hottest summer on record. As mentioned previously, many hot areas are getting much hotter, and weather patterns are getting increasingly extreme. This is why we’re seeing an increase in hurricanes and natural disasters over the Atlantic.
The consequence that gets the most coverage (which is not necessarily bad) is the melting of the polar ice caps, and underground permafrost. As the global temperature rises, the ice caps start to melt more than they freeze (it’s supposed to be an annual cycle, they’d melt and refreeze anyway). For ice that usually stays on the land, this puts more water in the oceans, causing the sea level to rise, flooding and displacing coastal communities. The melting ice sheets also put arctic and Antarctic species at risk, as well as indigenous populations in the Arctic regions. As for the permafrost, when it melts, it dumps a significant amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The melting permafrost also destabilizes the ground around it, severely damages ecosystems and potentially carries harmful diseases that we have not been exposed to.
In areas of severe deforestation, we’re already feeling the consequences. Because there are no major root networks to hold the soil together, it all gets washed away during rainy seasons. This deprives the land of valuable nutrients that would sustain plant life and makes rainy weather even more hazardous for the local populations.
There is no sugarcoating this: the consequences are very dire. Apocalyptic, even.
What has been done?
Not enough is the very short and blunt answer. Not nearly enough.
But that isn’t to say that Nothing has been done. Back in the “causes” section, if this post was being written a few years back, CFCs (or chlorofluorocarbons) would have been central to the discussion. If you don’t know, CFCs are synthetic compounds that react with gases in the ozone layer, “destroying” it (they are the reason that there is/was a “hole” in the ozone). However, after their debilitating effect was discovered, their production and use were highly regulated, and the ozone layer is mostly recovering from the damage that was dealt with it. A positive?
There is also very clear evidence of growing awareness, anxiety and desire for action amongst the public, as well as a good general knowledge of the causes and consequences of climate change. Whilst there are those few who try and deny the effects/causes (either through malice or being misinformed), it is generally accepted amongst the public that climate change is a very real thing, that will affect everyone. The recent surge in protests and the elevation of many youths on the international stage (and not just Greta Thunberg!) shows that we are beginning to act. Time will tell if we have picked the right time, or if it’s too little too late.
What we can do!
Whilst we may be nearly at the point of no return (where the feedback loop of climate change becomes too significant to reverse), we haven’t reached it yet. Many people are seeing this information and falling into a state of despair. It’s easy to read a long list of causes and consequences and to feel very small. Like you can’t make a difference. But we can, we should, and we will. Join your protests, support the scientific and volunteer communities that are working to fix the damage and help those in need. Try to consume responsibly, using ethically-sourced food, cut down on plastic consumption (even if the majority of plastic waste isn’t caused by individual consumption) and join tree-planting or beach cleaning initiatives.