Climate Change in a Nutshell
Climate change and global warming. Two terms we see over and over again on a daily basis. Ever since they first became known, humans have gone through a 3-stage process. It starts off as ‘is it really happening?’ then moves to ‘I don’t know enough about it to do anything’ and finally ‘we’re all doomed so I might as well do nothing’. In 2019, we are bombarded with stories upon stories of how everything on the planet is suffering because of climate change. It goes like this: the forests are burning, the land is drowning, animals are dying, humans are facing extinction, it’s all our fault and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t donate to ten charities at once. Does this sound familiar? It’s overwhelming how much negative news and advertisements are used to grab our attention. It’s all we see. Is it really that bad?
Until a few years ago, I used to get so upset and angry that I was contributing to what seemed to be the destruction of our world. I felt scared, paranoid and guilty. It seemed I had been forced into being a villain in all of this and there was nothing I could do to stop our race from draining our home. But that’s not true. I took the time to study geography properly, I dug deep below the media and did research into the science of climate change. The news doesn’t lie to us but it only tells us pieces of the jigsaw. I’ll be breaking down the actual facts of climate change to fill in that jigsaw and from there we can decide what we can truly do as individuals to make the biggest difference. And it starts with humans not being the cause of global warming.
Climate Change History
Climate change in the past. This area is riddled with so much jargon that it took me over a month to understand what it was saying – never mind what it meant! In short, for billions of years, the Earth has gone between greenhouse conditions and icehouse conditions. Greenhouse Earth is when the average temperatures are always high and you’ve probably guessed that icehouse is the opposite of this. Earth moves between these to keep its climate balanced. Imagine you’re walking across a narrow plank with your arms stretched out, you’ll often wobble to one side then to the other to keep an overall balance. The Earth does the same with its temperature. For example, 100 million years ago, the global temperature was 8 degrees higher than it is today. Although 8 degrees doesn’t sound game-changing, it affects the climate in a huge way – so much that there was no polar ice and subtropical temperatures spanned from one end of the globe to the other.
So, if you’re to place 2019 on this timeline of global wobbling then you’ve probably guessed that today’s temperatures are moving towards greenhouse conditions. That’s what global warming is. Our climate time period is called the Holocene and warming temperatures means shrinking ice and thermal expansion causing sea levels to rise. Although it seems like a strange idea, thermal expansion is the growth of sea water as it gets warmer. Imagine wearing a ring on a cold day, it’s more likely to slide around on your finger compared to on a warm day because your hands swell. The same happens with the sea if temperatures rise steadily. So, from what I’ve said, it seems like a changing climate is completely natural, humans are not the cause at all and we’re all being lied to! Unfortunately, we know that’s not the case but we can see that this idea of natural rising temperatures made it so difficult for our grandfathers to realise humans were actually changing such a massive process, especially with less technology on past climates than today.
Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
We’re all likely to have heard of these words being used at some point on the TV, Internet or social media. We can work out what they are but why they do what they do is another matter. These gases are the things which tie us humans into climate change. Almost all greenhouse gases are natural and are a crucial part in causing a global warming or cooling. You probably guessed that from the name. Carbon dioxide is part of the GHG category and it is the most well-known because it is the most commonly used and most commonly found. There are other greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide and even water vapour. These gases are found all over the planet – in rocks, oceans, animals, trees and so on. When they are in the atmosphere, it’s like they put a blanket over Earth, trapping the Sun’s heat for longer then letting it go back out to space. The more GHGs in the atmosphere, the more of the Sun’s heat gets trapped.
Humans and Climate Change
As I said at the beginning, humans are not the cause of global warming and you can see now that a warming and cooling global climate is a natural thing. However, humans are responsible for an accelerated rise in temperature due to the amount of GHGs we release into the atmosphere by transport, powerplants and farming. This is where the term Anthropocene era or anthropogenic emissions come into play. This simply means ‘affected by humans’. So, the Holocene is the era we would be in if humans didn’t exist and Anthropocene is the new era we have entered due to our unnatural emissions of GHGs. Our effect on the natural climate is famously illustrated by the ‘hockey stick graph’. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry (I didn’t know either until I was doing A-Level geography) Here is the graph.
As you can see, since 1990, both carbon emissions and temperature have drastically increased – so much that this graph resembles a hockey stick (kind of…I guess…well I don’t see it but someone must have). What such a fast rise means is that all the effects of climate change are much more rapid – we get more violent weather occurrences, coastal areas will flood and more environments will change. It’s not quite ‘the end of the world’ that we’ve been told but this idea likely comes from the fact that scientists can’t predict everything that such high atmospheric carbon levels will cause (because they’ve never been nearly as high as this before). They do know that if carbon and other GHGs continue to enter the atmosphere, Earth won’t be able to naturally sort itself out as it has done before. It is up to us to sort out this problem we unknowingly created.
How We Can Cause a Change – What Works and What Doesn’t
Now we’ve covered the basics of climate change that no one tells us, we’re more able to decide on the most important things we can do to sort it out. However, there is a lot of misleading information out there about what climate change is and this unfortunately applies to methods to fix it.
Our first and most important fix is trees. We are told that forests (especially rainforests) are being cut down and that destroys the habitats of many animals. This is true but it is not the only impact. As I mentioned above, carbon is stored in trees. Not only stored but removed straight from the atmosphere. Trees are sponges for carbon because photosynthesis takes in carbon and gives out oxygen. If we remove trees we are reducing Earth’s ability to store carbon so more will stay in the atmosphere. If we burn trees, it doesn’t only reduce carbon storage but it releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere. A common misconception is to think ‘removing trees is bad. Paper comes from trees so I’ll use less paper to save the rainforests.’ However, paper and card are some of the eco-friendliest products in the world as they’re sustainably sourced (so trees aren’t cut willy nilly), recycled and biodegradable. So, we plant specific trees for paper, cut them down, the paper decays in the ground then we plant more trees. This process means a constant removal of carbon from the atmosphere as trees keep being planted and nothing gets burned.
Secondly, over the past year, palm oil and the possible effects of its sourcing has exploded all across the internet so much that whenever we think of it, we associate deforestation and degrading of rainforest land. I type palm oil into google and my search is bombarded with statements like ‘why palm oil is bad and how to avoid it’. The truth is, palm oil is not bad. In fact, it is the most environmentally efficient type of vegetable oil because it requires the least amount of land to produce. This is obviously good as less land needed means less meddling with rainforests. The real reason why palm oil sourcing can cause a lot of damage is, the demand for palm oil products has risen rapidly which causes certain companies to extract palm oil without enough care for the rainforest. The answer to this is not to avoid all products using palm oil because that might make the situation worse – forcing companies to choose other vegetable oils which require more land – but to look out for the RSPO symbol on products. Yet there are so many products which use this oil – chocolate, margarine, pizza, shampoo – that it’s just not practical to check everyone. The best way to act against unsustainable palm oil is to have a quick google on brands which are committed to sustainable palm oil so more and more will follow this trend in the future. A few brands I found are Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s and Starbucks.
Finally, there is one easy fix we’ve been told that is 100% true. That is pre-packed fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. I see and know so many people who choose the pre-packed fruit option over the loose option – I’m hoping this article convinces my dad to finally change his shopping ways. Although plastic waste is an issue, the amount of emissions required to produce the plastic to surround this produce is scary. Even if we choose to recycle this packaging, more damage is being done than if we choose the other option. Over half of the packaged fruit and veg in ASDA, Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s are available with no packaging at all and with the new paper packing bags now in large stores, this will be a huge help.
That is my brief tour of all things climate change. There are many more ins and outs of how the Earth warms and the ways countries are trying to stop it. Although it is impossible to cover everything in one article, I hope I’ve shown that not everything you read or see on this matter is strictly true. I hope that now you are more like me and shake your head, questioning every source of information that doesn’t add up. It’s such an overwhelming topic but all the stuff we currently know is out there and a bit of research allows us to tackle it together as individuals because let’s face it, the media is not going to tell us how to do it.