The Climate Crisis
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
The term ‘climate crisis’ sounds pretty dramatic, right? We have already seen a public health crisis this year and its effects have been disastrous – so is climate change really that serious?
The answer is yes.
The term ‘crisis’ is used for urgent matters that must be addressed with high priority. All of the UK's ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2002 and studies have shown that if we do not slow the rise in the Earth’s temperature, there is a real threat to the existence of many species, some countries and even human civilisation.
Climate change has become an urgent matter that needs to be addressed immediately.
What is climate change and why does it happen?
Climate change is any long-term alteration in average weather patterns, either globally or regionally. These changes have occurred many times in the Earth's history for natural reasons, such as the changing strength of the sun or changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. If these changes had not happened throughout history, the planet would be inhabitable for humankind.
However, the changes in global temperature and weather patterns seen today are caused by human activity and are happening much faster than the natural climate variations of the past.
How are humans contributing to the climate crisis?
To understand exactly how human activity is causing today’s climate crisis, we must first understand the natural greenhouse effect of the Earth.
When greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide, are released into the atmosphere, they form a blanket around the Earth. Solar energy radiating back to space from the Earth's surface is absorbed by this blanket of gases and re-emitted in all directions so it cannot escape. This greenhouse effect heats both the lower atmosphere and the surface of the planet. Without it, the Earth would be about 30°C colder and hostile to life.
Issues arise, however, when excessive quantities of GHGs are emitted into the atmosphere as the blanket becomes too thick, trapping too much solar energy and heating the Earth’s atmosphere too rapidly. Humans have been contributing to climate change since the Industrial Revolution, and the Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.8°C since the end of the 19th century.
The first reason is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, which became the primary energy source for powering factories and homes during the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuel consumption has increased significantly, particularly over the past half-century. When burnt, they release GHGs into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect.
The transportation sector is the second largest contributor to climate change.
The average petrol car on the road in the UK produces the equivalent of 180g of CO2 every kilometre. In 2018, 328 billion miles were travelled by road vehicles which emit harmful GHGs such as CO2, so it probably comes as no surprise that in the same year, emissions from road traffic accounted for 28% of the UK’s total GHG emissions. Air travel for business and leisure also comes at a cost to the environment. In 2018, airlines contributed about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and by 2050, global emissions from passenger air travel are projected to increase by 300-700%, according to the European Commission.
The third largest contributor to climate change is the industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon, such as manufacturing and mining. In the last 150 years, these activities have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 414 parts per million.
What are the long term effects for the earth and for mankind?
At the pace of current CO2 emissions, scientists expect an increase of between 1.5° and 5.3°C in average temperature by 2100. The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that if the Earth's temperature rises by more than 1.5°C, it will cause huge problems for the planet.
Melting ice in places like the Arctic and Antarctic would lead to a rise in the Earth's sea levels, flooding many coastal areas and islands. As well as this, extreme weather like heatwaves, droughts and storms would happen more often and become more severe. This would cause disruption to food chains, destroy settlements and affect many people’s livelihoods.
As well as this, climate change has a disproportionate effect on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour). According to a report by the American Lung Association, 14 million people of colour live in communities that are exposed to air pollution from GHGs due to systemic housing. This exposure is linked to higher rates of cardiovascular and respiratory issues, leaving people even more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19.
Despite this evidence, some individuals are not convinced. Find out why with our guide on Climate-Scepticism.
What can we do to stop the crisis?
As a society, we have an individual and collective responsibility to stop the climate crisis.
On an individual level, almost everything we do releases some amount of carbon into the atmosphere, but how much depends on a huge number of factors. This means that we can increase or decrease our carbon footprint with our everyday choices. For example:
Going car-free saves an average of 2.04 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person annually
Taking one less long-haul flight per year saves an average of 1.68 tonnes
Switching to renewable energy saves an average of 1.6 tonnes
On a collective or systemic level, things get a bit more complicated as we have less of a direct impact on effecting change. However, there are certain things we can do to create change within politics, companies and society in general. For example:
Vote for politicians that will consider the environment a priority
Support social enterprises and ethical companies creating innovative solutions to issues such as waste
Educate yourself, your friends and your family on the climate crisis, its impacts and actions we can take to stop global warming
The climate crisis is a threat to Earth and a threat to humankind and it must be taken seriously. We are at a critical point as we ease our way into a new normal living with COVID-19. It is the perfect time to adopt eco-friendly practices and green recovery not only within the economy, but within our daily lives too. Hopefully this guide can serve as a starting point to your eco-education!