Guide: What Causes Climate Change?
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Whether it's newly sworn in governments or powerful business corporations, there waits for them an important and quintessential question: How do you plan on tackling climate change?
The topic continues to dominate global narratives. Initiatives like the Paris Climate Accord seek to create international commitments to fight the issue and preserve our environment. Wherever the future of our society is concerned, the issue of climate change has become intrinsic.
In order to come up with solutions to the problem, it is necessary to first understand it; to understand how climate change came to be a central issue in the global agenda. This article focuses on explaining the causes of climate change, breaking it down into three key areas: fossil fuels, deforestation and agriculture.
A quick recap: what is climate change?
Climate change is the term used to describe the natural increase in the Earth’s temperature and subsequent changes to our environment and ecosystems. The term ‘natural’ is used lightly here, as it refers to the inevitable process of carbon release and global warming of the planet. Yet, the worrying exponential rate in which this process has occurred, is rooted in human activities that are very much unnatural.
Our burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and impacts of agriculture have driven the rate of global warming to a dangerous pace, the effects of which, we can see in changes in our ecosystems and subsequent natural disasters, the rise in sea levels and melting ice caps to name a few.
Despite the natural process of carbon release and global warming mentioned above, human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years. So, while climate change can be conceptually described as a natural process, the climate change we know of today and the increased rate of degradation of our planet, is rooted in human activities and manmade processes.
The burning of fossil fuels is the process which is most commonly associated as the main driver of climate change. These include oil, coal and gas, and are used to meet our daily energy needs. Their name stems from the process by which they are extracted: from fossilised buried remains of animals and plants from millions of years ago. It is for this reason, that they have a high carbon content. When fossil fuels burn, therefore, they produce high amounts of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide gets trapped in the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in the warming of the planet. The severity of the issue is further emphasised when considering the abundance of fossil fuels in all industries and aspects of life: from heating our homes to supplying energy for transportation.
It’s not only carbon dioxide which gets emitted, but also other dangerous substances. Coal-fired power plants alone produce 42 percent of mercury emissions and two-thirds of sulphur dioxide emissions in the U.S. Particulate matter (also known as soot) is also a by-product of the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil-fuel powered vehicles – from large trucks to small cars to boats - produce dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide and nitrogen. These not only cause harm to the environment but can cause respiratory illnesses and further cardiovascular effects. It is clear that the burning of fossil fuels is a large-scale problem with severe large-scale effects.
Trees and related ecosystems play a crucial role in mediating the carbon levels of our planet. Green plants undergo both photosynthesis and respiration, meaning they both take in and release carbon dioxide, but they general release smaller amounts than they take in. The overall effect is that the surplus carbon is stored in the plant. Large ecosystems of mass amounts of green plants, therefore, can act as a form of carbon storage.
When deforestation takes place, it is effectively destroying this storage mechanism and releasing carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. Why does deforestation take place? Deforestation happens for many reasons such as logging, mining, urbanisation, agriculture and as a result to natural disasters.
These have severe effects for not only the trees and plants themselves, but also the animal and insect populations found in the forest canopy. In other words, deforestation completely destroys the ecosystems which these forests maintain and harms biodiversity. This is most prevalent in Brazil, where the Amazon has been reduced by more than two thirds and this alone has had significant implications on the future of global biodiversity and climate change.
One of the reasons why deforestation takes place is because of agriculture. The Union of Concerned Scientists trace most tropical deforestation to four commodities: beef, soy, palm oil and wood. Pasture for beef cattle alone is responsible for 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest every year.
Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are also an issue and come from livestock such as cows, agricultural soils, and rice production. Whether it is destroyed forest land, or a farm, whatever type of space they occupy, cattle’s digestive systems emit mass amounts of nitrous oxide and methane, which are powerful global warming pollutants and further causes climate change.
Furthermore, the maintenance of the commodities themselves have serious implications for the environment. Agriculture both contributes to and faces water issues. According to the OECD, agriculture irrigation – the artificial process of applying controlled amounts of water to land to help crops grow – accounts for 70% of water use globally. The intensive groundwater pumping needed to sustain irrigation ‘depletes aquifers’ (an underground layer of water-bearing rock) and can cause environmental degradation. This not only causes climate change, but also contributes to significant economic harm to the sector.
A complex problem
It is important to note that such a global issue cannot be reduced to just these three factors in isolation. Rather it is a web of complex processes which has changed the trajectory of our environment throughout time. The process of climate change inherently implicates a variety of other elements, such as our consumer culture, global inequality, etc. (see our Climate Crisis section for more resources on these issues)
While climate change may seem like a highly existential and overwhelming issue, it is important to remember that it is a manmade problem. Although our ability to fight climate change rests heavily on initiatives and agency at international level, it falls to the individual to also mobilise and combat climate change.
Through our modes of production and burning of fossil fuels, our disregard for nature, and agricultural impacts, society is undeniably living in a way that is unsustainable.
Understanding the causes of climate change, as well as the contribution of micro-efforts in changing our consumer habits, there is still hope to change that we can change the trajectory of human lifestyle to one that is harmonious with nature.
For more information on this topic, check out our section on the Climate Crisis.