March 12, 2019
Step Up on Climate Change by Mel
Turtle PondSource: Turtle Pond | Penelope Peru Photography P³
Climate reports have been released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1990. Hundreds of the world’s top scientists use their expertise to gather and assess data to provide the most comprehensive information on climate change so policy makers can make their best attempt to deal with this global issue.
The most recent report, released only a couple of months ago, reads very similar to previous ones. The only differences are:
- the worsening scale of damage to our planet
- the accelerated rate at which it is happening
- the urgency at which we need to act
Stepping Up on Climate Change
Now the question is: what are we, as a global community, going to do about it?
Currently, we are seeing many big projects around the world: investments in renewable energy, innovative technologies, divestment in fossil fuels, to name a few. Big cities and whole countries have committed to reducing their emissions.
The outcome of the United Nations’ (UN) COP24 looks promising. 200 countries agreed on the enforcement of emission targets set at the Paris Agreement, as well as the provision of financial support to less economically strong countries in dealing with climate change.
However, not all our leaders are on board, which is where the problem lies.
This is a global problem which requires a global solution.
Studying Climate Change
Sand DuneSource: Sand Dunes | Penelope Peru Photography P³
Scientists have been studying the Earth’s climate for the last 150 years, yet it wasn’t until 1938 that Guy Stewart Callendar, a steam engineer with a fascination with weather, suggested increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) – due to the burning of fossil fuels – were increasing the Earth’s temperature. His findings were unfortunately not taken seriously.
Callendar’s discovery was related to what we call the greenhouse effect.
The Greenhouse Effect
The Earth’s atmosphere naturally contains gases, such as C02 and methane, which we call greenhouse gases (GHG) (the most abundant one actually being water vapour). They act in a similar way to a greenhouse. When the sun’s heat reaches the Earth, these gases trap some of the heat.
This is actually very important for sustaining life on Earth. Without them, the sun’s rays would bounce back into space and Earth would be too cold for life to exist. It is because of these GHGs that we have experienced ice ages.
Scientists discovered an exact correlation between concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere and changes in temperature of the Earth’s surface. In fact, climate change has been happening naturally throughout Earth’s history; Earth has been warming and cooling for a very long time.
The Problem with Greenhouse Gases
What exactly is the issue then?
For the last 150 years (since the Industrial Revolution), we have been burning coal to make electricity – an amazing invention which has changed our way of living exponentially.
What scientists have discovered is that the amount of coal we are burning, along with other fossil fuels, such as oil, are emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere. This is increasing GHG concentrations, trapping more heat, resulting in an increase of Earth’s global average temperature.
There are loads of other factors that are causing a rise in GHGs, such as the mass clearance of trees (when trees die they produce CO2, as well as when they are alive they take in CO2. This is known as a carbon sink) and beef production (cows produce large amounts of methane, which is a more concentrated GHG. The land-use and transport required to feed them doesn’t help, either).
On top of that, we now have 7.5 billion people living on the planet (to put that into scale, it would take about 225 years to count 7.5 billion seconds).
If the issue is Earth is warming, then why is it a big deal? It’s been doing it for hundreds of millions of years, after all.
In the past, the change in climate would occur over thousands of years, giving plenty of time for species to adapt. This most recent warming, caused by us, is happening so fast – 10 times as fast – to adapt is like asking you to build a space rocket in 10 seconds. You may have the capability to figure out how to build one eventually, but to do it in 10 seconds would be almost impossible.
There is new evidence suggesting that the world’s largest mass extinction (to date) – occurring approximately 250 million years ago, wiping out 96 percent of all marine life and 70 percent of land species – was caused by global warming. A volcanic eruption released so much GHG into the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature rose by 10 degrees. There was absolutely no time for adaptation.
The Effects of Climate Change
RocksSource: Clay Colored Rocks | Penelope Peru Photography P³
Even if you have not read the climate report or don’t really follow the news, it is clearly visible that climate change is real and we are currently experiencing some of its effects.
I live in Adelaide, South Australia. When I was a child, a day over 40 (degrees Celsius) was an extremely rare event. If it was ever forecast to be over 40 (I remember because it may have meant a day off school), I don’t recall it ever reaching the predicted forecast.
Now we experience heatwaves with consecutive days reaching over 43 degrees here in Adelaide, and we recently experienced a day this summer reaching 48 degrees!
In 2006, I did a degree in environmental studies. Climate change was a big part of the program.
Climate reports projected more extreme weather:
- more hurricanes (hurricanes form over the ocean if the water temperature is above 27 degrees, and climate change would result in a rise in sea temperatures)
- droughts (more consecutive days without rain)
- bush fires (caused by drought)
- floods (when the rain does come, it comes all at once)
All of which we are seeing. They projected sea level rise, melting ice caps and ecosystem collapses. These things are happening on a much worse scale than was projected back then.
The most recent report warns that, to stave off IRREVERSIBLE damage, we need to keep the global average temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
We have currently reached 1 degree.
Climate Change from the Land Down Under
If you grew up in Australia during the 80s and early 90s, you may have heard about the hole in the ozone layer.
This gigantic hole was discovered in 1974. It is actually an extreme thinning of ozone in the atmosphere over Australia, and even more so, Antarctica.
Ozone is a molecule mostly concentrated in the stratosphere, between 15-30 kilometres above our heads. It is essential for human life, as it absorbs harmful UV-B radiation, which has been linked to skin cancer, cataracts, suppressed immune systems, to name a few.
A major cause of this potentially devastating discovery are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used in fridges and aerosols.
Scientists had identified a human-induced environmental issue which was potentially damaging for the entire planet.
So, what did we, as a global community, do about it?
First, we listened to the science. There was no denying, debating, or blaming natural causes. The science was clear. This was a global environmental problem caused by human actions and it required a global solution.
Second, we acted. In 1987, global leaders from 197 nations signed a treaty to phase out the use of CFCs. And guess what? We did. CFCs were phased out all over the world.
Fast forwarding 30 years or so, scientists have found the ozone layer is healing.
Bee on a purple flowerSource: Bees 05 | Penelope Peru Photography P³
When we compare these two scenarios, what can we see?
First, not ALL of our global leaders are taking the climate science seriously. Currently, some of our leaders are putting their own agendas ahead of what scientists are urging the world to do.
There is a 97 percent consensus among peer-reviewed climate scientists that human-induced climate change is real. In other words, these are scientists who are published in peer-reviewed journals; they are unbiased and not linked to oil companies, nor are they linked to politicians attempting to discredit them for their own short-term gain. They are also not tobacco companies trying to turn the public against science-based information because it claimed their product caused cancer.
On top of that, these scientists are CLIMATE scientists – they study Earth’s climate for a living. To ask the opinion of any other scientist would be like asking an endocrinologist about brain surgery – they would have some idea, but they are not experts on the topic.
Second, evidence shows that global action works.
I see the whole scenario of the ozone layer as an important example of how it was through good leadership and global collaboration that this positive outcome has come to be. This is what is needed to combat climate change.
It was not left up to individuals to fix the hole in the ozone layer. It was not up to people to choose to purchase a more expensive but environmentally friendly CFC-free fridge, or to say no to aerosols. CFCs were taken off the market, through a global decision, because they were destroying the atmosphere in which we need to sustain a healthy life.
I do believe that making ethical lifestyle choices is important and every little bit counts in making a difference, it’s just not going to be the savior of our planet.
It was leaders coming together which drove the change, and it was an abrupt change. There were not 28 years’ worth of reports. There were not endless conferences with targets to reduce CFCs by a small percentage over the next 50 years. We took accountability for our actions and recognised that the cause needed to be eliminated.
Our lifestyles were also not impacted by the change – we still have fridges and aerosols, just without CFCs.
Electricity generation is not the problem, burning fossil fuels is. We have the intelligence and humanity to learn from our mistakes and come up with new ways, just like we did before. And we, as individuals, do have a bit of power to drive this action by voting for leaders who will do the right thing.
Thirty years ago, we humans found ourselves faced with a global environmental problem, which we had caused, and we needed a solution. Global leaders listened and acted and stopped irreversible damage.
Let’s hope they step up and do the same again.
Brush over sunsetSource: Sand Dunes | Penelope Peru Photography P³