Introduction to Climate Change

How Does Global Warming Work?

A painting of a nature landscape. The left third of the painting shows blue skies with some clouds, green grass and the left half of a tree with many green leaves. A vertical line down the center of the tree splits the landscape, and the right two-thirds shows dead tree branches, a bright orange-and-red sky, a blazing sun, and desert sand instead of green grass. 4 birds fly together near the right border.
Climate change may transform landscapes at every place on earth. | Pixabay

The Atmosphere, Greenhouse Gases and Temperature

The Earth – which includes continents, islands, wilderness, cities, rivers, and oceans – is surrounded by a layer of gases called the atmosphere. There are many different gases in the atmosphere including oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and hundreds more. This atmosphere is incredibly important: among other things, it contains oxygen for humans and other animals to breathe, and carbon dioxide to help plants grow. Ozone and other gases protect us from cosmic radiation, and meteorites burn up in the atmosphere instead of smashing into Earth. The atmosphere provides many other benefits and is vital for nature, humans, and everything else on our planet.

The atmosphere also helps keep the earth at a stable temperature, unlike the freezing vacuum of space. This happens because the Sun, a fiery ball of gases, sends out rays of heat through space. When those rays reach the Earth’s atmosphere, some heat goes back out to space – but certain gases trap some of it and keep the atmosphere a stable temperature (even through cloudy days or during the night). The gases that trap heat and keep the earth warm are called “greenhouse gases” (GHGs), mainly because they act like a glass greenhouse to keep things warm. There are many of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: the most important and prevalent ones are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) – and even though they make up a small percentage of the atmosphere, they are largely what keeps the earth from freezing and allow us to live on it.

However, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been increasing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1870. That’s when people discovered fossil fuels – such as coal, oil, and natural gas – and started burning them in power plants and engines to create energy for electricity, vehicles and more. Burning these fossil fuels does more than just create energy: it also releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (these are called “carbon emissions”). Those carbon emissions have drastically increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In 1870, CO2 levels were approximately 270 parts per million (ppm), but as of May 2018 they are over 410 ppm. Because there are more heat-trapping gases, the earth is getting warmer: the average global temperature has increased by about 1°C, or 1.8°F, since 1870. This amount of “global warming” may not seem like a lot, but it has massive global consequences.

The 2 graphs below show changes in global CO2 levels over the past 800,000 years (top) and since 1700 (bottom), until June 5, 2018. The earth has gone through variations in CO2 over many thousands of years, largely due to shifts in the sun’s output and the earth’s orbit. Over the past 800,000 years, CO2 has fluctuated between a low of 170 ppm and a high of about 300 ppm (up until the modern “industrial era”). However, we have increased CO2 levels above 400 ppm – well more than anything seen in hundreds of millennia. To see different time frames, check out the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s “Keeling Curve” website.

A graph showing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from 800,000 years ago until today. The CO2 levels went up and down many times from a low of 180 parts per million (ppm) to around 300 ppm – but the graph shoots straight upward in the past 150 years and is now over 400 ppm. A reading at the top of the graph says “411.15 ppm”
Scientists have calculated the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere over the past 800,000 years by studying ice cores until 1958 and using precise sensors in Hawaii since then. From 800,000 years ago until 1900, CO2 levels never went above 300 ppm. In the last 150 years, they have shot up to over 410 ppm. On June 5, 2018, the level was 411.15 ppm.| Scripps Institute of Oceanography
This graph shows a close-up of CO2 levels from 1700 until today. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 began growing slowly starting in 1870, and have increased dramatically over the past several decades. The rate of increase continues to accelerate.
This graph shows more recent CO2 data, from 1700 until June 5, 2018. Humans started burning fossil fuels in the 1870s, and CO2 levels started growing notably just before 1900. CO2 concentrations have been growing dramatically faster in recent decades as we put out more carbon emissions. | Scripps Institute of Oceanography

This CO2 variation changes weather and other aspects of the world, such as ocean levels. During times of low CO2, the earth falls into “ice ages,” and when CO2 rises we enter “interglacials.” Just looking at ocean levels shows these variations can make a huge difference in the world around us. According to NASA’s page on climate change and sea level:

“Global sea level has fluctuated widely in the recent geologic past. It stood 4-6 meters above the present during the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, but was 120 m lower at the peak of the last ice age, around 20,000 years ago. A study of past sea level fluctuations provides a longer-term geologic context, which can help us better anticipate future trends.”

What will our Future be?

So, higher CO2 and other GHG levels can dramatically change the environment. Unfortunately, CO2 concentrations are still rising, and the temperature is rising with them. Humans continue to burn fossil fuels and spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and the rate of carbon emissions has continued to grow over the years. Other things are also helping to increase greenhouse gas levels and global temperatures. For example, trees and forests suck CO2 out of the atmosphere in order to grow, but deforestation has taken away those forests and their ability to “sequester” carbon. Cows raised for beef and dairy burp up loads of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. And some “natural feedbacks” are releasing more GHGs as the earth warms: for example, climate change leads to more forest fires which release CO2 from burning forests, and then more warming causes more forest fires which release more CO2, and so on; frozen methane at the bottom of the oceans is starting to melt and release into the atmosphere, and “permafrost” tundras filled with frozen methane are also starting to thaw, which warms the atmosphere and leads to more melting; and because floating ice in the Arctic Ocean is disappearing as it warms, there is less reflective ice to send the sun’s heat back into space, while the exposed ocean absorbs warmth and melts even more ice.

This graph shows the variation in average global temperature from 1880 until 2017, using the 1951-1980 average temperature as a baseline. Temperatures vary from year-to-year because of many factors impacting the climate, but there is a clear upward trend since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. 2016 was the warmest year on record, with a global average temperature 1°C above the 20th-century average (2017 was 2nd-warmest at 0.9°C). According to NASA, “seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998.” | NASA


This map from NASA shows each area of the globe’s temperature difference from its 20th-century average, in the year 2017. Areas in the far north, including Alaska, Greenland, Russia, and the North Pole, are warming faster than the rest of the world, sometimes reaching 4°F or more. These areas hold many potential “feedback loops,” including methane from thawing permafrost and reduced reflection of the sun’s rays as Arctic sea ice disappears. Melting glaciers in Greenland also lead to rising oceans. An interactive version of the map with years from 1884-2017 is available here | NASA

A warmer atmosphere with higher concentrations of greenhouse gases has many climate-related and other consequences. Direct climate consequences include things such as hotter, longer and more severe heat waves; stronger and more frequent storms and other extreme weather; longer and deeper droughts; more frequent forest fires; stresses to natural environments and ecosystems; and sea level rise flooding coasts and islands worldwide. These climate consequences will impact humanity in many ways: for example, there will be infrastructure damage from storms, flooding and fires; more deaths and injuries from extreme weather and heat waves; migration away from flooding coasts, droughts and more; and political and economic tensions from all of these. It will take partnerships and collaboration to protect nature and people in this changing future.

Scientists are predicting that temperatures will continue to rise, potentially by several degrees Celsius before 2100. Global leaders and activists are putting effort and money into reducing emissions (through renewable energy, zero-emissions vehicles, lifestyle changes and more) and hopefully limiting warming in the process. This “climate mitigation” will absolutely help and may make the difference between climate change we can adapt to and a global catastrophe. Some activists and politicians have also called for specific temperature targets – usually 1.5°C or 2°C above the 20th-century average – but the reality is that every fraction of a degree can have major effects, so life under these targets will still be much different than today. In fact, we are already seeing many dramatic effects of climate change and more is on the way, and in the end even keeping under 2°C may be out of reach. This means that it’s incredibly important to prepare, adapt, and increase our resilience to climate impacts for all people.

This temperature projection from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR5 report shows different temperature projections from 2005 through 2100, using the 1986-2005 average as a baseline. Under a high emissions scenario (RCP 8.5), the models show around a 4°C increase by 2100, with uncertainty from around 3°C up to 5.5°C. Under a low-emissions scenario (RCP 2.6), temperatures rise about 1°C by 2100, and models range between 0.25°C to just over 1.5°C. | IPCC

There is widespread debate about exactly how much temperatures will rise and how quickly, especially considering the choices we make around burning fossil fuels, “land-use changes,” and efforts to “sequester” (or pull out) CO2 from the atmosphere. Models compiled by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), like the ones for the graph above, are used most often by advocates and policy-makers alike – but IPCC models have also been criticized for being too conservative. Some recent studies have even argued that temperature changes could be double those of forward by “official” IPCC and government estimates.

The Consequences of a Warmer World

Different areas of the globe will be uniquely affected by climate change. Just to name a few: the American Southwest is likely to see deeper and longer droughts and heat waves, which will endanger health and jeopardize food and water supplies; South Florida, which has most of its land within a few feet of sea-level, will see regular flooding from sea-level rise and more infrastructure damage and injuries from stronger hurricanes; and Greenland will see its many glaciers and ice-sheet slowly melt away, changing the entire landscape and leading to rising oceans. Even local effects can have global consequences, as well: for example, droughts in major agricultural areas can affect food prices at regional, national or global scales; and because we live in a globalized world, damage to ports from storms or sea-level rise may threaten international trade (and the prices and availability of goods worldwide). This means that it is important to study climate impacts on different regions and use that information to plan for adaptation and resilience.

Two photos of disasters. On the left, a silver car drives through a slightly flooded street in Miami, and a multi-story apartment building is visible in the background. On the right, a picture of a wildfire at night, with many trees engulfed in flames and large plumes of smoke.
Different areas of the world will experience different climate impacts. Miami, pictured on the left, is already dealing with occasional “nuisance flooding” during extreme high tides, and regular flooding will become worse with sea-level rise. California and other areas of the Western United States will have more frequent and larger wildfires – the picture on the right shows the “Rim Fire” outside of Yosemite National Park in 2013, which burned more than 250,000 acres. Smoke from Western wildfires can also travel across the country and affect air quality elsewhere. | Wikipedia (flooding) and US Department of Agriculture (fire)

Impacts on People and Specific Populations

Climate change has many consequences on the environment and society at-large. You may have seen images of hungry polar bears without enough sea ice to stay on as they hunt for food, or “bleached” coral reefs damaged by warmer and more acidic oceans (as water absorbs CO2, it becomes more acidic). As we mentioned above, though, climate change will not just affect the “environment” and wildlife – it will also affect society and the people in it. Some examples include:

  • We will see stronger and more frequent storms including hurricanes and the “atmospheric rivers” that hit the West Coast of the US. These storms will damage buildings and infrastructure (such as electricity grids), lead to flooding and landslides, and affect natural ecosystems such as coastal marshes. In terms of effects on society, there are likely to be more storm-related injuries and deaths, insurance and other financial losses, and economic disruptions from lost jobs and infrastructure. Some people may also move away from storm-damaged areas and not return home, essentially ending up as “climate refugees.”
  • Many parts of the world will experience longer and deeper droughts due to climate change; because more precipitation will fall as rain and not snow, areas reliant on snowpack melt for fresh-water (such as California) may also have difficulty accessing water year-round. This will lead to water shortages for personal use, potential agricultural losses, greater risks of wildfire, worse air quality because of fewer “breathing” plants and more wildfire smoke, and even electricity shortages from less water behind hydro-electric dams. Food prices may go up, which can contribute to malnutrition and other health consequences (or economic stress, as people have less to spend elsewhere after buying more-expensive food); lack of clean water can create many public health problems; wildfires can cause injuries, deaths, and economic damage; and poor air quality exacerbates respiratory illness (among other problems).
  • Extreme heat events (“heat waves”) will be more frequent, more intense temperature-wise, and longer lasting. According to one website, “Globally, extremely warm nights that used to come once in 20 years now occur every 10 years. And extremely hot summers, those more than 3 standard deviations above the historic average, are now observed in about 10% of the global land area, compared to 0.1-0.2% for the period 1951-1980.” Heat waves contribute to public health consequences including heat exhaustion and heatstroke, as well as respiratory issues from poor air quality that comes with hotter days. People tend to use more electricity for air-conditioning, which can stress the electric grid. Certain populations – including people with pre-existing health conditions, poor and elderly individuals, and people in urban areas – are more vulnerable to the consequences of extreme heat.

These climate consequences – and more – will not affect everybody equally. People of color, low-income individuals, those in developing countries, women, and other minorities have been shown to bear a disproportionate burden of the effects of climate change. Even more, those most affected by climate change are often the groups that contributed the least to it and have the fewest resources to adapt to its impacts. One group that is especially affected by climate change is people with disabilities – but so far, we have largely been left out of conversations around disproportionate burdens and ability to adapt. WID’s New Earth Disability project aims to ramp up this conversation and focus on ways to support the well-being and resilience of people with disabilities to the effects of climate change. Many leaders and activists have called for “climate justice” which recognizes this disproportionate burden and calls for a human rights approach to climate resilience; we also advocate for disability climate justice and a comprehensive approach to address our needs.

Thank you for reading about climate change, its effects, and the importance of disability climate justice. For more information, please look through the other sections of the NED website!

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4 thoughts on “Introduction to Climate Change

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    1. Alex Ghenis

      Thank you for your question. Climate change is very difficult to handle. Unfortunately, we cannot realistically stop or reverse the warming that is already in motion, but every little bit that we can hold off makes a difference for our health and safety. With that in mind, it’s very important to transform our economy so that we release fewer carbon emissions (and maybe “sequester” away some carbon out of the atmosphere), for example by moving to renewable electricity and electric vehicles. Each fraction of a degree of warming that we prevent will save lives, health, and well-being of people worldwide.

      The second piece of the puzzle – and what we advocate for in our work – is becoming resilient for the changes that are on the way. For example, because there will be more powerful storms, we should build stronger homes and have good funding and planning for disaster response and recovery. Oceans will rise and eventually flood coastal areas and low-lying islands, so we should help people move inland and support everything that entails (finding new housing, new jobs, and new public services). We also need to ensure that resilience and adaptation meets everyone’s needs – and at WID, we advocate for meeting the needs of people with disabilities specifically. More about that is on the other pages in the Climate Change section of our website.

      It is difficult, emotionally and psychologically, to accept that a certain amount of climate change is on the way. We need to support each other as friends, family, and communities going forward. This is one of the most important pieces of personal resilience, as well.

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