Climate Change 101: What is climate change and what can you do about it?
by Wesley Wright, MASc
Many of us are worried about the state of our planet and the legacy we are leaving behind for our children and future generations, but many are also confused about climate change and what we can do about it. Heck, there’s even debate about whether climate change is man-made or due to natural phenomena and fluctuations over many thousands of years. The short answer is: both are true. Temperature, atmospheric CO2 levels, and so on do fluctuate over tens of thousands of years, and things like volcanic eruptions and natural forest fires do release CO2 and other greenhouse gases, but through our activities like burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) for manufacturing, transportation, electricity, and heating our homes, humans also release a lot of CO2 and many other gases (many of which are toxic) to the atmosphere. While fossil fuels are commonly targeted for climate change, deforestation is another major issue because trees are very important for absorbing CO2, and the more trees we cut down, less we have to absorb CO2. Deforestation happens for many reasons, including urban development, palm oil plantations, and the creation of farmland and land for livestock (especially cattle).
Many people perceive mitigating climate change (or simply going “green”) as having to make a lot of sacrifices and adopt a totally different lifestyle, but that isn’t the case! ANY action that you take which you weren’t doing before to help the planet is going greener. So we’ve broken down the science and outlined some actions that you can start taking now. These actions are presented in three degrees of green to meet you where you’re at. Ready to learn and take action? Let’s get started!
What is climate change?
Some gases (like CO2 and methane) are called greenhouse gases because they contribute to what is called the greenhouse effect: they trap excess heat in our atmosphere (such as sunlight that is reflected or heat that is released from the earth’s surface) so that it can’t easily go back into space. Trapping heat in our atmosphere causes the atmosphere to get hotter. The more greenhouse gases that are in our atmosphere, the stronger the greenhouse effect—that’s why we hear a lot about atmospheric CO2 concentration. And a higher concentration means more greenhouse gases, which means more heat gets trapped…faster. This results in global warming.
So what’s the big deal? Well, as temperatures around the world rise due to global warming, natural systems (oceans, your backyard, the park near your home, your own body) begin to get stressed. It’s like spending too much time in a sauna: it might feel good for a bit (or at least not be a problem) at first, but then it becomes uncomfortable, and then it becomes dangerous. When those natural systems that help to establish and maintain our climate get stressed, they begin to get out of balance…and eventually those systems begin to break down because they can’t cope with being stressed for so long. Their functions become inhibited and they can’t “work” properly. This, and everything that results, is climate change.
What does climate change look like? Here are some examples, which we are already starting to see:
• Floods become more frequent and more severe (ice in the polar regions begins to melt, which raises water levels in the oceans);
• Droughts happen more often and last for longer (higher temperatures cause more evaporation, so the soil becomes drier);
• Tropical storms become more frequent and more severe due to disrupted wind and water current patterns—so far this year, hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones have caused more than 1,100 deaths and over US$47.2 billion in damage worldwide;
• Forest fires become more frequent and more extensive (higher temperatures mean drier conditions and higher fire risk);
• Rain bombs (aka microbursts) where HUGE amounts of rain fall in very short time periods (when it’s hotter, water evaporates faster…and what goes up must come down);
• Ocean acidification (a lot of the atmospheric CO2 gets absorbed by the oceans, which lowers their pH—this makes it harder for fish and other marine animals to survive, and corals begin to die because the acidity makes it harder for coral and shellfish to make their hard protective shells or “skeletons”);
• Poor air quality and higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
So what can you do?
We now know that greenhouse gases lead to global warming, which leads to climate change. Research has shown that the three main contributors to man-made greenhouse gas emissions are – in no particular order: transportation (how we get around, and how we transport our goods); electricity/energy (where it comes from and how much of it we use); and agriculture/food (the food we eat and where/how it’s grown)—not necessarily in that order. Focusing on these three areas, I’ve separated out actions into three levels:
- Light green: those who want to do something for the planet but can’t change their current lifestyle and habits (because of too little time and/or resources).
- Medium green: Those who are willing to change certain parts of their life for the planet, even if doing so comes with some inconvenience or sacrifice.
- Deep green: Those who are passionate about the environment and are willing to go to extremes to help protect it.
These are just a general guideline, and don’t feel like you have to do everything. It’s not all-or-nothing; doing just one thing on the list is one more thing you’re doing to help the planet that wasn’t being done before!
The environmental benefits of a vegan diet: https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:b0b53649-5e93-4415-bf07-6b0b1227172f
The “dirty dozen”: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php
The “clean fifteen”: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean-fifteen.php
The environmental impacts of palm oil: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_and_environmental_impact_of_palm_oil
Another important thing in reducing carbon emissions (and environmental impacts overall) is to give more thought to the things that we purchase, and how we use them. To find out more and get some great tips, check out our blogs on conscious consumerism and about how to go plastic free. Reforestation is an easy way to fight climate change, so plant some trees or support tree-planting organizations such as Sadhana Forest! Please read this blog about why it’s important to Make Shift Happen.
Wesley Wright, MASc, Managing Director of Ahimsa Eco Solutions, is a passionate advocate for environmental stewardship. Wesley’s role includes spearheading the launch of an environmental movement to “Make Shift Happen” in an effort to move towards a sustainable and waste free society. He integrates his knowledge of different fields such as molecular biology/genetics, ecology, environmental engineering, critical thinking, ethics, permaculture, design, urban planning, organic gardening, and biomimicry to help empower people to realize their environmental goals.