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Climate Change: Explained

Climate change is a pressing issue. The news, social media, political debates, and various walkouts, marches, and strikes have made this quite clear. However, information about the actual problem is less widespread. What is climate change, and why is it so bad?

National Geographic defines climate change as “the long-term alteration of temperature and normal weather patterns in a place.” Though Earth’s climate always changes, this process has been significantly accelerated due to global warming caused by human activity. Global warming occurs because greenhouse gases, gases in Earth’s atmosphere, trap thermal energy.

When sunlight hits Earth’s surface, it reflects back toward outer space. It is then absorbed by greenhouse gases (approximately 77% carbon dioxide, 14% methane, 8% nitrous oxide, and 1% other gases) and re-emitted in all directions (BBC News). Known as the Greenhouse Effect, this process warms the Earth.

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The Greenhouse Effect is necessary to keep the Earth warm enough to be habitable. Without greenhouse gases, the Earth would be too cold for living organisms (like humans) to survive. However, carbon emissions from human activities, such as transportation, deforestation, burning of fossil fuels, and agriculture, have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus causing our planet to get too warm too quickly (EPA).

Substantial evidence supports this concept. Earth's average temperature has increased by approximately 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late Nineteenth Century, and Earth’s sea level rose by approximately eight inches over the past 100 years (NASA). Scientists also point to data indicative of warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, retreating glaciers, extreme environmental events, and ocean acidification, among other data.

There are many negative effects of climate change. Scientists predict hotter, more acidic oceans that will harm marine life; more frequent, more extreme weather events, such as droughts, hurricanes, wildfires; and hostile natural habitats (EDF). Additionally, climate change poses a direct threat to human society, as it will harm agriculture, infrastructure, health, and water accessibility, and increase poverty in developing nations (The Guardian).

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a frightening report on climate change. According to the UN News, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that it is possible to limit global warming, but “it will require unprecedented and collective climate action in all areas. There is no time to waste.” Unfortunately, many governments have failed to take such an action, including the United States.

As a result, many people are speaking up about the issue. For example, led by sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, many students around the world participated in school strikes throughout September 2019 to raise awareness for climate change and urge politicians to act against it. However, strikes are only the first step. Politicians must respond, and citizens of all ages must do their part as well.


Further reading about climate change and how you can act on it:

What Can I Do About Climate Change? (Union of Concerned Scientists)

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