My last podcast episode and article are related to food topics and how food production and consumption are linked to sustainability. I have noticed that our food system has major impacts on our climate. And so has our waste system as well as our whole economic system.
It seems essential for me to step back and take a look at the bigger picture.
For me, climate change is the big picture when talking about sustainability. In the course of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN set 17 global goals in 2015 – the Sustainable Development Goals. These goals are a UN initiative and aim to transform our world towards a more sustainable development. They are all interlinked and almost all goals link somehow to climate change.
As you might guess, climate change is a huge topic and it is necessary to define what is meant by talking about that term.
What are we talking about
Climate change, global warming, weather, climate – they seem to tell us the same story but they refer to events with broadly different spatial- and timescales.
“Weather refers to atmospheric conditions that occur locally over short periods of time—from minutes to hours or days. Familiar examples include rain, snow, clouds, winds, floods or thunderstorms. Remember, weather is local and short-term. Climate, on the other hand, refers to the long-term regional or even global average of temperature, humidity and rainfall patterns over seasons, years or decades.” (Source: NASA, 2018)
Global warming includes upward temperature trend across the earth since the industrial revolution in the early 20th century, due to the increase in fossil fuel emissions. Worldwide the average surface temperature has gone up by about 0.8 °C since 1880, relative to the mid-20th-century baseline (of 1951-1980).
Climate change covers a broad range of global phenomena, which add heat-trapping gases to our atmosphere. These phenomena include the increased temperature trends described by global warming, but also encompass changes such as sea level rise, ice mass loss in Greenland, Antarctica, the Arctic and mountain glaciers worldwide, shifts in plant blooming and extreme weather events.
Climate change. Facts.
There are actually a lot of facts on climate change. I will present a summary of 10 facts which might illustrate the urgency to act for all of us.
To all sceptics: Right below the facts, I will shortly explain how science and the scientific methods work. Sure you can still deny the existence of human caused climate change but you might feel a little lonely and stubborn at some point. Nevertheless, the decision is up to you. Personally, I do not doubt the existence of climate change and that humankind plays an essential role.
97 percent: The percentage of scientists who agree that warming trends over the past century are very likely caused by human activity.
But it is always a good idea to take a look at the opposite view: form your own opinion on scientific consensus.
1950: Year when atmospheric CO2 levels broke records from the previous 400,000 years, sharply rising and continuing to grow.
8 inches: Rise in global sea levels over the last century. The rate of rise has nearly doubled in the last two decades.
16: Number of record-breaking hottest years since 2000. 2016 was the hottest year yet.
1.5 degrees: The average worldwide temperature increase in Fahrenheit compared to a century ago.
400 parts per million: Average concentration since 2016 of CO2 in the atmosphere, compared to 275 PPM for past 400,000 years.
9: The 9 most explosive fires in America’s history have all occurred since 2000, with 2015 having the biggest fire (10.1 million acres burned) in American history.
19th century: When the heat-trapping nature of CO2 was first demonstrated.
30 percent: The increase in acidity of the world’s oceans.
$180 billion: Estimated economic losses to the United States by end of the century if no action is taken on climate change
How to get to these facts
How do scientists know about climate change and the facts mentioned above? The way scientists work, in a nutshell, is called “the scientific method“.
This method is the gold standard for exploring everything around us and apparently humankind. It’s the process that scientists use to understand everything from animal behavior to the forces that shape our planet—including climate change.
The process includes the following steps:
- Form a hypothesis (a statement that an experiment can test)
- Make observations (conduct experiments and gather data)
- Analyze and interpret the data
- Draw conclusions
- Publish results that can be validated with further experiments (rinse and repeat)
These steps may vary from discipline to discipline but overall these are the steps to gather scientific knowledge. And not only by going through them one time. The more observations are done, the more data is gathered the better is the scientific understanding and the more valid are the drawn conclusions.
Referring to climate change, I did not count the numbers of studies which deal with global warming and climate change issues but there are consensus studies which prove that the scientific consensus on whether climate change is happening and humankind is a major contributor is between 90 and 100%.
Using the scientific method, scientists have shown that humans are extremely likely the dominant cause of today’s climate change. It all starts in the late 1800s. In 1958 Charles Keeling of the Mauna Loa Observatory in Waimea, Hawaii, started taking meticulous measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, showing the first significant evidence of rapidly rising CO2levels and producing the Keeling Curve climate scientists know today.
Whether or not you belief in the scientific method and their conclusions, something is happening with our planet and it tends to be more extreme than everything humankind has experienced so far.
… and in Switzerland
The climate in Switzerland varies a lot due to altitude and season but there are certain changes which can only be explained in terms of the increase in greenhouse gases. According to MeteoSwiss, there are three critical changes for Switzerland so far:
- Average annual temperature increased around 2°C since 1864 (as by 2018)
- There has been significantly less snow since the 1980s
- Changes in precipitation are becoming apparent
Myths about climate change in a nutshell
There might be even more myths than facts about climate change. I’ll try to collect some of the more important myths and provide short and precise enlightenment.
- “CO2 is not a pollutant. It’s a GREEN gas which plants, crops and trees need to grow.”
Yes, plants need CO2 for photosynthesis as humans need oxygen for respiration. In fact, the world’s forests store and cycle huge amounts of carbon. However, there’s a limit to the amount that they can absorb, and with deforestation increasing this limit is getting lower. It’s not the nature of CO2 that causes problems; it’s the quantity: there hasn’t been this level of CO2 in the atmosphere for 800,000 years.
- “Climate change has been here AT LEAST 5 million years.”
In its basic sense this statement is true. Climate change is currently happening to an extent that cannot be explained by natural factors alone. Global temperatures have been rising for over a century, accelerating in the past 30 years, and are now the highest since records began. The global scientific community widely agrees that the warming we are experiencing is man-made.
- “A few degrees is nothing.”
During the last ice age, which ended 12,000 years ago, the world’s average temperature was only 4-5°C cooler than it is today. Yet those few degrees have made a drastic difference: parts of Britain were under a mile of ice, and sea levels were about 100 metres lower than they currently are. Just a few degrees can have very dramatic effects, and what’s happening now is at a far greater rate than we’ve ever seen. To avoid the worst impacts, all nations agreed to the 2 degree (or even 1.5 degree) treshold in the Paris Agreement.
- “Wind farms and solar are expensive and inefficient. Nuclear, coal and oil are the only realistic way to provide for our energy needs.”
Solar power has been the cheapest form of energy generation (per unit of energy generated) for a long time and onshore wind costs about the same as gas. Some great news over the past decade is that the costs of renewables have fallen faster than predicted. By the way, nuclear power is the most expensive one. However, the most important measure is energy efficiency. Technology like double glazing and loft insulation may not sound glamorous, but it reduces our bills and helps save the planet at the same time.
- “Everything is affected by climate change, but things adapt!”
Nearly true. We all know about the adaptation part since we heared about Darwin’s natural selection rule. But there is a tiny difference to the statement in the headline which changes a lot of its meaning: Everything is affected by climate change, and some things adapt. To survive, life on earth has two options: Move or adapt. If you cannot adapt and there is no suitable habitat for you left, you die. And in the end, this rule applies if you are a plant, an animal or a human being.
- “Global warming was made up as a way to make money.”
Oh come on! There are so many easy ways to make money. Tobacco, alcohol, weapons and allegedly necessary consumer goods for example. Do you really think “they” would do such an effort? No way.
- “The only way this planet will survive is us humans getting wiped out.”
I cannot deny that I may have had this thought too at some point. But isn’t is a bit cowardly to ruin something and give up afterwards? Now comes the hardest part. Doing it right. So roll up your sleeves and get it done, chicken.
The good news
Even if we reduce our carbon footprint and reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, our past has its effects we cannot stop. However, Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies are on the rise and, as we have seen in history before, technology is able to develop in major leaps if the conditions are right. Sure the conditions are not yet in favour of everything which tackles climate change but we are making progress. Politically, economically and most important in our thinking and awareness.
For more concrete CDRs, please read Jacob Devaney’s article “Good News About Climate Change!”.
As you may have experienced while trying to achieve a goal together with other people, the first thing to be set is cooperation. By working together, we can pave a path forward to a future in which businesses rely on renewable energy, cities rethink waste disposal and transportation, and communities and individuals take simple actions to save the planet.