Extreme weather conditions have been on the rise across the globe for decades. We’re experiencing hotter summers, colder winters, wider temperature swings, rising sea levels, reductions in sea ice levels, shrinking glaciers, increased storm activity, and more. As the weather gets more extreme, so does the polarized debate over climate change.
So, what is climate change? Is the climate actually changing? What’s causing the climate to change? Should we really be worried about the effects of a changing climate? Is there a climate change definition everyone agrees on?
This article will help answer those questions and hopefully help you learn about climate change facts, including its causes, effects, and the role you can play in addressing it.
Climate Change Definition
At Palmetto, we define climate change as follows:
Climate change is the long-term increase in the earth's average surface temperature and the large-scale changes in global, regional, and local weather patterns that result from that increase, caused by a significant increase in the levels of greenhouse gases that are produced by the use of fossil fuels.
We believe that people have a role in causing climate change, but they can also play a role in fixing it. Because of that, combating climate change to create a clean energy future is the driving mission of our company.
However, since climate change is a phenomenon that takes place over decades and even centuries, there are differing definitions for it. Some people believe it's a totally natural occurrence, and one that’s happened before, while others believe it's completely man-made. To complicate matters further, another group in the middle thinks climate change is a combination of both factors, and some people outright reject the existence of climate change completely.
Despite the public controversy surrounding the topic, the scientific community is overwhelmingly in agreement that climate change is real and that we need to address it in a proactive manner. The most common definitions can be boiled down to this concept:
Climate change is the significant variation of weather patterns over long periods.
Here are some key climate change statistics gathered by NASA:
- Over the last two centuries, the global average temperature of the earth’s surface has risen by 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit (1.18 degrees Celsius).
- Between 1993 and 2019, there was an annual loss of 279 billion tons of ice in Greenland and 148 billion tons of ice in Antarctica, as ice sheets break off and eventually melt.
- There has been a 0.6 degree Fahrenheit (0.33 degree Celsius) rise in the temperature of the top 100 meters of the ocean since 1969.
These are some of the numerous examples of climate change, which don’t include its impact upon plant, animal, and insect life. While climate change science mostly reflects global shifts, it can also be useful for tracking changes in smaller geographical locations, including storms, droughts, flooding, and more.
What Is the Difference Between Weather and Climate?
Climate change deniers frequently confuse weather and climate. If you’ve ever heard someone say that global warming doesn’t exist because of a recent extended cold snap that brought record low temperatures, you know what we mean.
For the sake of clarity, here’s how we define these two terms:
- Weather: The local meteorological conditions experienced over short periods of time, including temperature, precipitation, wind speed, humidity, and visibility.
- Climate: The long-term average of patterns and trends in weather, including day-to-day, year-to-year, and even longer time periods.
Global Warming and Climate Change
The two most popular terms used to describe the earth's increasing temperatures are global warming and climate change. These relate to both short-term and long-term trends for both weather and climate. While they're often used interchangeably, there's a slight difference between them:
- Global Warming: The rising average temperature of the earth's lower layers, including the ocean and atmosphere. Such warming occurs from the heat being trapped in the earth's atmosphere due to greenhouse gases.
- Climate Change: The varying environmental conditions that influence the planet's weather patterns.
Although used in conjunction with global warming, climate change doesn't specifically refer to warming or its causes. Thus, environmentalists often prefer this term because of its broader consideration of all the changes happening on the planet in addition to rising temperatures.
For more in-depth information, read our “What is Global Warming?” article.
Climate Change Causes
The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is actively happening. However, when it comes to pinpointing the specific causes for those changes, there’s less consensus. Some argue that natural variations in atmospheric conditions are heating the planet, while others claim humans are mainly responsible for this increase. And, as is the case in many controversial situations, others believe that a mixture of both is the culprit.
Natural Causes of Climate Change
When it comes to natural factors impacting climate change, these three causes are frequently cited as contributors:
- Changes in Solar Radiation - The sun's rays heat the earth regardless of changes in weather patterns that occur below. As such, any change in the sun's radiation - either an increase or decrease - will influence our surface temperatures.
- Greenhouse Gases - As the temperature increases, more greenhouse gases are released into the air. This traps more heat in the earth's atmosphere while thinning out the ozone layer, which means less radiation can escape. It can cause a nasty cycle where the participants feed off each other.
- Drastic Weather Changes - Climate change can also occur through drastic weather changes. Disasters like hurricanes or floods can cause significant damage to the surrounding environment, which in turn can affect the climate.
Man-Made Causes of Climate Change
The most prominent man-made causes of climate change include:
- Industrialization - Increased development has led to greater production and allocation of energy, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in greater percentages than in the past.
- Inconsistent Emissions Controls - As technology continues to improve, emissions control standards haven’t kept pace. This means that more harmful greenhouse gases are being released into the air.
- Deforestation - Plants breathe in carbon dioxide, which makes them an essential part of life on this planet. When increasing amounts of trees are cut down without planting new ones, it means a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere and heats up the environment.
- Agribusiness - Contemporary farms send up large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere while meeting the food needs of developed countries.
- Modernization - The concrete used to build roads, and the vehicles that travel upon them, create high levels of carbon dioxide and exhaust fumes that contribute to higher temperatures.
All of those causes combine to create what’s known as “The Greenhouse Effect” where greenhouse gases prevent heat from escaping into space, warming the planet.
Human activities have caused the increase in radiation, temperatures, and gases to spiral out of control. This results in these warming factors being trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, creating an unhealthy greenhouse-like environment.
Greenhouse gases (many of them man-made) feature prominently among the human causes of climate change because the levels of those gases emitted to the environment have increased significantly in the last few centuries.
What are Greenhouse Gases?
Greenhouse gases are the gases that contribute directly to the greenhouse effect. They trap heat in the earth's atmosphere, which can trigger increases in average global temperature. Some of the greenhouse gases include:
- Carbon Dioxide (Natural): Absorbs, retains, and radiates heat, resulting in global warming.
- Methane (Natural): A more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Due to a chemical reaction, methane converts into carbon dioxide when it comes in contact with oxygen. This causes an increase in global temperatures.
- Nitrous Oxide (Natural): Can remain in the atmosphere for 150 years, and is about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- Chlorofluorocarbons (Man-Made): These gases are used as refrigerants and aerosols. When they leak into the atmosphere, they can accumulate and contribute to the increased greenhouse effect.
- Hydrofluorocarbons (Man-Made): These chemicals contain fluorine and are primarily used in refrigeration. They have been replaced by chlorofluorocarbons, but they still contribute to global warming.
- Carbon Monoxide (Man-Made): Emitted by motor vehicles, airplanes, ships, and industrial processes where combustion is present.
- Nitrogen Oxide (Man-Made): A contributor to the production of acid rain, it’s created from burning fossil fuels and industrial processes, both of which emit nitrogen dioxide as a byproduct. As this occurs, it then converts into nitric oxide and nitrous oxide in the air.
It's important to note that greenhouse gases are not necessarily a bad thing. The gases only become dangerous when they exceed other gases in proportion to their normal levels in the atmosphere.
What makes greenhouse gases one of the chief man-made causes of climate change is their increased output in relation to the growth of human civilization. For example, carbon dioxide exists in nature, but our atmosphere currently contains too much of it because of the burning of fossil fuels.
Climate Change Effects
Climate change impacts our world in a wide variety of ways, including:
- Weather: As weather patterns become unpredictable, it affects food production. Also, extreme weather conditions put people at significant risk of disease and injury.
- Plants: As the weather becomes warmer and sea levels rise, plant life moves higher or further inland. This can result in problems for local animal life.
- Wildlife: Changes in the environment cause changes in animal behavior. Many animals are affected by the lack of food sources and new predators that were previously unable to penetrate into their territories. Consequently, animals are forced into a position where they have to migrate or face extinction.
- Businesses: Extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes and tornadoes can destroy vast amounts of property. As such, businesses suffer the losses that these tragedies bring.
- Increasing Sea Levels: As polar ice caps melt, sea levels begin to rise. This can potentially displace millions of people worldwide as well as destroy various ecosystems and natural landmarks.
- Ocean Acidification: As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they become increasingly acidic, which can be dangerous to coral and marine life.
How Is Climate Change Measured?
Given that climate change is something that occurs over a long period of time, measuring it can be challenging. The evidence of climate change relies on tracking specific metrics to measure and monitor these changes, including (in the order of importance):
- Surface Temperature: This is the temperature of the air, land, and water on the surface level. It is a direct indicator that climate change has occurred. It's important because measuring the rate of change in temperature helps scientists project how much it will warm or cool over time.
- Sea Level Rise: While this is a slower process, melted ice causes sea levels to rise, and monitoring that rise can help scientists project how much the oceans will grow in size. This is essential as rising sea levels threaten to displace millions of people.
- Parts per Million of Greenhouse Gases: This is the measurement of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For example, when scientists measure how much CO2 humans are emitting into the atmosphere, they can better predict future levels of global warming that will occur as a result
Can We Slow Down Climate Change?
Although there are many causes of climate change, humans play a significant role. As such, we must do our part to slow down the process.
There has been a history of climate change efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement that have tried to slow down climate change. The Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty that the US never ratified. It would have helped slow down climate change by reducing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane emissions.
The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty detailing how to help climate change, and it was signed in 2016 with 147 countries as signatories. This treaty is important because it sets the goal of keeping global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Climate scientists believe that global temperatures need to stay below that level to protect human life.
While climate change solutions may seem like they’re out of our individual control, true change happens when personal responsibility merges with collective efforts. Together, humans can choose to make changes in our everyday lives that will help reduce the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
One way we can all work together is with the wholesale adoption of photovoltaic (PV) systems to meet our electricity needs. Turning to solar panels and solar energy is a great way to reduce the amount of pollution and greenhouse gases we emit, and it has the added benefit of helping to lower your monthly energy bills.
Other steps we can take to slow down climate change include:
- Electing people at every level of government who are committed to passing laws and enacting policies that defeat climate change
- Reducing the amount of single-use, disposable plastic items, including bags, bottles, and silverware, as the production of these cheaply-made items release high levels of greenhouse gases
- Turning off lights and electrical appliances when they're not in use
- Eating less meat in our diets, as agricultural meat production is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emission
- Taking shorter showers and using water only when needed, since unnecessary heating of water drives up energy usage
These changes may seem small, but every effort counts. When we work together, we can make a significant difference to help reduce the effects of climate change.
Causes and Effects of Climate Change
While everyone might not believe in climate change, scientists have clear definitions for what it is and how it’s impacting the earth. As climate change issues become more severe, reversing its effects becomes even more difficult. Thus, we believe everyone should acknowledge that climate change is real, and that ignoring it will only make the problem worse.
People, businesses, and governments should work together on a personal and international level, and these efforts should begin immediately. One of the best ways to impact this change is the election of leaders who appreciate the severity of the matter, and are willing to work on reducing its causes and effects.
Another way we can all work together to defeat climate change and begin a clean energy revolution is through the installation of solar power systems wherever possible. Do you want to help fight climate change? Palmetto offers solar power solutions that help your family generate electricity that helps the planet. Get started today with a free Solar Design and Savings Estimate, and find out how much you can reduce your impact on the planet by going solar.