What does climate change mean? A better way to describe it might be climate disruption, because of just how fast it’s marching, and how it threatens to disrupt life on our planet.
This is the man-made warming of our planet, where temperatures have risen by over 10C since the pre-industrial age. That’s the global average rise so far – in the Arctic, temperatures have already warmed by over 20C. Over in the United States and Australia, record-breaking daily high temperatures are now happening twice as often as low ones.
Worldwide, 2015 has been the hottest year on record. Will this year shatter all records?
How could it possibly be us?
Some of us don’t think we have the power to change our planet – surely it must be a natural cycle caused by the Sun, the Earth’s orbit, or maybe by volcanoes? It’s true that these have caused changes in our climate millions of years ago.
But, the science is crystal clear – this time, we’re the ones responsible.
How do we know for sure? There are two undeniable fingerprints.
First, the sheer speed of warming! Nothing in our prehistoric past has caused warming quite this fast, over mere decades instead of thousands or millions of years. Evolution can’t keep up, and life on Earth is struggling to adapt this quickly.
Second, the vast amounts of greenhouse gases we’ve pumped and dumped into our air. Did you know that compared to 1750, the air you and I breathe today is 40% higher in carbon dioxide, 150% higher in methane, and 20% higher in nitrous oxide?
(That’s not including fluorinated gases, some of the most potent greenhouse gases! These are entirely man-made, and some of them take over 50,000 years to break down in the atmosphere.)
Scientists have been able to measure just how much warming each greenhouse gas causes. Did you know that 1 tonne of methane causes as much warming as 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide, over a period of twenty years?
Nitrous oxide causes over 250 times as much warming as a tonne of carbon dioxide, while fluorinated gases cause anywhere from a few thousand times, to over 20,000 times as much warming.
Scientists have also carefully measured and recorded the inexorable rise of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere since the Industrial Age.
In 1850, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was around 290 parts per million. Today, that’s risen to over 400 parts per million.
What happens when we include all the greenhouse gases? This gives us a greenhouse gas concentration equivalent to over 430 parts per million!
What’s a safe level of greenhouse gas concentration? Scientists state this would be around 350 parts per million.
Bringing our atmosphere back down to this level and stabilizing here would lock us into warming of around 1.50C. The Paris Agreement agreed on this as an aspirational goal, while reiterating the pledge to limit warming to 20C.
What does this mean? For a two-in-three chance of meeting this pledge, we need to stabilize our emissions concentration at 450 parts per million.
Is it too late? All those greenhouse gases we’re still pumping and dumping into the air accumulate like a thick blanket, retaining more and more heat.
In 2010, we pumped in 49 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases, almost double what we dumped just a few decades prior in 1970. At this rate, we’ll exhaust what’s left of our 20C carbon budget in around 13 to 24 years.
There’s still hope.
Scientific models show that we have a narrow window to turn the game around! What’s the deadline? 2030.
Climate action in the past few decades so far has been a game of two steps forward, one step back. By the deadline, we need to be headed full-throttle towards a low-carbon world, or risk losing sight of the 20C goal.
Over the next fourteen years, mankind needs to stop taking small steps, and instead take a giant leap, towards a brave new world.
Where will you be in 2030? How might you be part of building this future?
If you’ve enjoyed this speed-read, like us on Facebook for more like this, and check out Parts 2 and 3!
Suzanne Chew is the Founder and Director of Little Climate, a social enterprise building climate change awareness through innovative media. She is also the author of “Little Climate: We need to talk about climate disruption”, a fun book of cartoons with everything you need to know about climate change. Suzanne has worked in the climate change sector since 2007, and was previously the Director of a non-profit focused on low-carbon projects for poverty alleviation in Asia and Africa.
To find out more about climate change for beginners, explore these other excellent resources too:
- NASA’s Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet
- The Climate Reality Project, founded by Al Gore
- The Union of Concerned Scientists: Global Warming
Images and information based on the book “Little Climate: We need to talk about climate disruption”. All images used with permission.