Understanding Climate Change: Causes, Consequences, and Global Initiatives

March 11, 2024

Understanding Climate Change: Causes, Consequences, and Global Initiatives

With the world grappling with climate change now more than ever, mitigating its impact has become a pressing need. 

Case in point: Around 3.6B people worldwide already live in areas highly susceptible to climate change. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is predicted to cause about 25000 additional deaths/year, stemming from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea, and heat stress.

That being said, world leaders are rolling out different initiatives like Net Zero to limit the long-term repercussions of climate change. 

In this comprehensive article, we will demystify and understand climate change, its causes, and the global efforts driving the countries to address this crisis.

What is Climate change?

Climate change refers to the process of altering the global temperature for the long term. At the core of this process is the increase in the accumulation of toxic greenhouse gases released by a slew of factors - natural and anthropogenic causes. 

Let's dive deeper into the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse gas effect is the process in which toxic gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, methane, carbon dioxide, etc., get released into the atmosphere and trap heat radiated by the Earth's surface. 

Let's break down the process.

Part of sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface reflects and part of it is absorbed by the Earth. A portion of the energy that is absorbed is released back into the atmosphere. 

Greenhouse gases act as insulation, refraining this thermal energy (heat) from getting back into space. This process of trapping heat, in turn, increases the Earth's surface's temperature.

Case in point: Since 1850, the combined land and ocean temperature has soared by around 2° F. More alarmingly, since 1982, the rate at which the global surface temperature tripled, now increasing at 0.36 °F (0.20 °C) per decade compared to the previous pace.

The greenhouse gas effect and global warming are driven by causes such as deforestation, unplanned industrialisation, burning of fossil fuel, etc.

Let's go through the causes of global climate change.

Causes of Climate Change

The World's climate is changing abruptly. Changes in the climate is mainly driven by the following reasons:

Human Activities

Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has seen a sizable upshot in the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere. In fact, GHG emissions have risen exponentially every year - while the concentration of anthropogenic CO2 was 325.68 ppm in 1970, it increased at a whopping 26% and hit a record-high 416.45 ppm in 2021. Among other reasons, anthropogenic activities have been marked as key causes that are throwing the entire ecosystem off balance at a breakneck pace.

  • Unchecked Consumption of Fossil Fuel: The continuous and excessive burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, etc., has been marked as the largest contributor to global warming, accounting for releasing above 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and about 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions- the leading GHG.
  • Deforestation: With mass industrialisation now taking centre stage, infrastructural development is burgeoning. The result is the widespread destruction of wetlands, forests, and other carbon sinks —natural sources that capture carbon dioxide and contain it from being emitted into the environment. Needless to mention, the more trees are cut, the more carbon dioxide accumulates in the air. Case in point: due to unchecked deforestation, around 4.8 billion tons of anthropogenic carbon dioxide gets released into the air, significantly increasing the Earth's average temperature. According to research, changes in land use, more specifically deforestation, account for 12–20%  of global GHG emissions. This emission due to deforestation has hit a record high recently in the past  800,000 years. Continuous pumping of these toxic gases into the atmosphere has caused the Earth's temperature to increase by around 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit on average during the 20th century, making the weather more extreme.
  • Intensive Agricultural Practice: Intensive agricultural practices, for example, monocropping, extensive use of chemical-based fertiliser, increasing use of pesticides, etc., release toxic GHG such as nitrous oxide and methane - leading GHG contributing to climate change. For example, synthetic nitrogen-based fertiliser, when applied in the soil, breaks down and produces nitrous oxide agriculture leads to the production of nitrous oxide, primarily from the breakdown of nitrogen compounds in the soil.
  • Transportation: Combustion of petroleum-based fuel for transportation purposes releases a significant amount of greenhouse gas, more specifically, carbon dioxide.

According to a study, around 4.6 MT of carbon dioxide gas is released by a typical passenger vehicle. In addition, even though it accounts for only 4% of total vehicles in the USA, it has been marked as a major source of pollution. Studies have found these diesel-based trucks release around 23% of total transportation-related GHG.

Natural Causes

While anthropogenic activities are the leading contributors to climate change, some natural causes, for example, tectonic shifts, volcanic eruptions, variations in solar radiation, etc., have impacts on global warming and cooling patterns. However, according to the researchers at NASA, these natural factors play a very insignificant role in changing the climate and hence they can be almost ignored when it comes to analysing the causes behind today's soaring global warming. 

Impacts of Climate Change

Effects on the Weather

With increasing global average temperature, the likelihood of extreme and intense weather events also picks up.

For example, the frequent occurrence of droughts, heatwaves, floods, and irregular rainfall in different parts of the world have been marked to be linked with today's abrupt climate change, which has already exacerbated the existing pure water crisis and agricultural hurdles. 

For example, global warming causes sea ice and icebergs in the two polars to melt faster which, in turn, causes thermal expansion of seawater. An increase in sea level contributes to frequent occurrences of natural disasters such as coastal erosion, floods, and storm surges. Even worse, frequently occurring floods mean inundations and salination of low-lying areas that endanger the ecosystem and habitats feeding on the soil.

Impacts on the Environment

Even a small shift in the world's surface temperature and changing climate system can cause significant alteration in the ecosystem, affecting the entire food web and the environment. The result is disrupted biodiversity, changes in breeding, and more. 

In addition, anthropogenic carbon dioxide that washes into the ocean water makes it acidic, threatening marine life living in seawater. Continuous absorption of carbon dioxide limits the capability of the ocean to serve as a CO2 sink. Since the wake of the industrialisation period, the global sea surface has been reported to absorb around 29% of total emitted carbon dioxide. 

Warmer Ocean Water and Heat Waves

Heating ocean water and frequent heat waves are some common yet drastic impacts of global warming. As we have already stated, oceans, covering 90% of the Earth's surface, act as the biggest natural CO2 sink. It holds the potential to absorb up to 30% of the total CO2 released by the combustion of fossil fuels and 93% of the thermal energy trapped by GHGs. 

With the continuous absorption of anthropogenic CO2, the migration and breeding patterns of marine life have been reported to have changed. The result is setbacks in fish commercialisation and disruptions in marine food webs. The absorption of heat-trapping GHGs also causes heat waves to occur more frequently. As a result, marine ecosystems and biodiversity are hampered significantly, leading to mass die-offs of vulnerable marine life.

International Efforts to Mitigate Climate Change

Recognizing the adverse effects of abrupt climate change on the environment and living organisms, world leaders have convened at the same table, urging immediate actions to be taken. A few international efforts to mitigate the climate change effects are as follows:

Paris Agreement

Signed by 196 Parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) held in Paris, France, on 12 December 2015, the Paris Agreement is an international treaty on the earth's climate change. This landmark agreement was enforced on 4 November 2016. 

The overarching aim of this milestone agreement is to limit the surge in global temperature to well below 2°C or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

To limit global warming to 1.5°C, and cut down GHG emissions to net zero by 2050, Parties in the Paris Agreement are urged to augment their targets in the Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC).

Renewable Energy Initiatives

Focus is being moved on implementing renewable energy from fossil fuels as part of a global effort to significantly cut down on the world's carbon footprint. The aim is to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable economy and ensure energy security while also lowering GHG emissions. 

Such initiatives are supported by different organizations such as International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which helps countries achieve their renewable energy goals faster. 

Forest Conservation Programs (FCP)

Global initiatives against unchecked deforestation are fast gaining traction among world leaders. It is because studies found that checking deforestation can curb CO2 emissions by over 4 gigatons a year. 

For example, the UN-REDD Programme provides its partner countries with essential technical skills and knowledge to safeguard their forests and accelerate toward a more sustainable future while also meeting their goals to preserve the world's climate through REDD+.

Patsy Todd

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