What is Climate Change?

Climate Change can be difficult to understand; it’s frequently in our news streams or trending on social media, but not everyone understands what it is and how it impacts us.  

Our Net Zero Officer, Alice, answers some common questions and shares her top tips on how we can all do our bit to reduce the impacts of Climate Change:  

Q: What is climate change?
A: Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. These shifts occur naturally, however, anthropogenic climate change (climate change caused by humans) has been the main driver of climate change since the 1800s. In fact, greenhouse gas concentrations are at their highest levels in 2 million years and emissions continue to rise. As a result, the Earth is now about 1.1°C warmer than it was in the late 1800s. The last decade (2011-2020) was the warmest on record.

The burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, for industry, manufacturing, heating, transport and agriculture to name a few, releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, into the atmosphere. These excess gases act like a blanket around the Earth, trapping the sun’s heat and causing temperatures to rise. It is this increase in Earth’s surface temperature that causes weather patterns to change, including periods of more extreme heat leading to wildfires, prolonged absence of rain leading to droughts and heavier downpours of rain leading to flooding.

Q. What is the difference between climate change and global warming?
A. Global warming refers only to the Earth’s rising surface temperature, while climate change includes warming and the “side effects” of warming – like melting ice caps, sea level rise, more extreme storms, and more frequent droughts and floods. In other words, global warming is one symptom of the much larger problem of human-caused climate change.

Q. Who does climate change affect?
A. Climate change disproportionately affects people all over the world, with people in developing countries often being those most affected. For example, rural communities in Africa contribute very little emissions compared with the average person living in the western world, but they face some of the most extreme effects of climate change. A UN report released in June 2022 stated that over “20 million people, and at least 10 million children are facing severe drought conditions.” 

The reality is, climate change is highly likely to affect everyone. Whilst some countries may not feel extremes in weather on the same scale as others, all countries are highly likely to see some change. July 2022 has seen the hottest temperatures on record in the UK. The increase of extreme heat in the UK will have adverse effects on public health, and pose economic implications in relation to transportation and infrastructure not being suitably adapted to climate change.  

Q. What’s the easiest day-to-day action I can take to help prevent climate change
A. There are many ways you can help! Depending on your own personal situation some of these day-to-day actions might be easier than others. The best thing to do is to choose actions that you know you can commit to. Here are some ideas:

  • Turn your thermostat down a degree or two or switch your heating off when it is not needed. 
  • Walk, cycle or take public transport to work or consider switching to an electric vehicle. 
  • Consider making changes to your diet like consuming less meat (or choose to eat meat that is locally and sustainably produced) or choosing seasonal food, for example; perishable foods like raspberries from Morocco are likely to have arrived via plane, so choosing other fruits until raspberries come into season in the UK is much more environmentally friendly.  
  • Check the products (e.g., shampoo and chocolate) you buy don’t contain palm oil. Areas of rainforests are deforested to make way for palm oil plantations.  
  • Turn off lights and unplug devices that are not in use. 
  • Switch to energy-efficient LED light bulbs. 
  • Change to a green energy tariff. A green energy tariff works by the supplier promising to match all or some of the electricity you use with renewable energy, which it then feeds back into the National Grid. So, the more people who sign up to a green energy tariff, the bigger the percentage of green energy in the national supply. 
  • Reuse and recycle as much as possible. 
  • Educate yourself and others. 

Q. Is it possible, if everyone did their bit, to reduce the speed in which climate change is happening?
A. Yes. The Earth is currently at 1.1°C warmer than pre-industrial times. The Paris Agreement states that we need to keep warming below 1.5°C. However, current national pledges under the Paris Agreement are insufficient to limit warming to 1.5°C. Of course, the extremity of the effects of climate change worsens with every tiny increase in global temperature. 

Whilst there is a lot riding on the ambitions and commitments of governments and big corporates to make the biggest impacts, it is important that we all do our bit, particularly as consumers (of energy, food, clothes, etc), we have some influence over the direction of travel. The more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions we release into the atmosphere, the quicker the global temperature will increase. If we can reduce GHG emissions, it is likely that warming will happen more gradually, and we will be able to cap warming at 1.5°C by the end of the century. This is crucial, as the more the temperature increases, so does the likelihood of hitting a ‘tipping point’.  

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explains in its latest report, tipping points are “a critical threshold beyond which a system reorganises, often abruptly and/or irreversibly.” For a real-world example, think of rising temperatures melting Arctic Sea ice. When millions of square miles of ice are melted, dark ocean waters are exposed to sunlight. Dark water absorbs heat, whilst ice reflects it. This is known as the albedo effect. The ice melting fuels its very cause (warming temperatures), creating a feedback loop leading to more and more warming that then prevents ice from forming and covering the dark water. Like the ice caps, many climate-regulating systems are currently being pushed to their limit.  

To find out more, visit the links below: 

What are the effects of climate change? | Greenpeace UK 

10 ways you can help fight the climate crisis (unep.org) 

Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change (ipcc.ch) 

What are climate change tipping points? | Climate Reality Project 

Albedo effect – Climate Hero