The Earth’s climate can change in both minor and dramatic ways over both short and long periods of time. Many changes in climate are driven by natural phenomenon such as shifting levels of solar radiation reaching the Earth, how much of that radiation is absorbed or reflected by the atmosphere and how much heat is retained as a result. Even geological events like large-scale volcanic eruptions can affect climate, but usually only short term. Today, when most people discuss “climate change” they are referring to large-scale changes caused by human activities which may persist for decades or centuries to come. Such changes could include major shifts in temperature, precipitation, wind patterns etc. Known as “anthropogenic climate change”, this phenomenon affects every part of the Earth, every human being, every animal, every ecosystem.
No, although this is a common misconception when people think about or discuss climate change. Weather can be defined as the moment-to-moment or day-to-day meteorological conditions which affect a specific place. These conditions may include temperature changes, cloud cover and precipitation. Climate, however, is the averaged weather conditions over a large area during a long period of time, such as a decade, a century or many millennia.
Exactly how large-scale climate change will affect the world is somewhat speculative because modern humans have never lived through this before. Scientific models indicate there will be large-scale shifts in rainfall patterns, changes in temperatures, winds, humidity, etc. These changes will result in more flooding, drought, intense heat waves and destructive storms such as hurricanes. The rise in global temperature (referred to as global warming) will also cause the melting of polar ice caps, glaciers, ice floes and a subsequent rise in world ocean levels which is already beginning to flood some islands and coastal areas.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that the majority of climate changes over the past century were and are being caused by human activities. As mentioned above, this is referred to as anthropogenic climate change.
The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas in particular has added large amounts of carbon to our atmosphere, causing the Earth to retain extra heat which would otherwise be shed to outer space. This is because carbon molecules trap radiation which is normally reflected off the Earth’s surface and out of the atmosphere. Think of this in the same way you might an extra blanket used on a cold night. The extra blanket traps your body heat and help you stay warm rather than losing that heat to the air around you. Similarly, the extra atmospheric carbon acts as a heat-trapping blanket around the Earth.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, our planet has warmed by 1.4° F and will likely rise another 2 to 11.5° F during the next 100 years. Although these may seem like small changes, keep in mind that the difference between ice being solid and liquid is only one degree — it freezes at 32° F but melts at 33° F. Applied to our planet’s ice caps, such a small shift can mean the wide scale melt of our polar ice with subsequent global sea level rise and flooding of many coastal areas including major cities.
In the United States, the average temperature in the lower 48 states has risen by 0.13° F every decade since 1901. This trend has increased dramatically since the 1970s, with seven of the ten warmest years occurring since 1998. The warmest summer recorded so far was in 2015, which indicates this upward trend is continuing. The warming temperatures and other extreme weather changes have contributed to dangerous droughts in places like California, destructive flooding in the mid-West and massive snowstorms in the northeast. There is no part of the U.S. or the planet that will be spared the effects of climate change. Since this is a challenge we all face, we must work together to bring about positive action to mitigate and slow down climate change.
Yes, but it will take time. Current scientific evidence suggests that the Earth has already crossed the so-called “tipping point” on climate change, meaning that changes that are now occurring cannot be stopped because they are so large. But the actions we take today will help keep the problem from getting worse and prepare us for the changes yet to come. Taking positive personal action as well as larger-scale community action will also mean we are doing everything we can to help future generations, to protect wildlife, to preserve our natural resources and to find better, cleaner ways to fuel our lives.
A global issue might seem overwhelming but there is a lot you can do just by making simple changes in how you conduct your daily life. Although you are one person, your actions combined with those of your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, classmates and strangers have a cumulative effect — meaning that small actions taken by large numbers of people result in substantial changes.
The first and most vital step is to reduce your personal carbon emissions. Assessing how you handle household waste, how you get from place to place, how you use water and electricity, and what kinds of food and other products you buy.
Here are some suggestions on how you can help combat climate change right now:
• Unplug things! For many young people, electronic devices are a daily necessity. But by unplugging charging bases, game consoles, computers and other devices when not in use you will actually help reduce your carbon emissions. That’s because these devices still suck up energy even when they are “off.” Likewise, encourage your family to unplug shared appliances like toaster ovens, DVD players, televisions etc. when not in use.
• Talk to your parents or caregivers about how much electricity, gas etc. you are consuming. Finding ways to reduce your consumption can reduce your carbon emissions and save your family hundreds, even thousands of dollars every year! Some simple suggestions are using high-efficiency light bulbs; or washing your clothes or taking showers in cooler water so your water heater doesn’t need to work as much.
• If possible, walk, ride a bike or take public transportation to and from school. Automobiles are a major source of carbon pollution, so using your car less will have a substantial impact on your personal carbon emissions.
• Make better choices when purchasing goods and services. All those products you buy in your local stores are transported using fossil fuels. As a conscientious consumer, buying more locally-produced products which don’t have as far to travel will mean less carbon emissions. Not only is buying locally good for the community you live in, it is also good for the Earth in general.
• Speak to your teachers and school administrators about reducing your school’s carbon emissions. Take an active role in this process by forming a conservation club or starting an awareness campaign to educate your classmates. You can use the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Emission Calculator Kit to help assess how your school is doing and how you can improve its performance. Websites like space.org and the Alliance for Climate Education will have additional tips on how you can get involved.
Become a climate change educator. Learn the issues and help others make positive choices to combat global climate change. Remember, your voice has power, your actions have consequences and your example can inspire others.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Footprint Calculator
This amazing calculator estimates your carbon emissions “footprint” in three areas: home energy, transportation and waste. Everyone’s carbon footprint is different depending on their location, habits, and personal choices. Once you know what your footprint looks like, the app will provide suggestions on how to make it smaller.
U.S. Global Change Research Program
USGCRP conducts state-of-the-art research to understand the interactive processes that influence the total Earth system — which includes the atmosphere, oceans, land, ice, ecosystems, and people. This website contains numerous free, downloadable resources for teachers and students on climate change issues.
Alliance for Climate Education
Alliance for Climate Education’s mission is to educate young people on climate change science and empower them to take action.
350.org is building a global climate movement. Through online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions, this organization has coordinated by a global network for positive action on climate change.
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