This is part two of the Climate Education 101 Series, designed to jump start your knowledge of the climate crisis. Browse the full catalog here.

What is climate change?

Climate change is, quite literally, a significant change in the climate record. The climate record is made up of weather data compiled over the course of several decades. When the data starts to show new patterns, the climate is changing. (Not sure what the difference is between weather and climate? Start here.)

Weather changes year-to-year, but long-term data compiled in the climate record can demonstrate warming or cooling trends. The above image shows data taken by four different atmospheric science institutions and how the valleys and peaks per year align with each other to demonstrate a warming trend.

What causes climate change?

Scientists agree that today’s climate change is caused by an exorbitant amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are gases in the atmosphere that trap heat, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and the various fluorocarbons.

Over the course of the last century, the burning of fossil fuels have contributed to a surplus of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Without getting too science-y, the burning of fossil fuels require oxygen to combust, and result in carbon dioxide. Fossil fuels include coal, oil, and natural gas.

Human activity is, undoubtedly, behind the burning of fossil fuels and thus, the spike in greenhouse gases. There is no room for debate on this topic. As a result, you may hear the term anthropogenic climate change, which means man-made.

Why don’t we say global warming anymore?

While global warming is an accurate term in the sense of what the planet is experiencing, it doesn’t represent the worst parts of climate change. Global temperature increases cause more than just ice melt or hotter summers—it affects the frequency and strength of natural disasters, creates food shortages, exacerbates current social justice issues, and worsens the biodiversity crisis.

Corn field affected by drought. Via Union of Concerned Scientists

Why do I see it referred to as a crisis?

Climate change is an urgent issue with a definitive time stamp. Forty years ago, when the first memo passed on ExxonMobil’s desk, climate change was an adequate description. If the energy industry had decided back then to pivot from fossil fuels to budding renewable energy solutions, the climate would have changed in small, but manageable increments. But because energy giants did not choose this path, the state of the climate has reached such a life-threatening, society-shaking point that “crisis” is the best term. Unlike other social and environmental issues, if the climate crisis is not addressed with enough urgency, it will worsen all other issues.

In most media outlets and in the rest of this series, you will see it referred to as a climate crisis.

Previously: What is Climate?

Up Next: The Lowdown on Carbon

If you found this helpful, feel free to buy me a coffee to fuel the next blog. Venmo: @Mary_Meade

2 replies on “What Is Climate Change?

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