What climate change is not

Sometimes the key to understanding a concept is first understanding what it is not. There is a lot of information out there about climate change that is ambiguous and just plain false. Here’s a brief overview of what climate change is—and what it isn’t.

climate graph

A graph showing the sudden increase in human-caused temperature increases. Photo credit: Robert Henson

Earth’s climate naturally fluctuates over geologic time. These changes are caused by long-term, gradual buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, mostly from volcanoes. This is the natural state of our climate. However, over the last few centuries, there has been a sudden, drastic increase in temperature across the globe. This is not the gentle ebb and flow of a healthy climate—this is human-induced climate change.

The main culprits in the current climate change are greenhouse gases humans produce by practices such as burning fossil fuels and raising livestock. These gases, such as carbon and methane, accumulate in the atmosphere, absorbing and trapping heat and warming the air.

Cows eat their feed in a barn after being milked at this Ixonia dairy farm. In 2009, the average Wisconsin dairy farm lost about $100 per cow each month - $4 million a day for the state’s dairy industry.

Methane accounts for around 19 percent of global warming. Each cow produces a volume equivalent to three bathtubs of methane a day. Photo credit: Michael Sears

And the warming doesn’t stop there. The effects of this increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases cause positive feedbacks (or vicious cycles, depending on how you look at it). For example, a warmer atmosphere causes more water to evaporate from oceans and lakes; the resultant water vapor adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The combined effect of greenhouse gases and these feedbacks has several consequences, which range from mild to drastic.

Oceans will become warmer and more acidic, due to an uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Water from melting ice may interfere with ocean currents important in maintaining our current climate distribution. The weather will become more extreme—rains will dump more water on already wet areas, droughts in drier places will be more devastating.

These consequences, like many droughts, floods, or other natural disasters, will predominately affect already disadvantaged people.

I analyzed a chapter in A Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change called “A Heated Debate,” which talked about the history of public opinion on climate change, and how it evolved from scientific fact to the debate it is today.

One part I found particularly interesting was a section about common arguments to the idea of climate change. In my experience, people generally have a basic understanding of the science involved, but they begin to doubt themselves when faced with opposition. Thanks to oil companies and other powerful lobbyists, climate change science is political—it is not just something you know, but something you must be prepared to defend.


Al Gore is an expert at defending climate change science in the face of skeptics. Photo credit: Alex Moore

How to respond when your friend says…

“Climate change is a good thing if you think about it—I mean, we will be able to swim at the beach in December.”

Sure, unless the beach you wanted to swim at was along the Florida Keys, which are predicted to be underwater within the next century. While there are some effects of climate change that you might consider “good”—longer growing seasons, warmer winters, etc.—there are many less beneficial effects, and as with many natural occurrences, these will predominately affect the poor. So yeah, winters might be a little warmer, you could go to the beach more often, but some people will pay a much higher price.

“The way we are attempting to fight climate change is silly—there are better ways to spend government money.”

Economic arguments are pretty common—if the science is uncertain, why are we allocating huge amounts of money to remedies? The truth is, these remedies are turning out to be less expensive than we thought. Also, there is no way to know the price of coping with climate change as it advances, which may be much more than any preventative efforts. To quote Benjamin Franklin and also every grandma in the whole world, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 

“It’s only warmed like 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980. If I raise my thermostat that much, I can barely tell the difference, so what’s the big deal?”

I know that doesn’t seem like much in the context of our day-to-day lives, but a 1.5 degree rise in climate is much more significant than an equivalent rise in weather temperature, or the temperature of your apartment.


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