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What is Climate Change?

Climate change refers to significant, long-term changes in the global climate.

The global climate is the connected system of sun, earth and oceans, wind, rain and snow, forests, deserts and savannas, and everything people do, too. The climate of a place can be described as its rainfall, changing temperatures during the year and so on.

But the global climate is more than the “average” of the climates of specific places.

A description of the global climate includes how, for example, the rising temperature of the Pacific feeds typhoons which blow harder, drop more rain and cause more damage, but also shifts global ocean currents that melt Antarctica ice which slowly makes sea level rise

It is this systemic connectedness that makes global climate change so important and so complicated.

What is Global Warming?

Global warming is the slow increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere because an increased amount of the energy (heat) striking the earth from the sun is being trapped in the atmosphere and not radiated out into space.

The earth’s atmosphere has always acted like a greenhouse to capture the sun’s heat, ensuring that the earth has enjoyed temperatures that permitted the emergence of life forms as we know them, including humans.

Without our atmospheric greenhouse the earth would be very cold. Global warming, however, is the equivalent of a greenhouse with high efficiency reflective glass installed the wrong way around.

Ionically, the best evidence of this may come from a terrible cooling event that took place some 1,500 years ago. Two massive volcanic eruptions, one year after another placed so much black dust into the upper atmosphere that little sunlight could penetrate. Temperatures plummeted. Crops failed. People died of starvation and the Black Death started its march. As the dust slowly fell to earth, the sun was again able to warn the world and life returned to normal.

Today, we have the opposite problem. Today, the problem is not that too little sun warmth is reaching the earth, but that too much is being trapped in our atmosphere.

How does Global Warming drive climate change?

Heat is energy and when you add energy to any system changes occur.

Because all systems in the global climate system are connected, adding heat energy causes the global climate as a whole to change.

Much of the world is covered with ocean which heats up. When the ocean heats up, more water evaporates into clouds.

Where storms like hurricanes and typhoons are forming, the result is more energy-intensive storms. A warmer atmosphere makes glaciers and mountain snow packs, the Polar ice cap, and the great ice shield jutting off of Antarctica melt raising sea levels.

Changes in temperature change the great patterns of wind that bring the monsoons in Asia and rain and snow around the world, making drought and unpredictable weather more common.

This is why scientists have stopped focusing just on global warming and now focus on the larger topic of climate change.

What Causes Global Warming?

There are three positions on global warming:

(1) that global warming is not occurring and so neither is climate change;

(2) that global warming and climate change are occurring, but these are natural, cyclic events unrelated to human activity; and

(3) that global warming is occurring as a result primarily of human activity and so climate change is also the result of human activity.

The claim that nothing is happening is very hard to defend in the face or masses of visual, land-based and satellite data that clearly shows rising average sea and land temperatures and shrinking ice masses.

The claim that the observed global warming is natural or at least not the result of human carbon emissions (see Climate Skeptics below) focuses on data that shows that world temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels have been equally high or higher in the past. They also point to the well understood effects of solar activity on the amount of radiation striking the earth and the fact that in recent times the sun has been particularly active.

In general, climate scientists and environmentalists either (1) dispute the data based on, for example, new ice core data or (2) suggest that the timing issue – that is, the rapidity with which the globe has warmed and the climate changed simply do not fit the model of previous natural events. They note also that compared to other stars the sun is actually very stable, varying in energy output by just 0.1% and over a relatively short cycle of 11 to 50 years quite unrelated to global warming as a whole. The data strongly suggests that solar activity affects the global climate in many important ways, but is not a factor in the systemic change over time that we call global warming.

As for the final position that global warming and climate change result from human activity (are “anthropogenic”), scientists attribute current atmospheric warming to human activities that have increased the amount of carbon containing gases in the upper atmosphere and to increased amounts of tiny particles in the lower atmosphere.

Specifically, gases released primarily by the burning of fossil fuels and the tiny particles produced by incomplete burning trap the sun’s energy in the atmosphere. Scientists call these gases “greenhouse gases” (GHGs) because they act like the wrong way reflective glass in our global greenhouse.

Scientists call the tiny particles ‘black carbon’ (you call it soot or smoke) and attribute their warming effect to the fact that the resulting layer of black particles in the lower atmosphere absorbs heat like a black blanket.

Scientists date the beginning of the current warming trend to the end of the 18th or beginning of the 19th century when coal first came into common use.

This warming trend has accelerated as we have increased our use of fossil fuels to include gasoline, diesel, kerosene and natural gas, as well as the petrochemicals (plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers) we now make from oil.

Scientists attribute the current warming trend to the use of fossil fuels because using them releases into the atmosphere stores of carbon that were sequestered (buried) millions of years ago.

The addition of this “old” carbon to the world’s current stock of carbon, scientists have concluded, is what is heating our earth which causes global warming.

What are the most important greenhouse gases (GHGs)?

The most common and most talked about greenhouse gases is CO2 or carbon dioxide. In fact, because it is so common, scientists use it as the benchmark or measure of things that warm the atmosphere.

Methane, another important GHG, for example, is 28-36 times as warming as CO2 when in the upper atmosphere (USEPA GWP – Global Warming Potential – estimate over 100 years), therefore, 1 ton of methane = 28-36 tons eCO2 or CO2 equivalents.

The most commonly discussed GHGs are:

  • CO2 or carbon dioxide is produced any time something is burned. It is the most common GHG, constituting by some measures almost 55% of total long-term GHGs. It is used as a marker by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, for example, because of its ubiquity. Carbon dioxide is assigned a GWP or Global Warming Potential of 1.
  • Methane or CH4 is produced in many combustion processes and also by anaerobic decomposition, for example, in flooded rice paddies, pig and cow stomachs, and pig manure ponds. Methane breaks down in approximately 10 years, but is a precursor of ozone, itself an important GHG. CH4 has a GWP of 28-36.
  • Nitrous oxide in parean (laughing gas), NO/N2O or simply NOx is a byproduct of fertilizer production and use, other industrial processes and the combustion of certain materials. Nitrous oxide lasts a very long time in the atmosphere, but at the 100 year point of comparison to CO2, its GWP is 265-298.
  • Fluorinated gases were created as replacements for ozone depleting refrigerants, but have proved to be both extremely long lasting and extremely warming GHGs. They have no natural sources, but are entirely man-made. At the 100 year point of comparison, their GWPs range from 1,800 to 8,000 and some variants top 10,000.
  • Sulphur hexafluoride or SF6 is used for specialized medical procedures, but primarily in what are called dielectric materials, especially dielectric liquids. These are used as insulators in high voltage applications such as transformers and grid switching gear. SF6 will last thousands of years in the upper atmosphere and has a GWP of 22,800.

What is black carbon and how does it cause global warming?

Black carbon (BC) is tiny particles of carbon released as a result of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass. These particles are extremely small, ranging from 10 µm (micrometers, PM10), the size of a single bacterium to less than 2.5 µm (PM2.5), one thirtieth the width of a human hair and small enough to pass through the walls of the human lung and into the bloodstream.

Although BC – think of the plume of smoke from a chimney or a fire – falls out of the lower atmosphere in days, while it is suspended in the air, it absorbs the sun’s heat millions of times more effectively than CO2. When wind carries BC over snow, glaciers or ice caps where it falls out onto the white, normally reflective surface, it is particularly damaging because it contributes directly to melting. Overall, BC is considered the second biggest contributor to global warming after CO2.

What are the most important sources of GHGs and black carbon?

Fossil fuel and related uses of coal and petroleum are the most important sources of GHGs and black carbon (power generation, industry, transportation, buildings).

Agriculture is the second most important source (animals – cows and pigs), feed production, chemical intensive food production, and flooded paddy rice production, as well as deforestation driven by the desire to expand cultivated areas.

(New studies suggest that agriculture is the largest contributor of particulate emissions in the US and other developed agricultural countries.)

Natural sources of GHGs and black carbon include forest fires, savanna fires and volcanoes.

What evidence do we have of climate change?

The most compelling climate change evidence scientists have of climate change is long term data relating atmospheric CO2 levels and global temperature, sea level, the expanse of ice, the fossil record and the distribution of species.

This data, which goes back millions of years, shows a strong correlation between CO2 levels and temperature. Recent data shows a trend of increasing temperature and rising CO2 levels beginning in the early 19th century.

Because all parts of the global climate are connected, scientists have been able to create models of how changes caused by heating should work their way through the entire system and appear in different areas, for example, sea level, intemperate weather, the movement of fish species in the ocean.

Testing whether or not predicted changes have occurred is an important way to verify underlying theory.

This can be done in two ways.

First, it is possible to load a model with historical data and ask: how well does this model predict what we know happened?

NASA and other scientific agencies have done this and found that the models work well.

A second way to test is to use the model to predict upcoming changes and then to see if emerging reality fits. It is possible to track the rapid retreat of glaciers and observe the summer melting of the Polar Ice Cap. Sea levels are rising measurably, the temperature of the world’s oceans is demonstrably rising and consequently many fish species are moving to follow waters that are the right temperature for them.

Correlating these changes to the timing of rises in CO2 levels and temperature suggests relationship. NASA provides a good visual tool for viewing these relational models “in action”.

In specific instances, for example, CO2 levels, temperature and ocean pH, the chemical processes are traceable proving direct causal connection.

Melting Glaciers

rising sea level

Rising Sea Level



worsening droughts

Worsening Droughts



Increasing Tornados

Increasing Tornados