Climate Change and Biology
Climate change is the most pressing challenge humankind has ever faced. It has a number of impacts on humans and natural environments today and particularly in the future. Climate change is due to human activities, but it can be slowed down significantly enough that harmful impacts are not insurmountable. Therefore, it is crucial to teach about the impacts of the changing climate and provide ideas how biological approaches can be applied to climate change mitigation. Biology plays an important part in understanding climate change in-depth and in building a climate-friendly world.
Climate Change is Due to a Human Expansion of the Greenhouse Effect
The greenhouse effect is defined as a warming of the lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (water vapour, methane and nitrous oxide, among others). A natural greenhouse effect enables life on our planet, and it occurs when greenhouse gases let the Sun’s heat energy pass through the Earth’s atmosphere and then absorb most of this heat. Therefore, the surface temperature of the atmosphere remains about 33°C higher than without a natural greenhouse effect, which would mean a surface temperature of around -18°C.
Climate change, a human expansion of the greenhouse effect, refers to growing greenhouse gas emissions warming the atmosphere. Currently, human activity is rapidly causing climate change by releasing polluting gases. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere have increased steadily and significantly in the last two centuries, mainly due to ever-increasing demand for fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – are carbon captured in soil and sediment through photosynthesis millions of years ago.
The Climate has Always Changed
The most fundamental factor defining the Earth’s climate is the amount of the incoming solar radiation. It varies according to latitude and season. The cycling of air, water and carbon is powered by energy from the sun. Wind-driven and ocean-current circulations move warmth from one area to another. The continents, oceans and mountain ranges have an impact on these circular patterns.
Species are Struggling to Adapt to Climate Change
Climate change affects natural environments and species. Every species react to these impacts in different ways. Some species benefit from warmer climate, and they will have the competitive advantage over other species, since they are better adapted or they have better resilience and resistance to climate change. Their number will increase in the habitat they occupy and they will also become more common in surrounding areas.
Climate Change Causes Biodiversity Loss
Biodiversity refers to the diversity and richness of living nature, i.e. organisms and biological systems. Biodiversity occurs at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels.
In nature, biodiversity is a combination of biological entities that are interacting. Climatic conditions regulate species distribution. Biodiversity is important to the health of the Earth’s ecosystems and thus a precondition for life on the planet. It boosts immunity and adaptability of the species, which enables some particular species or ecosystems to adapt quicker than others to changing circumstances.
Biodiversity matters profoundly to humans through its effect on ecosystem services vital to life, such as food, clean water, air and other natural products. Biodiversity has also an intrinsic value.[/su_spoiler]
Climate Change is Linked to other Environmental Issues
Environmental problems form a complex web. Climate change is closely linked to many other environmental issues with multiple and complex interdependencies and feedback cycles. The most significant issue is the decrease of biodiversity, which is connected to habitat fragmentation and deforestation.
Additionally, ocean acidification is a serious problem which is related to increased carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. The following chapters go into more detail about the latter three challenges.
The Role of Biology in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation
Biology can play an important part in learning to understand the basics of climate change and its consequences and subsequently provide tools for mitigation and adaptation. The major strategies to mitigate climate change are biodiversity and carbon sink conservation and enhancement.
Biology class provides an excellent opportunity not only to learn scientific facts but also strengthen a relationship with nature. Places familiar, meaningful and dear to our hearts may evoke a desire to care for nature as opposed to foreign, unknown and faraway nature areas.
Growing into Active Citizens
Climate change debates often overemphasize personal choices and consumer habits, particularly when addressing young people. This approach has its place, but there are more effective ways to make a difference such as acquiring skills and sound knowledge, launching citizen initiatives, making speeches, writing articles and letters to the editor, contacting decision-makers and organizing meetings. The more one practices influencing skills, the better one becomes.