What is climate change?
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. It is due to human activities, but a severe catastrophe can still be avoided.
Climate change is a complex web of environmental and sustainability issues and solving it requires major lifestyle changes. In order to tackle sustainability challenges sufficiently, it is necessary to get to the bottom of the problem and find the best solutions. Compared to many other sustainability issues, climate change is by definition a large-scale and multifaceted phenomenon. Therefore, this guide lacks concepts like “sustainable development”, and focuses instead almost solely on climate change.
Contributors and Consequences of Climate Change
Climate change is attributed to the enhanced greenhouse effect. Certain gases in the atmosphere act like glass walls of a greenhouse: they let the Sun’s light onto the Earth’s surface, but trap the heat that reflects back up into the atmosphere. This greenhouse effect keeps the Earth warm enough to sustain life: without it, the average temperature of the Earth would be -18°C, 33°C less than now.
However, humans produce large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which intensifies the natural greenhouse effect. As a consequence, the climate of the Earth changes. The most important greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Most of the CO2 emissions come from fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas used in transport and energy production. Also, greenhouse gas emissions are adding to the atmosphere through agriculture, industrial production, landfills and forest fires.
Climate has always changed, but since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, has skyrocketed. A fundamental source behind climate change lies in unjust social structures. Their construction is closely tied to the Industrial Revolution, increasing consumption, energy politics and global market economy. In-depth understanding of climate change issues requires knowledge about natural sciences, mechanisms of society, morals, values and justice.
As the level of greenhouse gases rises, it affects precipitation, temperatures and gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Changes vary from place to place, but generally global temperature is rising and extreme weather is becoming frequent: droughts and heavy rainfall events increase and storms get stronger. There is less snow, glaciers are melting and sea level is rising. In nature, many species adapted to a certain climate may become threatened when they are not able to adapt to climate change fast enough. However, some species will benefit from the changes. Besides changing environments, climate change threatens social stability, equality, health, human rights, food availability and balanced economy.
Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation
According to current knowledge, stopping climate change is not completely possible. Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities will remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, warming the globe even without new emissions. However, climate change can be slowed down significantly enough that harmful impacts on humans and the environment are not insurmountable. Climate change mitigation should cover all areas of society: government, municipalities, businesses, schools and citizens.
Climate change mitigation requires significant changes in our entire lifestyle: in energy production, the industrial sector, transport, housing and agriculture. In addition, increasing the carbon content of natural carbon pools like forests should be fostered. Social change is possible through developing new solutions and putting them into practice through legislation, incentives, taxation, urban planning, education and research; developing sustainable products and services, and keeping up constructive but critical climate change communication.
Because the consequences and impacts of climate change can’t be totally prevented, adaptation is needed. It seeks to reduce the vulnerability of biological and social systems to the effects of global warming. Adaptation efforts can include taking changing climate conditions into consideration in land use planning and building, developing new types of insurance systems and protecting wetlands, forests and agricultural biodiversity.
Need more Information?
Thousands of texts of various lengths have been written about climate change. If you want to read more about the topic, check out the following websites:
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports provide a profound and up-to-date summary on the scientific results. The latest report was published in 2013–14 and it contains a contribution from three working groups and the synthesis report that draws on the assessment made by the groups.
- NASA’s website provides diverse data on climate and climate change. https://climate.nasa.gov/
- Climateguide.fi is a website created by the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the Finnish Environment Institute and the Aalto University YTK Land Use Planning and Urban Studies group. It pools research-based information produced by various actors into compatible and comparable data: http://ilmasto-opas.fi/en/
- Climate.Now. is a multidisciplinary study and teaching module produced by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, the University of Helsinki, Lappeenranta University of Technology and the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. The study module can be completed as a part of higher education studies, and the material can also be used in elementary schools and high schools. http://www.climatenow.fi/
- Al Gore explains the current state of climate debate (The Case For Optimism On Climate Change): https://medium.com/@algore/the-case-for-optimism-on-climate-change-251a955681b1#.e9k0c9xi1
Understanding Climate Change through different Disciplines
Michael DorauschDifferent disciplines approach climate change from different perspectives and put emphasis on slightly different matters. Some put more focus on contributors and consequences, some on solutions. Although these approaches may sometimes seem contradictory, in reality they complement each other. In addition to scientific data, this guide provides tips on how to put knowledge into action in daily life.
However, it is good to bear in mind that the criteria of scientific knowledge varies from discipline to discipline. Without being aware of this, the research findings in a field we are not familiar with may seem unscientific. While a critical social scientist is careful not to believe in one particular approach only, and puts emphasis on context, values and interests, a natural scientist focuses on facts: the findings of climatology are based on observations and measurements reflecting changes, and critical observations typically lead to a logical true conclusion. For example, rising sea levels, warming seawater and atmosphere, ocean acidification, melting mountain glaciers and other changes in climate are not a matter of opinion. By contrast, there are plenty of opinions about the politics of climate change, and it depends on particular values, perspectives and contexts how they are valued and prioritized.
Next we discuss – perhaps in a slightly stereotypical way – the views different scientific disciplines have on climate change. The aim is to introduce the diversity of perspectives and provide in-depth knowledge on climate change.