We Must Understand Climate Change to Reach Climate Goals
Since the highly impactful 2021 winter storm swept through Texas, I have noticed an uptick in references to climate change during conversations. As many of the discussions progressed, it became clear to me that many people still do not understand the mechanics of climate change. Unfortunately, without understanding the influencing variables, it is impossible for those seeking to reduce their contribution to the problem to do so. This is my attempt to address the basic questions surrounding climate change clearly and concisely.
What Is Climate Change?
A few centuries ago, our planet was in carbon harmony. The earth was utilizing its beautifully orchestrated biodiversity to absorb as much carbon as was emitted. Then came the industrial revolution and the birth of fossil fuel burning. Fossil fuels, predominantly coal, crude oil, and natural gas, are those that were formed from fossilized, buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Yes, dead plants are wreaking havoc.
When fossil fuels are burned, they release greenhouse gasses. The commonly referenced greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). However, there are others, many of which are far more potent in their warming attributes such as methane and nitrous oxide. These gases are a vessel for a tremendous amount of heat. Let us coherently nerd out for a second.
When sunlight hits the earth, it does so at a wavelength that passes right through most greenhouse gasses without being absorbed. When those sun rays that keep us on the beach hit the surface of the earth they are absorbed by our oceans, forests, and landmass. However, it does not stay there forever. If it did, I probably would not be writing this blog as the earth would be uninhabitable to human beings like most interplanetary systems we have identified. Instead, the heat radiates back upward as if planet Earth is using a slingshot to keep our temperature balanced.
I wish the story ended there. However, when the greenhouse gasses that litter our atmosphere are crashed into by a portion of the radiative molecules earth projectile launches toward space, they block the radiation from exiting stage left, soak up all its energy, and begin to violently vibrate. Yes, vibrate. Much like your microwave works to vibrate water molecules to heat up your food (and dry it out), greenhouse gas molecules vibrate and produce heat that heats our planet. Basically, we are microwaving our greenhouse gases.
This is all that climate change is. We burn fossil fuels. This emits greenhouse gases that become trapped in our atmosphere. These gasses absorb the radiative heat that our Earth attempts to dispel. It gets hot. The more we burn, the hotter it gets. Just think about sitting in your car in a Texas summer without the air conditioning on. At first, it feels a little sweaty, but it is not long before the car becomes unbearably hot, and not long after that where it is life-threatening. This simulates an accelerated version of climate change.
How Much Carbon Do We Emit & From Where?
For avoidance of doubt, we do need greenhouse gasses to keep our planet warm enough for our biodiversity to flourish. Without them, we would face the alternative reality of temperatures so cold that human life could not be sustained. We just happen to be sending things into overdrive. Our planet requires a certain symbiosis and balance, and we are tipping it off scale due to the magnitude of our emissions.
We emit approximately 51 billion tons of CO2e (carbon equivalent) annually. As noted, there are other greenhouse gases besides CO2 that we must take into consideration which is why we utilize an equivalent measurement standard. To provide perspective, in 2020 it is currently estimated that we emitted 48-49 billion tons of CO2e into the atmosphere, or ~5% less than the previous year. Despite an unprecedented disruption to our global economy, we made a fractional dent in our emission profile. Why?
Like life on our planet, emission points are also diverse. The production of cement, steel, plastic, and other products account for ~31%. Electricity usage accounts for ~27%. The world of agriculture such as growing vegetation and raising livestock accounts for ~19%. Transportation including planes, trains, and automobiles (I love that movie) contributes ~16%. Rounding out the final ~7% is heating, cooling, and refrigeration. Although the transportation sector came to a screeching halt, many of the others such as manufacturing increased or stayed flat.
Where Are We Now & Where Are We Headed?
It is important to understand that climate change cannot be attributed to any specific event. As frustrating as that can make the debate, it is the truth. We can however understand the probability of occurrence that events like the recent one in Texas will occur and at what frequency. We have already experienced a 1℃ increase since preindustrial times. If we do not reduce our carbon footprint, and quickly, we are likely to see 1.5-3℃ of warming by 2050.
What does that really mean?
For one, massive uncertainty. Although climate models have become incredibly sophisticated over the years, and far more reliable, there are an enormous number of variables that influence the potential outcome(s). Although there will remain a debate around the probability of certain outcomes, one thing is clear: we are 50 years or less away from catastrophic consequences. Storms will become increasingly severe and frequent. Infrastructure will be damaged. Droughts and wildfires will increase. Sea levels will slowly rise which will impact many nations such as Bangladesh. Our farmers will suffer. New insect-borne diseases will emerge from increasingly humid climates around the world.
I want to be clear. We cannot keep emitting carbon into our atmosphere and expect that the planet will not keep getting hotter resulting in significant consequences. We must reach net-zero carbon emissions in an almost overwhelmingly quick timeframe (typically considered to be the year 2050). Fossil fuels are cheap, and the path to net-zero carbon will require fossil fuels to remain a large part of our ecosystem for many years to come. Cement, fertilizer, petroleum-derived products, etc. are deeply embedded into our way of life.
We need to drive forward innovation and deployment of carbon capture technologies, increase production of hydrogen fuels, reduce our dependence on livestock, speed up the installation of renewable energy, and demonstrate the political will power to put in place policies that will allow us to achieve our goals.