Climate Change 101

Let’s talk about Climate Change.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (~1750) mankind has become dependent on fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) for energy, industry and transportation. In addition, human population growth has increased by over 660%, from ~1 billion people prior to the Industrial Revolution to >7.6 billion people today.

The problem is that the combustion of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) into the atmosphere which have the ability to trap and radiate heat being emitted by the Earth.

Normally, when the sun warms the Earth, the Earth naturally re-radiates some of this heat back out into space. However, when there are extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, some of the heat that would have escaped into space gets trapped in these molecules and then re-radiated back out in all directions warming both the lower atmosphere and the Earth’s surface.


Mankind’s addition of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is causing the Earth to heat up at an unnaturally fast pace and is artificially changing the chemistry of the air, land, and oceans.

What does this mean for the rest of the planet?

Across the globe things are literally heating up. Humans, plants, animals, insects, microorganisms and entire ecosystems are stressed, suffering and in some cases going extinct due to their inability to adapt to such rapidly changing temperatures and environmental conditions. In addition to global warming, some of these changes include:

  • Less snow in the mountains, fewer glaciers, shrinking ice sheets and the reduction of sea ice which leads t…

  • Lower global albedo - Aka Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight and naturally cool

  • Sea level rise - From the addition of fresh water (from rain and those melting things mentioned above) and from the expansion of sea ice when it melts. Sea level rise forces human populations to move and completely rebuild cities - meaning we 1) encroach further into the already stressed natural world and 2) have to process, manufacture and transport new materials to build new infrastructure - further increasing our greenhouse gas emissions

  • Diminishing habitats for arctic, sea, and land animals

  • Extinction

  • Drought

  • Food shortage

  • Warming oceans

  • Ocean acidification which inhibits the growth of coral reefs and the ability of sea creatures like urchins, snails and clams to grow their shells.

  • Changes in the growing season, in the timing and effectiveness of pollination, and in the timing of species migration leading to an overall drop and imbalance of general ecosystem health and eventual food shortage. One in three bites of food we eat depends on bees for pollination - beekeepers reported losing over 40% of their honeybee colonies last year, up from an already alarming 33% the year before (NRDC).

  • Air pollution - Smog from power plants, factories and cars especially in densely populated regions creates toxic air quality that increases the risk of cardiovascular and lung disease.

  • Intensified storms and floods - The hotter the Earth gets the more evaporation occurs and the more fuel (ie. water) there is for storms to pick up and drop out.

  • Wildfires - Hotter temperatures and drier conditions add fuel to fire.

  • Disease - Sea level rise, pollution, drought, famine and population growth result in poor sanitation and unhealthy living conditions for people and their families especially in third world countries.

  • Less nature - An overall reduction of the natural world for people and future generations to experience and enjoy.

Why else should we care? Because so far we have found no other planet like Earth in the Universe. That means there is no planet B if this one becomes to hot, toxic, waterless, foodless, and natureless to live in. If we don’t start doing something now then future generations will not get to enjoy the beautiful, magical, delicious, natural, safe, healthy aspects of the planet many of us are currently taking for granted.


  • Stop burning fossil fuels. We must step away from our dependence on oil, coal and natural gas which we know is causing the planet to heat up and is cause humans and other species harm. Divest money from the fossil fuel industry ASAP.

  • Have fewer babies. Mankind’s population has increased by ~660% in less than 200 years and is still growing. Fewer people on the planet means less demand for natural resources and manufactured products, fewer cars on the road, and lower demands for energy, food and water.

  • Use and invest in renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, rain, geothermal, wave and tidal energy sources. Over 80 cities in the US have already committed to using 100% renewable energy in the next few decades!

  • Buy an electric car! As the grid

  • Sequester greenhouse gases. Natural environments such as forests and wetlands trap and store CO2. Plant more trees and restore the natural world. Support conservation organizations that do this (scroll down for a list of environmental non-profits).

  • Make your home and lifestyle more energy efficient. The EPA has a great carbon footprint calculator that allows you to see how much you can reduce your personal and household carbon footprint by doing things like driving less, driving more fuel efficient cars, recycling, using energy efficient light bulbs, hang drying your clothes, using the heater/A/C less, etc. You can reduce your carbon footprint and also save a lot of money!

  • Reduce, reuse, recycle. Doing so minimizes the energy required to produce, manufacture, and transport goods. Make less trash/waste. When you have to buy something new, do so from a company that has the environment in mind. Did you know that recycling 10 glass bottles saves enough energy to power a laptop for 20 hours (EPA Carbon Footprint Calculator)?

  • Walk, carpool, bike, or bus instead of driving solo.

  • Buy local, buy organic. Food production accounts for almost 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions (UN IPCC). In addition, the shorter the distance your food and products have to travel to get to you the smaller their carbon footprint. Organic farmers often use soil management practices that sequester greenhouse gases. They also use fewer pesticides that are harmful to insects and important pollinators like bees. Buy local, buy organic.

  • Eat fewer animal products. Cows release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, when they digest food (yep, cow farts). Also, the amount of water it takes to make one hamburger patty is equivalent to the amount of shower water an average American adult uses in 1 year (Water Footprint Network).

  • Donate to and support environmental non-profits. Many organizations are using education, activism, the law to help protect the environment. These types of organizations are able to operate from donations (which are usually tax-deductible!) from people like you. Scroll down to the bottom of this article for a list of organizations doing incredible things.

  • SPEAK UP - Communicate and VOTE! Make your voice and opinion heard. Talk to others about the issues and solutions. Contact your representatives. Educate your children, family and friends so they can make good choices. The sooner the general population understands the issues, the faster we can work toward solutions. Many of the non-profits listed below like the NRDC and Sierra Club have emails to send to the White House and your local representatives. Making your voice heard takes less than one minute.

Want more proof?

The graph below shows a direct correlation between temperature (blue) and CO2 (orange), a powerful greenhouse gas, over the past 500,000 years.

Screen Shot 2018-08-11 at 12.08.46 PM.png

When it’s hot, CO2 levels are high, when it’s cold, CO2 levels are low. You jump, I jump right Jack? Right Rose.

The data come from isotopes measured in Antarctic ice cores. We know the age of the ice cores by measuring chemical changes in the layers of ice (sort of like tree rings) and matching them up with things we know to have happened in the past. For example, the chemical composition of a layer of ash in the ice may match that of a volcanic eruption that we know to have happened 400,000 years ago (scientists can date the formation of minerals from that eruption).

The ratio of oxygen isotopes, 18-O/16-O, is used to determine the temperature of precipitation (rain/snow) during that time. When it’s cold, the heavier isotope (18-O) falls out of the cloud in the rain or snow first (remember rain and snow are just H2O so the O bonding to the H’s when it’s cold is the heavier O, 18-O). This results in a higher 18-O/16-O ratio.

"Temperature anomaly" means how different the temperature in the past was from today. For example, -10C 300,000 years ago means that the average temperature 300,000 years ago was 10C colder than it is today. We know this by comparing the 18-O/16-O ratio measured in the ice, to 18-O/16-O ratio and temperature we measure during precipitation today.

CO2 is measured from gas bubbles in the ice. “ppm“ stands for parts per million.

Yes, there are other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (like Methane, water vapor, ozone, N2O, CO, CFCs and more). But CO2 is of high concern. This is because 1) it is incredibly abundant in the atmosphere and 2) it’s lifetime is long. While other greenhouse gases like methane are more powerful than CO2 (in terms of making things hot), methane only stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years. CO2 on the other hand can stay in the atmosphere for over 1000 years. In addition, CO2 is three orders of magnitude (aka 1000 times) more abundant than methane.

Yes, the climate does change naturally.

In fact if we take another look at that graph we can see that temperatures (and CO2 levels) have been rising and falling together like two peas in a pod for over 500,000 years during times of natural climate change (aka natural global cooling and warming). Natural climate change occurs when:

  • The amount of energy or heat that the Earth receives from the sun changes.

    • For example, when things like our proximity and tilt toward the sun changes or when the intensity of the sun changes (think solar flares or sunspots for that last one).

    • We can feel these types of changes on shorter time scales when the seasons change due to the northern or southern hemisphere being tilted toward or away from the sun.

  • The reflectivity of the Earth, aka the Earth’s albedo, changes.

    • Think things like clouds, ice and snow reflecting sunlight and dark things like soil, forest, and aerosols absorbing sunlight.

When we get these types of changes we get large-scale, long-term processes. Like ice ages.

Recent climate change however is the result of mankind’s addition of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

How do we know?

Looking at the more recent past we can see that greenhouse gas levels, like CO2 and Methane, have increased by over 40% since the Industrial Revolution.

Based on what we know about the relationship between greenhouse gases and temperature from the past 500,000 years, what do you think temperature will do next? Exactly it will rise and it has already happening.

Why haven’t we see such a drastic temperature response yet?

Because these things take time.

In the past, the most drastic temperature/CO2 changes occurred over tens of thousands of years. You see the temperature of the Earth as a system (including the Earth’s surface and the entire ocean) has to equilibrate. Because the ocean is deep and cold and because it circulates water (deep water makes its way to the surface over the course of >1000 years), it acts as a natural A/C for the Earth.

In the past the largest rises in CO2 have taken ~10,000 years. Never in the past 500,000 years have CO2 levels been this high or changed so quickly. We created a similar magnitude rise in just 250 years. If there weren’t oceans we’d be seeing temperatures equilibrate to CO2 levels much more quickly.

Even though the ocean is “taking some of the heat” global temperatures are already rising and the rising temperatures cannot be explained without accounting for mankind's additional input of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

A little more proof

The graph below shows recorded observations of temperature over the past 100 years (black line) and multiple computer model predictions of temperature when accounting for just natural factors (green shading) and when accounting for both natural and human factors (blue shading).

Adapted from  Huber and Knutti, 2011

Adapted from Huber and Knutti, 2011

What we see is 1) we cannot explain present-day global temperature change by only accounting for natural factors and 2) average global temperatures are over 1C hotter than they should be.

In fact, according to the Earth’s orbital cycles around the sun (see the temperature vs. CO2 graph and natural climate change section, above), we should soon be entering a period of cooling, aka heading into an ice age.

If we don’t start doing something about climate change now, now that we know the effects, humankind and other species on this planet may be soon devastated.

Support Environmental Non-profits:

The Sierra Club:

"Founded by legendary conservationist John Muir in 1892, the Sierra Club is now the nation's largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization -- with three million members and supporters. Our successes range from protecting millions of acres of wilderness to helping pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. More recently, we've made history by leading the charge to move away from the dirty fossil fuels that cause climate disruption and toward a clean energy economy. For more information, see our Mission Statement."

Mission Statement:
"To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth;
To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources;
To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives."

"350 uses online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects, take money out of the companies that are heating up the planet, and build 100% clean energy solutions that work for all. 350's network extends to 188 countries.”

Green Peace:

"Our mission: Greenpeace is a global, independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future."

Patagonia Action Works:

“For almost 40 years, Patagonia has supported grassroots activists working to find solutions to the environmental crisis. But in this time of unprecedented threats, it’s often hard to know the best way to get involved. That’s why we’re connecting individuals with our grantees, in order to take action on the most pressing issues facing the world today.”

Friends of the Earth:

"Friends of the Earth strives for a more healthy and just world.
Together we speak truth to power and expose those who endanger the health of people and the planet for corporate profit. We organize to build long-term political power and campaign to change the rules of our economic and political systems that create injustice and destroy nature."

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

"The Natural Resources Defense Council works to safeguard the earth - its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends."

The Nature Conservancy:

"Protecting nature, for people today and future generations.The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.Our vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives."

Earth Justice:

"Today’s environmental challenges are greater than ever. But we live in a country of strong environmental laws—and Earthjustice holds those who break our nation’s laws accountable for their actions.


Behind nearly every major environmental win, you'll find Earthjustice.
As the nation’s original and largest nonprofit environmental law organization, we leverage our expertise and commitment to fight for justice and advance the promise of a healthy world for all. We represent every one of our clients free of charge.


Environmental Defense Fund:

"Environmental Defense Fund's mission is to preserve the natural systems on which all life depends."

The Trust for Public Land:

"The Trust for Public Land works to protect the places people care about and to create close-to-home parks—particularly in and near cities, where 80 percent of Americans live. Our goal is to ensure that every child has easy access to a safe place to play in nature. We also conserve working farms, ranches, and forests; lands of historical and cultural importance; rivers, streams, coasts, and watersheds; and other special places where people can experience nature close at hand."

American Rivers:


"We combine national advocacy with field work in key river basins to deliver the greatest impact. We are practical problem-solvers with positions informed by science. We build partnerships and work closely with local river advocates, business and agriculture interests, recreation groups and others to forge win-win solutions. And with our expertise, outreach, and additional grants, we deliver the highest return on investment."

Conservation International:

"For more than 30 years, Conservation International (CI) has been protecting nature for the benefit of al.

Humanity is totally dependent on nature, and by saving nature, we’re saving ourselves. To that end, Conservation International is working to build a healthier, more prosperous and more productive planet.

We do this through science, policy and partnerships with countries, communities and companies. We employ nearly 1,000 people and work with more than 2,000 partners in 30 countries. Over the years, we have helped support 1,200 protected areas and interventions across 77 countries, protecting more than 601 million hectares of land, marine and coastal areas."

World Wildlife Fund:

"For 50 years, WWF has been protecting the future of nature.

The world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by more than one million members in the United States and close to five million globally. WWF's unique way of working combines global reach with a foundation in science, involves action at every level from local to global, and ensures the delivery of innovative solutions that meet the needs of both people and nature."

Environmental Investigation Agency:

"Protecting the environment with intelligence.

EIA works to achieve tangible changes in the global economy that make local and sustainable management of the world’s natural resources possible.

Working in London since 1984 and in Washington, D.C. since 1989, the Environmental Investigation Agency has identified and implemented specific solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental problems. Our campaigns to protect endangered wildlife, forests, and the global climate operate at the intersection between increasing global demand and trade and the accelerating loss of natural resources and species. EIA takes advantage of its independence and mobility to produce game-changing primary evidence and analysis of these problems and to build lasting alliances, institutions, and policies to implement solutions."