Everybody seems to know that the Earth is warming up. All across the news we see stories of Climate Marches, movements for climate policy, and conversations of 1 or 2 or 4 degrees Celsius increase. But what does that impact? Certainly, we could just turn down our air-conditioners a few degrees, or wear lighter clothing, and adapt to a few degrees temperature change just fine, right? The truth is, there are several impacts that climate change is having on our planet that are not solvable by clothes or air conditioners. Several of these effects are changing our ecosystems, which then impact us indirectly.
So what are some of the major effects that climate change is having on our Earth’s ecosystems beyond ‘turning up the heat’?
1) Ocean Acidification:
This phenomenon is a result of the main compound that impacts climate change: CO2 or Carbon Dioxide. The oceans and the atmosphere are always exchanging gasses, trying to reach equilibrium. This means that there is going to be the same proportion of gas, for example oxygen or carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere and in the ocean. When this Carbon Dioxide enters the ocean, it goes through a chemical reaction and turns into an acid.
All the animals that live in the ocean rely on the water’s chemistry to survive. Perhaps the most vulnerable species to this acidification are animals that make shells/skeletons of calcium carbonate. These are animals like Oysters or Corals! These animals are vital to creating habitat for our oceans, supporting fish populations, and in the case of oysters, even feeding humans directly!
Click here to see what NOAA's Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) is doing to monitor this!
2) Shifting/Shrinking Climate regions
The animals on the planet at this time are specifically adapted to living in the climates/habitats available right now. As the Earth warms, we are seeing changes in the temperature and rainfall patterns across the world. This changes the ecosystems that are available to animals, and also changes were certain ecosystems are found. For example, as the Earth is warming, deserts are increasing, pushing out grasslands and forests at their edges. Also, a warmer overall Earth drives many animals toward the North and South poles (the coldest parts of our planet) to stay in a comfortable temperature. This is seen in several marine species such as sharks. We are seeing animals venture into regions they are not traditionally found, impacting human use of these regions, as well as ecosystem interactions.
This shift is also causing a shrinking climate region for plants and animals living on a mountain. Plants that live on mountains can be very specifically adapted to their region, and their height on the mountain. As the Earth warms up, species are moving up these mountains (toward the colder mountain-top) to find the same temperatures they’re adapted to. This is a concern for animals and plants that take advantage of the mountain-top ecosystems, as they have nowhere to shift and are going to be exposed to increasing warmth. Read more about what the US Geological Survery has to say on this here!
3) Sea Level Rise
The sea levels are rising for two main reasons: Sea Ice Melt and Water Expansion. The sea ice melt is increasing the amount of water that is in the ocean, while water expansion is increasing the amount of space this water takes up.
Heat and Cold affect water volume kind of like how they affect the air in your tires. When the temperature outside drops suddenly, the air in your tires become very dense and take up less volume, causing your tire pressure warning lights to light up on your dashboard. The opposite is true as well, meaning that heat causes air (and water) to expand. The increasing temperature in the atmosphere is causing the ocean water to expand, meaning that sea level would rise even if no extra water was added.
Sea level is projected to increase by at least 1 foot by 2100 if we seriously limit our emissions rates and could rise as much as 8.5 feet if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at high levels. With 40% of the whole world’s population being within 60 miles of the ocean, it is important to begin making plans and adjustments to the land-loss we will likely experience. View an interactive map by NOAA here!
4) Global Loss of Species
The climate crisis we are currently facing is one of several reasons that Earth is experiencing a dramatically increased rate of extinction. The current rate of extinction is comparable to the past 5 mass extinctions the planet has seen (one of which was the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs!). There are several reasons this is occurring, including some of the reasons we’ve already mentioned. The loss of species is concerning because whether we realize it or not, we are very dependent on animals and plants for our own survival. Plants help to give us oxygen, and animals can provide ecosystem services like keeping pest populations under control (birds of prey and small mammals) and providing us with food (like fish or deer). We also can find many compounds in nature which help us cure diseases and solve human health problems. When we lose plant and animal species, we lose our chance to discover things about the world, and our chance to learn things that may help us be healthier.
Read more about this here!
5) Spread of Disease
Several diseases which cause harm to human population are what is known as ‘vector borne’ diseases. This means that these diseases spread by infecting a carrier. A great example of this is Zika in mosquitoes. As the world warms up, more of our Earth is experiencing things like long periods of heat, more rainfall, and fewer hard freezes. All of these allow mosquitoes to travel to and live in regions they never have before. As these insects travel far and wide, they bring with them diseases which have previously been uncommon or non-existent in these areas. This poses a threat to people in these regions who do have rarely been exposed to these diseases and have no immunity. Because of this, climate change can affect the infection rates around the world, making diseases like Zika, Malaria, and Dengue a threat to human health around the world. Read about what Stanford scientists have to say about that here!
So as you can see there are lots of impacts that climate change can have on the world besides just increasing the temperature. Helping to reduce all of these impacts could be costly and very challenging, but luckily the world is making moves toward a healthier future in lots of ways! Read blogs under our Technology Tab to learn about how advanced technology can reduce climate change effects, or head over to our Policy blogs to find out what some of the world leaders have to say about the future of climate policy. As always, stay tuned for blogs, podcasts, and social media interaction coming up!
By Lucas Frye
For decades, the issue of climate change has been framed as a crisis for the future, a problem that our children and grandchildren will need to solve. The messaging of the climate activists centered around long-term measures like global average temperature change and sea level rise, where changes on the order of degrees Celsius and inches have little meaning or significance to people without scientific backgrounds. Insufficient emphasis was placed on the human impacts that a changing climate is already having on hundreds of millions of people globally. This has allowed the political classes to delay climate action in the interest of short-term economic benefits and minimize the link between greenhouse gas emissions and the livelihoods of those they govern. The great threat to human life and dignity posed by the climate emergency is on our doorstep, and we need strong political will to reduce the damage.
Harms caused by anthropogenic climate change are referred to as “loss and damage” within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and include those resulting from both sudden-onset events, such as extreme weather, and slow-onset events, like sea level rise. Extreme weather events, like heat waves, droughts, cyclones, and storms are occurring more often and with greater intensity as the atmosphere warms. Higher temperatures cause increased evaporation of surface water, which results in drought in some places and extreme precipitation in others. In fact, regions that are generally dry are becoming drier and regions that are generally wet are becoming wetter. This combination of droughts and more intense rainfall are causing the loss of human life and damage to infrastructure in places like the Philippines, where Typhoon Phanfone has killed over 50 people. These changes in weather further promote food insecurity as crop yields decline and grazing land for livestock is lost.
Higher temperatures also cause thermal expansion of seawater and the melting of ice at the poles, resulting in sea level rise which can flood coastal areas and force people out of their homes. Increased flooding also poses threats to water security, as treatment facilities are disrupted and water quality declines. Lives are also being lost to the facilitated spread of diseases like malaria and dengue fever, which thrive in extended breeding seasons promoted by rising temperatures.
Who is most at risk?
The climate emergency doesn’t affect all groups equally. The negative impacts are most severe for members of already disadvantaged communities. First, there is of course a regional dependence on exposure to climate hazards. Those who live in low-lying coastal communities will be the hardest hit by sea-level rise, as their homes will be subject to increased flooding and subsidence. There is also a strong economic tilt to this vulnerability: citizens of low-income countries suffer more than those in high-income countries, despite the latter being responsible for most of the emissions causing these problems. Food insecurity, water scarcity, and human dislocation pose the greatest threat to those without the wealth and mobility to adapt to climate change. Within countries, divisions of race and gender further place disproportionate suffering on the shoulders on those who are already least able to afford the high costs of rising emissions.
The climate emergency was foreseen well in advance, and yet today it takes a skyrocketing number of lives and irreversibly changes many more for the worse. As land shrinks beneath the sea and the land that remains becomes increasingly arid, the wealthy are paying to maintain their way of life, but the poor have little choice but to migrate, beg, and starve. These impacts are already unavoidable for millions in on the front lines of climate change, and it won’t be long before they are knocking on the door of industrialized nations as well. How much longer will it take the countries most responsible for the climate crisis to take an active role in solving it?
by Kristian Gubsch
The 25th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in Madrid, Spain this year and lasted from December 3 – December 15 which is the longest COP ever held. I arrived on December 4th and left December 11th, and was able to attend five days of the conference in total. To be honest, the conference was initially overwhelming as there are multiple schedules of events published, simultaneous presentations, negotiations, and panel discussions going, and on top of that the conference center was very large. Luckily, a few of my colleagues here at Climate Conversations were able to show me around and I quickly learned how to maneuver the COP. Throughout my time at the COP I was bombarded with all kinds of information about climate change, but after processing it all I have broken it down into my three main takeaways below.
What is Article 6 of the Paris Agreement?
One of the main reasons I was excited to attend COP25 was to see international climate policy negotiated in real-time. With so much pressure and expectations coming from the worldwide protests and the rise of Greta Thunberg and her movement Fridays For Future, I imagined this sense of urgency would be reflected in the negotiations. One of the main points of contention throughout the COP was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement which, prior to attending COP25, I was unfamiliar with. Article 6 essentially allows countries with lower emissions to sell their remaining emissions to larger emitters to help them meet their emissions target outlined in their nationally determined contribution. However, Article 6 has been discussed extensively at prior international meetings so there was mounting pressure to reach an agreement at COP25. As I sat through the negotiations, the sense of urgency was palpable among the co-facilitators (co-facilitators are basically moderators of the discussions who are responsible for incorporating countries’ suggestions into a drafted document and urging countries to reach a consensus) of the negotiations as they reminded several different countries be brief in their remarks.
The negotiation that I attended was supposed to only last for two hours; however, it ran an extra hour long and suggestions had only been made for two out of the three paragraphs that were supposed to be reviewed. By the conclusion of the conference, there was still no consensus among countries which means it will not be discussed again until the next intersessional meeting in June 2020. After sitting through three hours of Article 6 negotiations, it was impossible for me to ignore the stark contrast between the young activists at the conference and the lack of cooperation at the international level in regards to legislating progressive climate action. If you are interested in other aspects of COP25 negotiations and what to expect going forward I would encourage reading CarbonBrief’s breakdown of the conference found here.
The U.S. is Still In! (Sort of)
While we are all well-aware of the Trump administration’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, some of you may be less aware of the work being done by U.S. Climate Action Center. At COP25, each country has the opportunity to host their own pavilion where people can learn more about how the country is responding to issues that are being caused by climate change. Since the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the U.S. Climate Action Center is a group that attends international climate conferences in the United States’ absence and organizes events to spread awareness of the climate action that is happening in the United States. This center also represents the effort of a broader movement in the U.S. called We Are Still In which is a movement that consists of 2,234 businesses/investors, 287 cities/counties, 353 colleges/universities, 10 states, 68 cultural institutions, 28 health care organizations, 50 faith groups, and 11 tribes across the nation.
Over the course of the week, I attended several panel discussions that included university presidents, business leaders, and policymakers. From the university panel, I learned of an organization called Second Nature that is pushing universities to integrate carbon neutrality and sustainability goals into their futures. So far over 450 schools have declared a carbon neutrality goal and the network of universities that have made a commitment can be viewed here. The next session I attended consisted of CEOs from various companies such as The Dow Chemical Company, Edison International, and Unilever, as well as a representative from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). During this discussion, I was encouraged to hear that CEOs were taking the issue of climate change very seriously and as one of the panel members put it, “there are no jobs or businesses on a dead planet”. The coalition of companies, organized by the group We Mean Business, who are pledging to reduce their emissions was also discussed and more than 87 companies have pledged to go net-zero or reduce their emissions. Finally, the panel discussion composed of policymakers reiterated the importance of the private sector’s action on climate change and emphasized that the environment and business go hand-in-hand. This was a bipartisan discussion with both Democrats and Republicans on the panel and both sides agreed that bipartisan climate action at the local and state level can also be very effective.
Sweden is Home to the First Climate Positive Company
I had never heard of the phrase “climate positive” until I attended a panel of business leaders discussing why they are key partners to keep the global temperature rise to below 1.5 ᵒC. A representative from the Swedish company MAX Burgers explained that “climate positive” is a term applied to a company that meets three categories: 100% of their greenhouse gas emissions are measured, there is a history of reducing emissions, and at least 110% of the emissions is captured. At first, I was skeptical because I am aware that animal agriculture, particularly cows, are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, they have made an effort to offset these emissions by planting more than 700,000 trees in Africa and continue to plant trees each year to maintain their climate positive status. Additionally, Mevo ride share, a car sharing company in New Zealand, claims to be the second climate positive company and the first climate positive ride sharing service. Their electric vehicles are charged with 80% renewable energy from the grid and the rest of the energy is offset by 120% through the purchase of certified rainforest carbon offsets. While the phrase “climate positive” is not yet widespread in the business world, it is encouraging to see companies in industries that are typically responsible for a large emissions footprint take action to not only to reduce emissions, but also improve the environment. Overall, I was re-energized through seeing the action being taken by the private sector and am excited to see more and more companies make commitments towards a more sustainable future.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Opportunity Fund, Office of Undergraduate Research, and Honors College at Washington State University for funding my housing and meals during my trips to Washington, D.C. and Madrid. I would also like to thank Alaska Airlines for covering the cost of my domestic flights.