Today’s extreme weather events, melting glaciers, fragmenting permafrost and sea-level rise are all attributed to one culprit: climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international body that works on climate change science, declares that there is now indisputable scientific evidence that the climate system is warming up. As this continues in the coming decades, millions of lives are at risk as well as the world’s financial system.
Though people use the terms climate change and global warming interchangeably, they are not the same. On the one hand, global warming is the long term heating of the Earth’s climate system. On the other hand, climate change is the long term change in the Earth’s weather patterns.
Scientifically, the IPCC defines climate change as “a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings such as modulations of the solar cycles, volcanic eruptions and persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in its Article 1, defines climate change as: ‘a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods’. The UNFCCC thus makes a distinction between climate change attributable to human activities altering the atmospheric composition, and climate variability attributable to natural causes”.
Throughout the history of the Earth, we can clearly see that there have been many episodes of changing climates on the planet. Ice ages and warm periods have occurred in the past as a result of natural phenomena. Basically, the natural causes of climate change arise due to changes in the Earth’s orbit, solar variations, volcanic eruptions, ocean currents and internal climate variability.
Small shifts in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun can trigger important changes in the climate system. While these climate fluctuations normally take thousands of years to manifest themselves, they represent significant changes in the strength of seasons on Earth. The Milankovitch Theory explains that there are 3 cyclical changes in the Earth’s orbit and tilt:
Subsequently, the interaction of these different cycles affects the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth and control glacial and interglacial periods. As it is, the last ice age on Earth ended some 12,000 years ago. Currently, we are in an interglacial period called the Holocene, and the next cooling period may start in some 30,000 years.
Our main source of energy on Earth comes from the Sun. Actually, the amount of heat energy radiating from the Sun also varies from time to time thus leading to climate changes on the Earth. Every 11 years, the solar cycle changes due to sunspots. Sunspots develop as a result of the weakening of the magnetic field that transports heat from the inside of the Sun. Though the energy emitted by the Sun varies only by 1.3 W/m2, more sunspots lead to warmer global climate and fewer sunspots to a cooler climate.
Volcanic eruptions can cause short term (few months to few years) cooling of the Earth’s climate. When volcanoes erupt, they spit out volcanic ash, dust, aerosols, Sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide. Volcanic ash and dust can hang in the air for a few months and block sunlight from reaching the Earth. This can consequently trigger a cooling effect on the climate system. Also, Sulphur dioxide released combines with water vapour in the atmosphere to form sulphate aerosols. These aerosols too block out the sun’s rays and since they are lighter than dust particles, they stay in the atmosphere for a longer time.
Though volcanoes also liberate carbon dioxide, the cooling effect is stronger than the warming potential of carbon dioxide. As an example, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 remains perhaps one of the most catastrophic eruptions in historic time . This volcano ejected some 60 Tg of Sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere which converted into sulphate aerosol. This increased the planet’s albedo leading to a cooling of the Earth’s climate for some years thereafter.
The global conveyor belt is an ocean current system that transports water around the world. It includes both surface and deep water currents that circulate across the world’s oceans in a 1,000-year cycle. The global conveyor belt is driven by water density differences, winds, solar energy, tides, topography of ocean basins and shape, nearby landmasses and the Earth’s rotation.
The nucleus of the global conveyor belt starts in the North Atlantic Ocean and adjacent basins thus producing the dense water of the North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW). This water moves towards the Antarctic Ocean and blends with the chilly, very dense water in the region. It continues its way towards the Indian and Pacific oceans where it mixes with warm water. Consequently, the water moves to the ocean surface and makes its way back to the North Atlantic Ocean . The global conveyor belt plays a key role in transporting heat around the world thus maintaining a stable climate system.
In addition to that, some internal oceanic variabilities can impact on the climate system of the Earth. For instance, El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events are recurring climate patterns that occur every five years. ENSO occurs due to the oceanic-atmospheric interaction in the tropical Pacific Ocean resulting in slightly different sea surface temperature. El Nino and La Nina are opposite cycles of the ENSO cycle. While El Nino increases global temperature, La Nina reduces it. In addition to this, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) is another climate pattern driven by winds that circulate counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere around the Arctic. It has a significant impact on the weather and climate in North America, Europe and Asia.
The main way through which humans contribute to climate change is by releasing excessive greenhouse gases. In fact, greenhouse gases naturally exist in the atmosphere and help to maintain a steady temperature on Earth by trapping heat energy that radiates from it. Had it not been for this greenhouse effect, the Earth’s temperature would have dropped to -21° ! The greenhouse gases that are found in the Earth’s atmosphere are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. When the amount of these greenhouse gases becomes too much in the atmosphere, more heat is retained on the planet. This thus results in global warming.
In general, it is estimated that the global temperature has risen by 1°C since the pre-industrial period (1850-1900). This increase in temperature is believed to be linked to massive human activities that started since the industrial revolution in the 1950s. The level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere today by far exceeds past levels. Thus, as global temperature increases, it also causes a shift in the climate system.
In this respect, human induced causes of climate change include the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture and land use changes.
The majority of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, that is found in the atmosphere today comes from the burning of fossil fuels. People use fossil fuels for transport like in cars and aeroplanes, to generate electricity at home and in industries and to manufacture materials. For the past thousands of years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air was more or less stable. However, since the industrial period, its level rose sharply through various human activities.
Urbanization especially, that relies on fossil fuels, also liberates much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Cement production for building purposes is one such example. Also, what happens is that urban areas cater to more residential needs like heating/cooling houses and wastewater management. Moreover, urban populations tend to consume more goods and services that cause greenhouse gas emissions through their fabrication.
As the number of people increases on the planet, food production must match the needs of nations. So, when people produce more food, there are more greenhouse gas emissions through various agricultural processes. In this sector, the main greenhouse gas of concern is methane. It is released as part of the digestive cycle of livestock like cattle. Where there are large farms for meat production, there are also much emissions.
Besides methane, nitrous oxide is another potent greenhouse gas that emanates from the agricultural sector. It comes from the breakdown of fertilizer products, soil management, tillage and irrigation methods. Since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, fertilizer use rose significantly. Both the amount of manure produced by animals and applied to fields, sometimes excessively, shot up.
Land-use changes, referring to activities that humans undertake to manage or convert land types, also play an important role in climate change. Forests are major carbon sinks and deforestation therefore heavily impacts on carbon capture. Naturally, trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide and help to decrease its amount in the atmosphere. When forests are cleared for human purposes such as farms and settlement, more carbon dioxide remains in the air. In addition to that, harvesting and burning trees also release back the carbon stored in trees back to the atmosphere.
The IPCC reports that during the 1990s, deforestation in the tropics and forest re-growth in temperature zones were the major factors contributing to greenhouse gas emission and removal respectively. As a matter of fact, forests store 283 Gt of carbon as biomass, 38Gt in deadwood and 317 Gt in soils and accumulated litter. Other terrestrial systems like grasslands and croplands also store large amounts of carbon in their soil and organic matter. Thus when humans upset the carbon sequestration capacity of the land, that carbon finds its way into the atmosphere.