The devastating effects of climate are being felt all over the world. Discover the immediate impacts of climate change, its long term consequences if we don’t act soon to address it.
What Is Climate Change?
The earth’s temperature is not a static thing. It changes over time and can be measured by the effects of the cycle between glacial advance and retreat which cause sea levels to both rise and dip. Over the course of the last 650,000 years, there have been 7 such cycles, the most recent of which ended around 7,000 years ago—and which spelled the beginning of a boom in human civilization.
These fluctuations in global temperature are often quite minute and are thought to be an effect of subtle changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun. Unfortunately, these changes are no longer subtle and are instead marked by rapid and dramatic effects on the planet.
When we are talking about climate change, also known as global warming, we are talking about the increase in temperature of both the surface of the air and the surface of the sea combined, observed over a 30-year period. Importantly, it is measured by comparing the global temperature of the planet now, to that of the 50 years following the industrial revolution (1850-1900).
Since this time, the impact on the atmosphere, ecosystems, and the sea—as a consequence of human industry—has been so pronounced that many scientists insist that we’ve moved into a new epoch: the Anthropocene. In part this is due to the global rise in CO2 concentration per decade since the year 2000—and it’s rising 10 times faster than any other time during the past 800,000 years.
And while global temperatures were dropping by 0.01°C every 100 years for the last 7,000 years, since 1970 the temperature has been rising at an alarming rate of 1.7°C per century. Perhaps most concerning, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that we need to stay below a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures in order to avoid the more severe impacts of global warming.
Immediate Impacts of Climate Change
While it’s impossible to attribute a single storm to climate change, one of the most noticeable impacts of climate change is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events around the world. A change in atmospheric composition and increased temperatures that affect atmospheric circulation are causing a more unstable atmosphere, which acts as the perfect breeding ground for extreme weather.
The most intuitive impact of climate change is the increasing frequency, longevity, and potency of heatwaves. In fact, studies have found that the 2010 heatwave in Russia would not have occurred without climate change, while more recently, 2018 saw record temperatures set around the world.
- In Ottawa, the combined humidity level and temperature hit 47°C.
- Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, recorded an all-time high of 40.5°C.
- Breaking a record that stood for 79 years, the University of California recorded a temperature of 43.9°C.
Storms and Flooding
Ocean warming ramps up the power of coastal storms. So while we may not actually be seeing a greater amount of storms during the Atlantic Hurricane Season, we are seeing far more storms category 3 and above. To put it into perspective, 1967 saw one category 3 storm, one category 4 storm and one category 5. In 2017 we experienced six in category 3, four at category 4, and two category 5 storms.
As the atmosphere is now warmer it can also hold more moisture. This means that when storms do hit, they result in heavier rainfall, leading to flooding and consequential damage to agricultural and urban areas.
Following years of drought and record high temperatures, plant life in regions around the world—and in particular in California—has been left extremely dry. This makes forestry particularly vulnerable, with the smallest sparks capable of setting ablaze hundreds of acres.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, forest fires have occurred nearly four times as often lately, have burned more than six times the amount of land, and have lasted almost five times as long since 1986. This has been especially prevalent in the western United States where the average length of the wildfire season has increased from 5 to 7 months.
With such extreme weather conditions hitting countries all around the world, the effects on human safety almost go without saying. The 2018 Japan heatwave saw more than 22,000 people hospitalized. Hurricanes originating in the Atlantic killed over 3,000 people in 2017, and the Camp Fire blaze which hit Northern California in 2018 killed at least 88 people, destroyed over 7,100 homes and businesses and burned through over 100,000 acres of land.[6,7,8]
The economic impact of climate change is set to increase over time as its destruction affects farmland, homes, businesses, and infrastructure. At the same time, socio-economic impacts are set to be catastrophic for coastal, low-lying areas, and islands as the sea levels rise.
In Africa in particular, where coastal facilities are extremely important to regional economies, the effects of flooding, saltwater intrusion, and erosion are set to have a significant impact on the local communities they serve.
Long Term Effects
As global temperatures become more extreme there are concerns that we will see more heat-related deaths in the summer months. And extreme cold snaps from Arctic warming are set to produce further loss of life in colder months when winter storms become more dangerous.
Although, it is not just the immediate effects of extreme weather that put our safety at risk. The climate strongly affects water-borne diseases and parasites transmitted through insects, snails, and other cold-blooded animals.
Changes to the climate are likely to increase the length of transition seasons, as well as to increase the size of their geographic range. Extremely sensitive to temperature, this is likely to have a big impact on mosquitoes which transmit malaria, a disease which kills over 400,000 people every year.
In fact, according to the World Health Organization, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 more deaths a year between 2030 and 2050 as a result of malnutrition, malaria, diarrheal illnesses, and heat stress.
Negative Impact on Ecosystems
Impacts of climate change on the ecosystem have already been observed, especially in species which migrate or travel to certain areas to reproduce. For instance, in the United States, 28 species of migratory birds have been observed nesting earlier, and 16 out of 23 observed butterfly species shifted their migration timing and arrived earlier.[11,12]
Approximately 10% of species that have been assessed so far will be at increasingly high risk of extinction for every 1°C increase in temperature. This will continue to decimate freshwater habitats, coral reefs, arctic and alpine ecosystems.
Threats to Water and Food Resources
As a consequence of both droughts and flooding, climate change will impact both rainfed and irrigated agricultural land around the world. Increased saltwater from rising sea levels means that those in coastal regions will find it harder to grow crops, and availability in already water-stressed areas will further decrease leading to impoverished crops and a lack of drinking water.
Shifting Attitudes Toward Climate Change
The devasting results of climate change are becoming more and more difficult to deny and refute—and attitudes are shifting, especially in the United States. According to a recent Deloitte survey, 68% of residential consumers are, “very concerned about climate change and their personal carbon footprints”, a position at odds with the common perceptions of Americans. Accordingly, more and more individuals are becoming aware of how their habits affect the environment.
This concern is translating into a growing interest in renewable energy, which is being looked to as an answer to climate change and greater commitment to sustainability at a personal level. This interest even extends to the installation of solar panels at home. Nearly 50% of respondents said they want to install solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint.
Solutions for Climate Change
The solutions to climate change are highly dependent on legislation being passed that mandates responsibility for greenhouse gases, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to significantly reduce your personal carbon footprint. Learn more about what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.
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- “Climate Change Evidence: How Do We Know?” NASA, NASA, 4 Dec. 2018, climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.
- Aragon-Durand, Fernando, et al. “Chapters.”
- “Heat Waves: The Details.” Climate Communication, www.climatecommunication.org/new/features/heat-waves-and-climate-change/heat-waves-the-details/#refmark-10.
- “Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks?” Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/impacts/global-warming-and-wildfire.html#.XBkJ08_7RhE.
- “Infographic: Western Wildfires and Climate Change.” Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/impacts/infographic-wildfires-climate-change.html#.XBkKhs_7RhG.
- “Japan Heatwave Declared Natural Disaster as Death Toll Mounts.” BBC, BBC, 24 July 2018, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-44935152.
- Sullivan, Emily, and Richard Gonzales. “88 Dead, 158 Still Unaccounted For After Camp Fire Contained.” NPR, NPR, 27 Nov. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/11/27/671074763/88-dead-203-still-unaccounted-for-after-camp-fire-contained.
- Clark Mindock New York @ClarkMindock. “California Wildfires Death Toll Rises to 44 as Trump Declares Disaster.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 13 Nov. 2018, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/california-wildfires-live-update-latest-death-toll-victims-missing-malibu-a8629406.html.
- Burke, Caroline. “These California Wildfire Statistics Put The Devastation Into Terrifying Perspective.” Bustle, Bustle, 17 Dec. 2018, www.bustle.com/p/these-california-wildfire-statistics-show-just-how-devastating-the-blazes-are-13180895.
- Milman, Oliver. “Extreme Winter Weather Becoming More Common as Arctic Warms, Study Finds.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Mar. 2018, www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/13/extreme-winter-weather-becoming-more-common-as-arctic-warms-study-finds.
- “AR5 Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” AR4 WGI Glossary – Glossary E-O, www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/.
- GlobalChange.gov, www.globalchange.gov/browse/reports/sap-43-effects-climate-change-agriculture-land-resources-water-resources-and.
- Motkya, Marlene, et al. “Deloitte Resources 2018 Study – Energy Management: Business Drive and Households Strive.” Deloitte Resources 2018 Study.