A Crash Course in Climate Change

by Brianna Riesbeck, Volunteer.

Earth Day 2022 is right around the corner and there is plenty to celebrate. It’s a day to give thanks and to give back to the planet that we call home! This year will be the 52nd Earth Day celebration in the United States, as it was initially organized as a national environmental teach-in day in the wake of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill. It’s a great day to get outside, volunteer, or just do a little bit of self-educating on the struggles that our planet faces. Which, I know, can be a lot! Let’s be real: climate change isn’t a fun topic to talk about. It’s not a casual dinner party conversation and it rarely impresses a date. Nobody wants to think about a massive, global issue that feels so overwhelming. As someone who spent years in a degree focused on climate change, I can completely understand the sense of guilt and sole responsibility that people tend to feel regarding environmental issues. There’s climate change but within that, there’s also pollution. And fossil fuel use. And deforestation. And loss of biodiversity. And…the list goes on. So it’s really no wonder why discussing climate change can be a bit tricky. So rather than spending your Earth Day getting inundated with learning the massive web of environmental issues, let’s break down climate change at its core and what we’re doing to combat it.

What is climate change?

Climate change, in the most basic sense, is self-explanatory. It is the long-term shift of temperature and weather patterns. It can be easily confused with just “weather”. The key is that climate is a long-term shift. The global temperatures, on average, will continue to rise.

So it gets a little warmer, so what?

I think that New York would probably love a warmer climate! The real issue is that climate is an entire system; it’s not just the temperature that changes. Changes in temperature will alter precipitation. This could result in more frequent and severe storms and flooding in some areas while other areas may experience extreme drought. Changing weather patterns like these could affect food availability, habitat ranges for countless species, clean water availability, and much more.

How does it work? What causes this expedited change?

At the very root of the issue, the primary cause of global warming and climate change is the “Greenhouse Effect”. You’ve probably heard the term one hundred times over. But what does that even mean? To put it simply, there’s a buildup of gasses in the atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide and methane. These gasses alone aren’t so bad; heck, we exhale carbon dioxide! The problem is that humans have produced a ton of these greenhouse gasses in a variety of ways and they now act as a gas blanket of sorts for our planet. Now we have to factor in the sun. Normally, the sun’s rays hit the earth and that energy is mostly absorbed at the surface but some is meant to be reflected back into space. Except now, Earth has this extra blanket of gasses in the atmosphere. So the energy that is meant to reflect back hits this blanket and is re-radiated back into our planet, causing our temperatures to gradually rise.

How did we get here?

I think people start to really get overwhelmed with the topic of climate change and global warming when we dive too deep into everything that has led us to this point. There are tons of interconnected environmental issues that have played a part in global warming. The biggest thing to remember is that global warming and climate change are primarily being driven by the Greenhouse Effect. Most of those greenhouse gasses are the result of burning fossil fuels. So let’s take a look at what the US Environmental Protection Agency notes as the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas production. All emission percentages noted are from the EPA’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2019 study.

  1. Transportation – 29%. The largest current contributor to the production of greenhouse gasses is from transportation. This is primarily from burning the fossil fuels that we use in our cars, trucks, ships and airplanes. 90% of fuel used in these processes is petroleum-based.
  2. Electricity production – 25%. Roughly 62% of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.
  3. Industry – 23%. This category specifically measures fossil fuels burned for energy as well as emissions from chemical reactions needed for the production of goods from raw materials.
  4. Commercial and Residential – 13%. This includes emissions from businesses and homes primarily from burning fuel for heat, use of certain products, and waste handling.
  5. Agriculture – 10%. Includes emissions produced by livestock, agricultural soils and rice production

There are many other things that can contribute to the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Forests and wetlands, for example, act as “carbon sinks” meaning they absorb more carbon dioxide than they emit. Destruction of these habitats reduces the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed in the atmosphere.

Where do we go and what do we do?

According to NASA, the “solution” to climate change involves a “two-pronged approach”: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation, meaning that we actively work to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and adaptation, meaning that we adapt to the climate change already in the pipeline. When we talk about climate solutions, we’re often discussing the mitigation aspect. This can involve efforts to both reduce emissions and any projects that work to preserve and restore carbon sinks. Current mitigation efforts would include use of solar panels and wind turbines for energy as well as replanting and properly managing forest systems. Adaptation is all about reducing our vulnerability to climate change’s effects. This would include preparing to address food scarcity in the face of crop destruction as well as considering sea-level encroachment in coastal areas. Fortunately, government entities across the world are starting to consider and plan for climate issues that may make adapting a little easier.

What can I do?

It can be tempting to feel like you need to do every little thing in order to do your part for the environment. But I can tell you from personal experience that worrying about all of the little things can be exhausting. Do things within your means. Participate in community clean-ups. Contact your government officials for positive environmental policy changes. Reduce your individual environmental impact. As long as you’re doing something. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with the knowledge of what to expect and how to help enact change so that we can continue to enjoy this incredible planet for years to come.

If you’d like to find out more about climate change and the global projects working to counteract it, I highly suggest checking out both Climate.NASA.gov as well as EPA.org to read more. If you’re looking to give back to the planet in a more physical form, Friends of the Chemung River Watershed will be hosting a virtual Earth Week Cleanup this month from April 18th-24th! Join your community members in cleaning up your local neighborhoods, parks and streams. Let us see your work by taking a picture, and sharing it on social media, using the hashtag: “#FCRWEarthWeek2022”. The individual who has collected the MOST garage, and shares a selfie with it using this hashtag, will receive a special FCRW Earth Day Hero Badge! You can also help by donating using this link, in honor of our work to preserve the Chemung River Watershed. Thank you for doing your part in keeping our planet clean!

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