What is Climate Change?

Its Causes and Effects

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When someone asks whether you understand climate change or not, they are actually asking you two separate questions:

  • Do you think that average temperatures across the planet are significantly warmer now than they were pre-1800's?
  • If you do believe scientists when they say that temperatures are warmer now than they used to be 200 years ago, do you think that human activities have contributed to this warming effect?

Across the United States, many more people are likely to answer "yes" to the first question than to the second question.

Photo:  iStock.

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In order to answer "yes" to the second question, you would need to think that burning fossil fuels (like coal and oil) for the past two centuries has released enormous amounts of gases into the air that are now affecting the Earth's climate.

The gases in question, called greenhouse gases, include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, among others.

But how could large amounts of greenhouse gases affect the climate of an entire planet?

Photo: iStock.

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The greenhouse gas effect was actually discovered in 1842 by Joseph Fourier, who realized that the sun was too far away from the earth to keep our planet as warm as it is.

While searching for an explanation to this mystery, Fourier discovered that the earth has a layer of gases surrounding it, and that this layer of gases traps heat that would otherwise be lost to outer space.

We now know that without this layer of gases, or atmosphere, the Earth would be about 60 degrees Fahrenheit colder than it is with the atmosphere.

Diagram by NASA.

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The difficulty is that certain human activities, carried out all over the globe over long periods of time, have now increased the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the air enough to cause increased heat retention by the atmosphere.

Which has resulted in warmer temperatures across the planet, leading to many other biological changes - in our water resources, forests, fields, oceans, and with weather patterns.

Photo: iStock.

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So what can we do about climate change?

Especially because we all depend on fossil fuels in our daily lives in so many different ways - to heat our homes, when driving our cars, every time we fly on an airplane, and so on.

There are many answers (and entire websites devoted) to just this question.

Here, we are focused on life in the Northern Rockies, and so suggest, as a start:

Photo: iStock.