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What is Climate Change?

By Kathy R
Updated May 21, 2024
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Climate change occurs when the Earth’s average temperature changes dramatically over time. As little as one or two degrees can be considered dramatic change because the Earth’s ecosystem depends on a very delicate balance, and even small shifts can have a far-reaching impact. A drop in average temperature can also be considered climate change, but in modern times people using the term are usually talking about global warming.

One reason that climate change has become a popular and, at times, controversial topic is that many people believe it is mostly the result of human activity. Burning fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, produces byproducts such as carbon dioxide gas. Since there are not enough plants on Earth to quickly transform all this emitted carbon dioxide into oxygen, the gas remains in the atmosphere. Through a process known as the greenhouse effect, the carbon dioxide traps solar heat, which leads to the warming of the planet.

Other causes of climate change that can be traced back to humans include deforestation, or the widespread cutting of trees, and methane gas production. Methane is typically produced in large amounts by mining, large scale livestock farms, rice paddies and landfills. The commercial use of fertilizers that give off nitrous oxide also contributes to pollutant levels.

Many people believe the effects of climate change can already be seen, in the melting of permafrost near the North Pole and the rise of sea levels. Rising ocean levels cause concern about shrinking coastlines and island land masses. A warmer climate can also cause more severe weather to occur, because weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, gain strength from hot, moist air.

Some say evidence of global warming can also be found in reduced wildlife populations. Some animal species, such as the polar bear, are slowly losing their icy habitats and have shown smaller populations over recent years. For this reason, many wildlife groups want the polar bear to be added to endangered species lists.

The concept of climate change is not a new one. The ice age of long ago is well documented and was another form of climate shift, one not brought on by humans. Modern climate shifts that are the result of human behavior may be positively affected by altering personal lifestyles. While some people consider global warming to be only a theory, it is becoming more widely accepted that the planet's climate is shifting and that people are not blameless.

Many simple lifestyle changes that people can make to help combat climate change center on conserving energy resources. Actions such as turning off unnecessary lights, buying used items rather than new ones and using public transportation or a bicycle instead of driving cars can make a difference. Recycling as many goods and materials as possible is another helpful way to conserve. If humans ignore climate change, it may continue to accelerate and drastically change the planet in both predicted and unforeseen ways.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By anon1002237 — On Oct 06, 2019

Here's a fact that even NASA cannot disprove: 'without human industry/civilization we would now be in the beginning stage of the next ice age'. The Chinese and the Russians have figured it out. They are not limiting carbon emissions from industry because carbon is not a pollutant. CO2 is the basis of life on earth. Clean emissions are desirable, but CO2 reduction is just stupid. To the IPCC and their lapdogs: you, the taxpayers, are the gravy train. The credibility of their science is waning so they roll out the children. How pathetic. Whether it is happy trails or not is up to you -- as it has always been.

By anon1001510 — On Apr 30, 2019

Life on planet earth is based on CO2. Plants begin to die if it goes below 150 ppmv. Greenhouse growers pump CO2 up to 1000 ppmv to vastly increase crop production. International space station CO2 levels are kept down to 5000 ppmv. On earth 425 ppmv is current CO2 concentration.

What's the problem? Human civilization has occurred after the last ice age, which we are still coming out of. Man had no way of knowing he was building cities on land which would be flooded when the ice age truly finished. But we had clues such as fossils of plants in antarctica and land near the north pole. Man doesn't cause climate change anymore than he controls the sun or earth's orbit or that fact that earth is surrounded by space at -173c and the sun is our source of heat.

Picture no sun and man trying to heat the planet with industry. That is the effect man has on climate. I say, enjoy this warm period while you can because it won't last. Oh, and tell these so called climate experts to shove their government-funded lies up their butts.

By Wisedly33 — On Oct 23, 2014

Nothing lasts forever, so it's absurd to think the climate will stay the same, also. We just happen to be existing in the time when it's changing noticeably. Luck (or not) of the draw.

Obviously, as Scrbblchick noted, we should take care of what we've got, but it's a lock-cinch that nothing lasts forever. You can take great care of something and have it last far beyond its expected expiration date, but eventually, everything expires, dies or whatever.

So one of these days, the earth is going to change irrevocably and we will just have to deal with it -- or die trying. Climate change is a given because change in general is a given.

By Scrbblchick — On Oct 22, 2014

I believe the climate is probably changing, but is this a result of anything people are doing, or is it just a cyclical change that will eventually reverse itself?

I think people should do everything they can to live responsibly, conserve our resources and protect our planet in any way we can. That's just being smart. This is the only little ball of dirt we've got, so we'd better take care of it.

Having said that, if the change is an inevitable part of the cycle, all we can do is adapt the best way we can, and hang on until it changes again. There may be precious little we can do to change anything. Our role is to take care of the earth, but we may not be influencing the climate at all. I guess we do the best we can and hope everything turns out OK.

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