Energy

Basics of Climate Change - Upload Knowledge

Are you ready to heat-up your knowledge of global warming? We’ll help you make sense of the hoopla and point to scientific resources to give you a greater understanding of the concepts.

The Alliance to Save Energy reports that over 80% of pollution comes from the use and production of energy. One of the biggest components of that pollution is the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide does cycle into and out of the atmosphere by natural causes in the carbon cycle. But, since the industrial revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 ppm to over 367 ppm according to the U.N. Environmental Programme. The famous Keeling Curve graphically shows this rise in CO2 concentration based on precise data measurements taken since 1958. Most scientists agree that the increase is undoubtedly due to industrial processes and massive transportation, both of which burn fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, in turn, are what most scientists, including the IPCC, believe is the primary cause of the current trend of global warming. For more on the idea that humans are the cause, check out this list of scientific studies documenting the connection.

So why’s carbon dioxide such a bad guy? What did he ever do wrong?
Carbon dioxide is the most notorious of the “greenhouse gases,” and as you may know, greenhouse gases are one of the many factors of global warming trends, and arguably the biggest contributing factor of human-induced (anthropogenic) global warming. Carbon dioxide is the one we most frequently talk about because the National Academy of Sciences and Climate.org explain that it’s the one that is probably most responsible for the current warming trend. However, other greenhouse gases do contribute to global warming, including water vapor, methane, CFCs, tropospheric ozone, and nitrous oxides. But, what confuses many people is the fact that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide have been helping to keep the earth warm for a very long time. And, it’s a good thing they’ve been around because the earth would be a very cold place without them, too cold for most life, according to the EPA. For more on any of the greenhouse gases, including the lesser known and indirect greenhouse gases, visit GHG Online.

The problem that most scientists are worried about is not that greenhouse gases have the ability keep the earth warm and stable. Instead, it’s that greenhouse gases also have the ability to make earth too warm and cause instability because of that. Most scientists now agree that we are emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the natural carbon cycle can process, which will cause increasing temperatures from the greenhouse effect. For more on the greenhouse effect, read this page by Climate.org. As this graph from the United Nations shows, a rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere strongly correlates with rises in global temperatures throughout the measurable record of history in the Vostok Ice Core.

Our climate on earth is very sensitive to even the smallest changes in temperature. And according to the NOAA, temperatures have been rising since the late 1800’s and a change of only a couple degrees Celsius could lead to many changes in many aspects of our climate. This is why greenhouse gases are often associated with the idea of climate change. Climate change in turn could have far-reaching impacts on humans and all other life because we depend so heavily on a stable climate.

So is it “global warming” or “climate change”?
If you’re confused by how society often uses “climate change” and “global warming” to mean the same thing, read this page by the National Science Foundation and Carleton College to understand how these complex definitions are currently used. In a real basic sense, “global warming” means just the rise in global temperatures, while “climate change” means changes in climate, including temperature, precipitation, weather, etc. Regardless of which of these terms people use nowadays, they are usually referring to the same thing, the human-induced (anthropogenic) cause and effect relationship between warming temperatures as the cause and changing climate as the result. In other words, they usually mean that the impact humans are having on our environment is causing higher temperatures, or “global warming,” which could lead to the more complex process of “climate change.”

Come on, is climate change really that bad?
Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly how bad climate change could be. Scientists’ inability to reasonably predict all of the outcomes and how severe those outcomes could be is one of the most unsettling characteristics of climate change.

However, even though scientists don’t know the exact levels of impact climate change will have, they can reasonably predict that negative impacts will include a rise of sea level, a toll on ecosystems, impact on agriculture & food supply, a taxing of our water supply, and serious human health effects. Other effects may include huge economic and social repercussions because of how heavily we depend on the stability of our climate to support our civilization. For a general understanding of how the science of climate change may play out, read this page by Climate.org. Then, for more about the different effects, click on the topic of your choice in the left-hand toolbar of climate.org or check out the EPA’s health and environmental effects of climate change. Also, check out the EPA’s site on how specific parts of the world and U.S. might be affected.

Isn’t global climate change more complex than greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect?
Yes. Global climate change is very complex and can be caused by many processes. Also, the systems that cause climate change have countless contributing factors, many of which are interrelated by either enhancing or mitigating each other. We often refer to these interrelated processes as positive or negative feedback loops.

For a more complete understanding of climate change from start to finish, the National Academy of Sciences’ Facts and Our Future Exhibit is a phenomenal resource! It walks you through what climate change is, what causes it, how humans are affecting it, and some of the possible results complete with pictures and thorough explanations of every concept.

Climate change’s various processes also take place over varying timescales. Check out the NOAA’s Climate TimeLine to begin to learn about the complexity of climate change through the scale of different changes over the whole course of earth’s history. By clicking on any of the timeframes, you can get an idea of what kinds of changes can take place in that amount of time. It also explains specific climatic events and trends that actually have occurred in the timeline.


Still have questions or want more material?
If you still have unanswered questions, check out all the questions and answers from Dr. Global Change. The NOAA also has common questions and answers. If your question has not already been asked to one of these places, then ask Dr. Global Change by clicking on the “Ask a Question” Tab in the top right corner of the site.

If you’re looking for visual depictions of climate change concepts to better understand the science or to show in your classroom, check out the educational graphics from the NOAA and the vital climate graphics from the United Nations Environment Programme.

For a list of global warming videos and DVDs with summaries of each one, click here.

If you’re a student or anyone doing research on climate change and need access to the reports issued by major climate change conferences and panels, check out the U.S. GCRIO’s Online Library. They also have a catalog for free climate change resources that you can order. For example, check out the Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report from the IPCC!

Search for additional resources through the National Science Foundation's stellar list of global warming sites with super helpful reviews on each one or Clean Air Cool Planet’s climate science links.


What is a carbon footprint?
The carbon footprint of a human or a building or a company is an estimation of the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere by one’s daily activities of living, moving, and operating. The greenhouse gases are estimated in terms of the equivalent effect they would have if they were all carbon dioxide, so that’s why it’s called a “carbon footprint.” Read
Carbon Footprint™ for more information.

How do we figure out what our school’s carbon footprint is?
Measuring your school’s carbon footprint is a great way to raise school awareness about climate change and an opportunity to educate students about climate change in the classroom. You may also be able to use the results of a carbon inventory to help raise community awareness and support for certain green improvements you can make in your school district.

To find out your school’s carbon footprint, try one of the following calculators…

  • The Clean Air Cool Planet Campus Carbon Calculator is tailored for colleges and universities, but can be applied to your K-12 school. The easy-to-use Excel sheets will guide you through collecting the information you need.
  • The School Neutral Carbon Footprint Calculator is designed specifically for K-12 schools by a high school student with help from Live Neutral.
  • The EPA’s Climate Change Emissions Calculator (CHECK) for schools is half-way down this page. Students can learn first-hand how human activities impact the climate not only by estimating their school’s greenhouse gas emissions, but also by being challenged to find ways to cut down those emissions.
  • The Emissions Calculator from Abraxas Energy Consulting is a quick n’ easy way to estimate your building’s likely emissions by type of pollutant and over the time period you want considering the source you want to examine. You can look at one month, a year, or even a comparison of multiple years.
If you or your students are interested in estimating your personal carbon footprints, check out MSN’s green calculator, the Carbon Footprint’s™ Calculator, the EPA’s Personal Emissions Calculator, or the American Forests’ climate change calculator.


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