What is climate change?

Climate change is the long-term shift in the Earth’s weather patterns and average temperatures. The changes occur on a vast scale and result in the rising temperatures of our atmosphere and oceans due to increased CO2 levels.

Climate change can affect sea levels, tidal patterns, and the survival of some of the Earth’s most endangered species. Unless we work to reverse the effects of climate change, we risk the future of all life on Earth. But it’s not too late to act – here’s what you need to know about climate change and how you can help fight it. 

Global warming and greenhouse gases

The greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring process that happens when the Earth’s atmosphere traps heat from the sun, and radiates it back towards the Earth’s surface. It’s what keeps the world at a comfortable temperature and it’s essential to support life on Earth.

But we’re adding to this effect with the greenhouse gases released from industry, fossil fuels, and agriculture. As more carbon emissions make their way into the atmosphere, the temperature of the planet rises. This is known as global warming – and it’s not a good thing.

What are the causes of climate change?

The main causes of climate change are carbon emissions generated by energy (produced from fossil fuels), transport, and the production of meat and dairy.

Natural causes of climate change

While plants, animals, and volcanoes can impact the levels of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, they account for a tiny portion of carbon emissions compared to those caused by human activity.

In fact, plants and vegetation absorb around half of greenhouse gases produced by humans – so they’re actually reducing the amount that would have otherwise ended up in our atmosphere.

Human causes of climate change

The biggest cause of climate change is human activity and industrialisation, including:

  • The use of fossil fuels (like coal, oil, and gas) in energy production
  • Animal agriculture, which accounts for 60% of all farming CO2 emissions
  • Mass deforestation, to make way for palm oil plantations and farm land
  • Transport, including car emissions and an increase in air travel
  • The mass production of clothes, furniture, and technology

Animal agriculture and climate change

One of the biggest contributors to climate change is greenhouse gases emitted from farming animals for meat and dairy.

Aside from the carbon emissions and methane released from animal agriculture, vast areas of forest and woodland are cleared to make way for farming land. In the UK alone, more than 70% of our countryside is used for farming – which means less trees and vegetation to absorb CO2.

While the global production of meat and dairy uses up to 83% of farmland and accounts for 60% of farming greenhouse gas emissions, it only provides 18% of food calories for humans.

Evidence of climate change

The Earth’s temperature has been rising steadily since the mid 1800s, due to the increase in CO2 levels. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that the Earth’s temperature is on track to rise by 1.5°C by 2052, which could leave the effects of climate change irreversible.

A graph showing the rapid rise of CO2 levels

The graph above shows carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations (in parts per million) for the last 1000 years.

What are the effects of climate change?

Climate change affects every living thing on planet Earth – here are some of the ways the rise in CO2 levels is already changing the natural world:

  • Higher temperatures. Global temperatures have increased by 1°C since the 1850s – around the time of the Industrial Revolution. 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have fallen since 2001, and the IPCC have warned that once global warming reaches 2°C the effects of climate change could be irreversible.
  • Change in rainfall. Average rainfall has increased since the start of the 20th century, and there have been seasonality changes all over the world. Intensive rainfall in some areas results in flooding and landslides, which causes communities to be pushed out of their homes.
  • Rising sea levels. Sea levels have risen more in recent decades – from 1.7mm per year in the last century, to 3.3mm per year since the 1990s. Rising water levels result in the destruction of coastal habitats, and agricultural soil contamination. Higher sea levels mean more powerful storm surges, and the risk of serious flooding to hundreds of millions of people who live in coastal areas.
  • Melting ice caps. Vast expanses of ice, like the Arctic and Antarctic, reflect heat from the sun away from the Earth’s surface. They’re crucial for the survival of wildlife that thrive in colder climates. Aside from the impact on rising sea levels, melting ice caps mean the loss of habitat for species like polar bears, penguins, whales, seals, and Arctic wolves and foxes.

How to help fight climate change

There’s so much you can do to help fight climate change. Here are four simple things you can do to help make a difference:

  • Switch to green energy. Fossil fuels are one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and we need to stop mining for coal, oil and gas in order to save our planet. Switching to green energy means you can cut your personal carbon emissions, and put cleaner energy back into the grid.
  • Eat less meat and dairy. Switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet can have a huge impact on your carbon footprint, with meat and dairy production accounting for 60% of farming’s greenhouse gas emissions. Find out how to go vegan.
  • Use your car less. Transport is now the leading cause of climate change, accounting for 27% of all greenhouse gases in the UK in 2017. Try walking, cycling, or using public transport when you make your next journey. You could even try switching to an electric vehicle.
  • Buy less stuff. Clothes, furniture and gadgets all carry a high carbon footprint – they rely on energy for production, and often rack up staggering mileage in deliveries. Buying less stuff will have a huge impact on reducing waste, which will have a positive impact on the environment.

For more information on other ways you can help the planet, read our guide on how to combat climate change.