This is an introduction to the causes, impacts and solutions of climate change, with links through to evidence and further reading. It is the linked version of these infographics, which you can download and print. We are often asked for basic and accessible explanations, and we hope this post is helpful.
Climate change: the causes
Ecocide is destruction of the natural world, which has reduced climate stability. Colonial industrial civilisations have plundered wilderness with agriculture, mining, fishing and logging. The displacement, genocide and enslavement of people has accompanied failure by colonisers to steward and replenish land.
The combustion of coal, oil and gas has caused excessive emissions of CO2 and other gases. More of these gases in the atmosphere create a ‘greenhouse effect‘ trapping the sun’s radiation. This heats the air, land and ocean, and melts the permanent ice.
Companies depend on fossil fuels, and their subsidiary plastics and chemicals to increase yields and transportability of their goods. In turn, they encourage us to use these fuels and products. Cities have grown and people live longer, but there is much inequality and the planet is under great strain as limits to growth have been reached.
Fossil-fuelled denial and predatory delay
Human-caused climate change was evidenced by science first by Eunice Foote in 1856 and by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. Impacts were felt increasingly in the 20th century, for example in prolonged famine in Africa in the 1970s. Fossil fuel industries accepted the science but formed a powerful lobby to deny it, so they could delay climate action to continue profiting. They are now taking over some of our democracies.
Climate change itself
Ice melting means less white surface to reflect heat back up. Drought worsens forest fires, which emits more CO2. Severe storms flatten vegetation and strip soil. The loss of green land cover, and warmer acidic oceans, means the planet cannot absorb so much CO2. Methane, a powerful GHG, is released from melting permafrost. These are called feedback effects, which lead to tipping points in destabilising the planet’s systems.
In summary: complex causes
- Treating nature as an expendable resource and consuming more than is replaced
- Rapid burning of fossil fuels
- Economic dependence on fossil fuels and offshoot products.
Climate change: the impacts
2001 to 2019 have been 18 of the 19 warmest in 137 years. Global temperatures increased by 0.9C since 1880. Warming has caused sea levels to rise 80mm since 1993. Heatwaves and drought are threatening food supplies and are a global health hazard.
In 2016 the Arctic land surface was 2C above average for 1981-2010, a 3.5C rise since 1900. Two thirds of Arctic sea ice have gone. Greenland’s glaciers are also melting seven times faster than in the 1990s. In the South, warming oceans are melting Antarctic glaciers from below, faster than expected.
Global warming means oceans are expanding, so the water rises. Melting ice also contributes, faster now as Antarctic ice shelves calve and fragment. Higher sea levels combined with bigger storms are dangerous. Heavier, moving seas are making earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis worse.
Feedback effects and tipping points
Arctic warming has disturbed normal wind and ocean movements so the Northern Polar Vortex is collapsing. Less white surface on the planet means more absorption of the sun’s heat. This has added 25% warming on top of CO2 emissions. If all the ice goes, the effects will cause another 50% of warming.
Weather events are more frequent, extreme or prolonged, and happen in unusual times or places. In combination, impacts are even worse: There’s heavy rain on dry ground, or high wind on dried out crops. With each disaster, it is harder for places to recover. Wild habitats decline and species move or die out.
In summary: What this means…
- Social and economic collapse
- More refugees, and conflict over resources
- Time for an expansion of thinking and more care.
Climate change: some solutions in your grasp
Be the change
Stop flying. Eat more plants and less meat. Cycle or use public transport. Switch to a renewable energy supplier. Recycle, reuse, mend, swap and share things like tools, electronics, clothes and furniture. Buy local food and grow your own.
Look honestly at the planet’s changes, learn about how it is impacting people around the world, and then follow your heartbreak. Beyond this, some positive feelings can come from living smaller and kinder. Give up the race to earn money for things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like!
Divest from fossil fuel funds
Switch your personal finances to ethical funds. Ask organisations you are involved in if they will divest and stop using fossil fuels. Expose the power of the Carbon Lobby, and reduce their profits too.
Work differently for a regenerative economy
If you can, choose work that is planet-friendly. Create a business that cares, or that leads on ecological innovation. If you can’t choose your work, try to influence your employer to change, for example to contribute to a Circular Economy, or Doughnut Economics. Work fewer days and commute less.
Stand up and get involved
Keep learning and ask media to tell the truth. Vote, stand for office, and ask politicians for radical and urgent green policies. Push for an Ecocide Law. Consider non-violent direct action, such as striking, or barricading fossil fuel projects.
In summary: action brings hope
- Lower your footprint to mitigate climate impacts
- Build resilience to adapt to climate impacts
- Be regenerative for a post-carbon world.
10 charts that summarise the climate crisis
350.org’s basic climate science resource
some climate basics in our digital collection
Project Drawdown is a comprehensive plan for tackling climate change
Learn more about climate denial and corruption
Our growing collection of links to climate books, articles and stories