Despite steady increases in global temperatures and years of ever more deadly heat waves, we are not doing anywhere near enough to combat climate change. The UN describes the decades of worsening heat as an “undeniable trend” of anthropogenic warming. Last summer an article in The Atlantic said the heat was “unignorable” and hundreds of similar headlines warned us that we must act now to slow global warming. Once again this summer we are breaking heat records and adding to the vast body of evidence calling us to urgently address the climate crisis. Despite an incessant barrage of warnings, we are not doing what we must and time is rapidly running out. Year after year millions of people suffer and thousands die due to the heat and other forms of extreme weather, yet year after year emissions keep increasing. If we continue along our current trajectory the planet will keep warming and if we pass tipping points the worst impacts of climate change may become irreversible.
What is causing weather changes and extreme weather?
The cause of weather changes and extreme weather is global warming. Climate scientists tell us that normal weather is being disrupted by climate change and they also tell us that we are likely to see far more frequent and extreme weather events as the Earth continues to warm.
What is climate change?
Climate change refers to the long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns attributable to a buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the Earth’s atmosphere. GHGs are generated by human activities, like the extraction, refining, and burning of coal, oil, and gas. Although there are other causes (eg agriculture, and land use), the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the greenhouse effect and resultant global warming.
Climate change vs. global warming
The difference between climate change and global warming is largely a function of order and impact. Global warming reflects the heating of the Earth (both land and sea) while climate change is caused by global warming and reflects the range of impacts that warming temperatures have on the climate, the environment, and life on Earth (see the section on the effects of climate change below).
What is the difference between climate and weather?
The difference between climate and weather has to do with both scope and time. A heat wave is an example of weather. A heat wave is defined as a period of excessively hot temperatures relative to normal temperatures in a given area for a given season. A heat wave can be caused by local weather phenomena and climate change increases the frequency and intensity of heat waves. A heat wave is an individual weather event that may last for days or even weeks, whereas climate is the long-term weather picture and is measured in decades. As assessed by attribution science, climate impacts are not natural events as they are due to human activity (primarily the atmospheric GHGs largely from fossil fuels).
How does global warming affect weather patterns?
Studies reveal how global warming affects weather patterns. The evidence has led climate scientists to conclude that the climate crisis is making weather patterns more unpredictable and driving a significant uptick in both the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.
What causes extreme weather?
After decades of intensive study and more specifically the work of attribution science, we know that climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events. While extreme weather has always existed on Earth, global warming has increased both the frequency and the severity of these events.
According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), average temperatures around the globe are warming, and that warming appears to be accelerating. WMO data indicates that the warmest seven years have all been since 2015, with 2016, 2019, and 2020 constituting the top three, NOAA data indicates that the last eight years have been the hottest on record and nine of the last ten years are the warmest on record. Every decade since the 80s has been warmer than the preceding decade and the period from 2020-2030 is on track to be warmer still.
Month after month, year after year decade after decade temperature records keep being broken. We have seen 450 consecutive months with temperatures above the twentieth-century average and 45 consecutive years with above-average global land and ocean temperatures. We have not seen a month with below-average temperatures in 38 years. The steady increase in global average temperatures is made clear in the graphic below.
A vast pool of climate change statistics makes an irrefutable case for global warming and scientists have also amassed vast quantities of evidence for climate change. While the origin of global warming started with the dawn of the industrial revolution in 1880 the warming trend began around 1910. Accelerated warming commenced around 1975 and continues to this day.
Scientists have been warning us about climate change for a century and these warnings have dramatically increased in the last few decades. In 1988 James Hansen testified about the veracity and threat posed by anthropogenic climate change in front of Congress. The large and growing body of evidence indicating that the Earth is warming is irrefutable. The constellation of observations in climatology and environmental science has forged a consensus among climatologists, and environmental scientists. It is an unassailable fact that average global temperatures on that planet are increased (at least 1.1° Celsius or1.9° Fahrenheit since 1880). This video by Ed Hawkins at NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio effectively illustrates the warming trend.
Last summer temperatures soared above 40 C (!04 F) across Europe and Italy and Spain saw temperatures exceeding 48 C. According to AccuWeather, the summer of 2021 was the hottest ever in the contiguous US and the heat wave in BC was the deadliest weather event in Canadian history. New Zealand recorded the hottest winter ever last year and scientists are attributing this and other extreme heat readings to climate change.
Unsurprisingly the heat continued in 2022. Every month so far this year (January – June) has ranked within the top 10 hottest months on record. June 2022 was the sixth hottest June on record and July was the third hottest July on record. This year is expected to be in the top 10 hottest years, with a small chance of it being the hottest year on record.
A spring heat wave in Pakistan caused temperatures to soar to almost 49°C in May. Once again this summer temperatures soared as a heat wave engulfed Europe with 19 countries breaking records. As the UK set a record for the hottest day ever (over 40C), 100 million Americans from Phoenix to Boston were under heat alerts. Large swaths of the U.S. recorded temperatures over 100 F (37.7C) and China issued its highest heat alerts for the second heat wave to hit the country in the month of July.
While weather should not be confused with climate, these frequent and severe heat waves are increasingly being linked to climate change. Attribution science concludes that many of the ever-increasing temperature readings around the world are due to a warming world. Al Jazeera reported on an analysis from The World Weather Attribution group, which concluded that the climate crisis has made South Asia heat waves 30 times more likely. The UK heatwave was described as 10 times more likely due to climate change according to World Weather Attribution. Research also suggests that temperatures are getting hotter faster than their models predicted. The most convincing evidence for climate change can be found in the graphic below titled global temperature change history (graph).
“The complexity of the various analyses doesn’t matter because the signals are so strong,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of GISS, NASA’s leading center for climate modeling and climate change research. “The trends are all the same because the trends are so large.”
It is not just on land our oceans are warming too and this means that we are losing a vital terrestrial heat sink. There is a nexus between oceans and climate Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of the energy from GHGs. Oceans have been steadily warming and 2021 was the hottest year ever recorded. As with terrestrial heating, the consensus among scientists is that ocean warming is driven by human activity.
As mentioned above, the hottest ocean temperatures in history were recorded in 2021, making last year the sixth consecutive year to break the ocean temperature records. According to recent research, even if the world restricts warming to 1.5-2℃, marine heat waves will become four times more frequent by the end of the century. “The ocean heat content is relentlessly increasing, globally, and this is a primary indicator of human-induced climate change,” said Kevin Trenberth, climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado and the study’s co-author.
Warming in the Arctic and the Antarctic
Even more concerning is the fact that temperatures are rising even faster and regularly breaking records at the poles. The poles help to regulate global climate by counteracting the uneven distribution of global temperatures. We have seen unprecedented temperatures including a 2021 reading of 38 C in Siberia and a record-breaking heat wave in the Arctic Circle in 2022. In March, as part of what NBC described as “freakish extreme heat”, both poles saw temperatures 10 – 20 C warmer than average. The temperatures over the eastern Antarctic ice sheet soaring 32 C above normal.
As reported by France 24, climate scientist Aglaé Jezequel said heat waves are occurring earlier and lasting longer. MSN quoted scientists as saying these observations, “upended our expectations about the Antarctic climate system,” another climate scientist declared, “Antarctic climatology has been rewritten,” adding, that such temperature anomalies would have been considered “impossible” and “unthinkable” before they actually occurred.
Effects of climate change
The effects of climate change have pervasive impacts on our climate and our environment. The changing climate impacts human health, extreme weather (heat waves, storms, drought, floods) wildfires, sea level rise, climate refugees, food production, supply chains, biodiversity loss, and the global economy.
Human health impacts
Global warming and resultant climate change affect humans in a number of ways including our health. Extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and wildfires are injurious to human health, and the heat itself is deadly. As reported by the National Weather Service extreme heat is responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than any other weather-related cause, and more than flooding and hurricanes combined over the last three decades.
An investigation by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that the three-year average of worker heat deaths has doubled since the early 1990s. As reported in Science News, people’s bodies can’t handle temperatures above 35° Celsius (95° F). At these temperatures, performance declines as does overall coping mechanisms. Extreme heat undermines human health and is linked to aggression, lower cognitive ability, and lost productivity.
The U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification reports that droughts are linked to the deaths of approximately 650,000 people from 1970-2019. The Palmer index indicates that in the U.S., 2021 began with 82.0 percent of the West experiencing moderate to extreme drought which rose to 99.0 percent by the end of June 2021. As of July 2022, almost half of the US (45%) was experiencing moderate to severe drought. More than half of the EU and the UK are experiencing drought conditions causing the sources of both the Rhine and the Thames rivers to dry up. Globally in 2022, more than 2.3 billion people have faced water stress so far this year and almost 160 million children are suffering from severe and prolonged droughts.
Floods & Precipitation
Floods are another corollary of climate change that are dominating headlines in 2022. Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city was battered by torrential rain this summer and in July 550 people were killed and 42,000 homes were destroyed due to the heaviest monsoon rains in decades. in 2022 Pakistan has seen 133 percent more rain than the average over the last 30 years, while the province of Balochistan received 305 percent more rain than the annual average. The worst flooding in the history of the state of Kentucky killed at least 37 people and thousands of homes were destroyed. Within the span of a week, St. Louis and Kentucky saw 2 different 1-in-1,000-year flood events.
The climate crisis also drives wildfires. In 2021 intense heat was accompanied by deadly wildfires in Algeria, Turkey, Italy, and Greece. In 2022 record heat waves in Europe are driving wildfires in the UK, France, and Spain. In July, the London Fire Brigade battled fires across the Capital. In the U.S. California’s Oak Fire continued into August as it ravaged more than 18,000 acres while as of early August, the McKinney fire had already consumed 55,000 acres. The unprecedented wildfires in 2020 were connected to climate change as was the epidemic of wildfires in 2019. It is very likely that attribution scientists will also link more recent wildfires to climate change.
Sea Level Rise
Global warming is melting sea ice and glaciers and this is causing sea level rise. As ocean levels increase huge portions of the globe will become unlivable and people will be forced to retreat from coastlines all around the world.
Climate change is already contributing to a refugee crisis but it will get far worse as the planet warms. Sea level rise alone could cause as many as 2.4 billion people to relocate. Billions of people will be forced to flee when regions become too hot to sustain human life, people will also be forced to relocate due to droughts and other manifestations of extreme weather that threaten agricultural viability and food production.
Crops are increasingly being adversely impacted by a warming world due to more intense and frequent extreme weather events (heat waves, drought, storms, and flooding). As reported in a recent Time article, studies forecast an alarming trend for global food security as crop yields are expected to continue to decline as the planet warms.
Supply chain disruptions
Climate change also interferes with food distribution and weather shocks exacerbate supply chain disruptions. As quoted in the Time article, David Laborde, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said, there is “strong evidence” that weather shocks are linked to climate change and global warming.
Biodiversity loss is another impact of global warming and this has implications for the entire web of life. A warming planet is not only injurious to human health it can also be lethal for animals and plants. Global warming undermines environmental health and contributes to a wide range of destructive environmental impacts including habitat loss and species extinction.
There are a plethora of economic impacts associated with global warming. Rising global temperatures have been shown to have a clear impact on economic activity. Climate change exacts a multi-trillion dollar price tag and these costs keep increasing. Extreme heat on its own adversely impacts productivity and contributes to supply chain disruptions. According to a 2022 report called Drought in Numbers, droughts alone caused 124 billion in global economic losses between 1998 and 2017.
Causes of climate change
The fossil fuel industry and Republican lawmakers
The primary cause of climate change is the increase in GHG emissions primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. Oil companies and the politicians that protect them bare the primary responsibility for climate change. Almost three-quarters of the GHGs generated by humans come from energy connected almost entirely to the burning of fossil fuels.
Even without climate change, fossil fuels kill millions of people every year. As if Republican opposition to democracy, gun safety, and reproductive rights were not enough, the GOP also protects the fossil fuel industry and opposes sensible climate legislation. In defiance of incontrovertible evidence and popular opinion, the Republican party has done its utmost to kill climate action that would radically slash emissions in the US.
We know what we have to do to combat climate change and ending fossil fuels is at the top of the list. The only way to stop climate change (or more accurately slow climate change) is to cease emitting carbon and other GHGs into the atmosphere and this means we must stop burning hydrocarbons. This is not only the most important solution to the climate crisis, it is the only way we can tackle climate change. If we seek to create a livable future for our children and grandchildren we must ride fossil fuels into the ground. As explained by José Luis García, head of Climate Change at Greenpeace Spain, “The energy crisis and the climate crisis have the same root, which is fossil fuels. The only way to solve both problems is to reduce their use until they are no longer used at all.”
It is too late to prevent global warming, and we may not be able to completely stop it but we can slow it down enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The Biden administration has shown historic climate leadership. Under the leadership of President Joe Biden, the Democrats have passed a climate-friendly infrastructure bill and on August 6 an even more important climate and energy bill squeaked through the first round of voting in the Senate. The $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act is the largest climate bill in American history. CNN describes it as the “biggest victory for the environmental movement since the landmark Clean Air Act”. It includes incentives for wind, solar, green buildings, EVs, and green agriculture that will reduce US carbon emissions by up to 40 percent by 2030. The bill will pay for itself and reduce the deficit. It is also expected to provide 1.5 million new jobs in manufacturing and other sectors.
“This isn’t about the laws of politics, this is about the laws of physics,” Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii told CNN. “We all knew coming into this effort that we had to do what the science tells us what we need to do.” This bill will put the U.S. on a par with world-leading climate actors in Europe and give the U.S. credibility and leverage it needs to secure the support of other global leaders at COP 27 later this year in Egypt.
Accepting anthropogenic climate change as an unequivocal fact
It is no longer outlandish to suggest that a majority of people may finally come together around the facts. We may finally acknowledge the fact that climate change is a global threat and we must do everything we can to address it. As explained by NASA administrator Bill Nelson, “Science leaves no room for doubt: climate change is the existential threat of our time.”
While we may be beginning to act, the road ahead is anything but easy. There are powerful headwinds that are slowing climate action and many questions that remain to be answered. Will climate efforts in Europe falter due to Russia’s war in Ukraine? Will China’s withdrawal from climate cooperation with the U.S. be permanent? Will U.S. climate action be reversed if Republicans come to power? It remains to be seen whether we can overcome obstacles that block the way, but as of today, we can say that we are moving in the right direction.