What climate change is

What climate change is and how it affects us

Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Human activities have been the main driver of climate change. This is primarily because we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, which release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Climate change can affect our health, ability to grow food, housing, safety and work. Some people and countries are more vulnerable to climate impacts, which can include disasters such as flooding, droughts and air pollution.

Across the world nations are working together to tackle climate change and its negative impacts. Along with the UK, 195 countries adopted the Paris agreement in 2015 - an international treaty on climate change.

Current trends and impacts in climate change

In the last 100 years, we have already experienced a 1 degree Celsius rise in average temperatures. Scientists predict this trend will continue, if there are no considerable reductions in carbon emissions.

The impacts of this temperature rise include:

  • warmer temperatures
  • increased rainfall
  • flooding
  • increased storms
  • increased risk of drought

These impacts are likely to:

  • influence health and wellbeing risks, especially for vulnerable people
  • increase the risk of water supply shortages
  • increase the risk of infrastructure failures, for example, transport routes closing, electricity cuts and insecurity of supplies

Food security will be at risk, potentially new pests could be brought into environments and threaten natural habitats. There could be an increase in the costs of maintaining our infrastructure and an increasing demand across service provision, especially healthcare.

Myth busting

The Earth's climate has always changed

Over the course of the Earth's 4.5 billion year history, the climate has changed a lot. This is true. But the rapid warming we're seeing now can't be explained by natural cycles of warming and cooling. The kinds of changes that would normally happen over hundreds of thousands of years are happening in decades. Global temperatures are now at their highest since records began. In fact, 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have all taken place since 2001.

Global warming can't be real because it's still cold

Global warming is causing the Earth's average surface temperature to increase. This is not only making heatwaves and droughts more likely, it's also causing changes to our natural climate systems. These changes are making extreme weather events more likely and more severe. Hurricanes and storms are getting more intense, moving slower and taking longer to die down. Because of where we are, the UK and Ireland are likely to get more rain and wind as a result of climate change.

Climate change is a future problem

This is no longer an excuse not to act on climate change and push the burden onto future generations. Last year, the world's leading climate scientists warned that we only have 12 years to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5C and avoid climate breakdown by reducing our global greenhouse gas emissions.

We're already seeing the devastating effects of climate change on global food supplies, increasing migration, conflict, disease and global instability, and this will only get worse if we don't act now.

Important climate change terms

Emission

Emissions refer to greenhouse gases released into the air that are produced by numerous activities, including things like burning fossil fuels, industrial agriculture and melting permafrost. These gases cause heat to be trapped in the atmosphere, slowly increasing the Earth's temperature over time.

The greenhouse effect

Carbon is in all living things on Earth. As plants and animals die, they get buried in the ground. After enough years, these squished underground remains can turn into fossil fuels like coal and oil. When we burn those fuels, the carbon that was in the ground goes into the air as a gas called carbon dioxide, or CO2. Plants and trees can absorb some of this extra carbon dioxide. But a lot of it stays in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas that warms up the planet. 

Net zero

Net zero refers to a state in which the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by removal out of the atmosphere.

Decarbonisation

This refers to all the measures though which a business, government, organisation or person reduces its carbon footprint, primarily its greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce its impact on the climate. Examples could include decarbonising electricity by switching to solar panels.

What is the government doing about climate change?

The Greenpeace website has information on what the UK is doing about climate change.

The BBC website has information about whether the UK is on track to meet its climate change targets.