CLIMATE SCIENCE

Why climate matters: What science tells us about climate change

Rampant greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and putting life on earth at risk. Reducing carbon dioxide pollution is key to solving the climate crisis.

Since the industrialization, humans have been exploiting the earth’s resources increasingly intensely. Economic developments and rising consumption, especially in the Western world, meant that ever more fossil fuels have been burnt to supply energy and produce goods. In addition, more land is being used, and farming and food production have been intensified to ever more industrial levels. Alongside more consumption, more and more waste is being accumulated.

Achieving this lifestyle has come at a great cost: Due to the emissions from burning fossil fuels especially since the 1950s, greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have risen to levels far beyond those needed for life on earth to continue as normal. These emissions, shown below as CO2 equivalents (CO2eq), stem mainly from electricity, heat production and land-use as. They now endanger life on Earth.

  • Active Philanthropy (2020) Climate Philanthropy Guide “Funding the Future – How the climate crisis intersects with your giving”, p.7

The now rampant levels of greenhouse gases, especially of carbon dioxide, work like a blanket which traps heat within the earth’s atmosphere. And the thicker this blanket gets as a result of ever more CO2 emissions, the more heat it traps. Science shows that the planet today is already about 1°C hotter compared to average temperatures before the industrial age.1  It is also warming faster. Without any changes to the emissions output, it will be more than 4°C hotter by 2100.2

Like a chain of dominoes, the rising temperatures have many knock-on effects that further disrupt the balance of life on earth. The animal and plant life that forms carefully adjusted living systems is already facing the death of more than one million species as a result of climate change.3

And the thicker this blanket gets as a result of ever more CO2 emissions, the more heat it traps. In recent years, this effect has set temperature records in various parts of the world, as the chart below shows.

  • Active Philanthropy (2020) Climate Philanthropy Guide “Funding the Future – How the climate crisis intersects with your giving”, p.10

The warming of the planet jeopardises the oceans’ ability to regulate the earth’s climate by moving heat and moisture through wind and currents. Sea levels rise as ice melts and flows into the oceans, especially in Greenland. The warmer water again speeds up the further melting of ice sheets and glaciers. Scientists expect that a melting of the Greenland ice could raise sea levels by up to seven more metres if the warming of the planet is not limited to 1.5°C.4

Because the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide than is healthy for them, their chemistry also changes and they become more acidic. Like bones that turn brittle, they lose calcium carbonate which, in turn, disrupts the health and stability of marine life. Especially at risk are coral reefs, which protect coast lines, break down carbon dioxide and act as the oceans’ purification system.

As the earth’s energy balance is disturbed, weather events are getting more extreme. Storms, floods, pollution, heat and droughts will become increasingly severe and affect the health, well-being and livelihoods of humans across the world. More hunger, poverty, social injustice as well as economic and political instability are knock-on effects if global warming continues unabated.

More than 97 per cent of climate scientists are warning that only a limited amount of time remains to contain and mitigate the harmful effects of climate change.5  If societies continue to emit carbon dioxide at the current rate, a warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels becomes unavoidable within only seven years, and within 25 years, the climate system will be locked into a temperature level that is 2°C warmer.6  The situation would become exponentially worse once climate change reaches certain tipping points, such as the melting of the Arctic permafrost or the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. By the time today’s teenagers are in their eighties, the planet could be on track for an unstoppable warming of 4°C.7

In the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the international community agreed to keep the planet’s warming within 1.5°C by 2100. However, in order to reach this, greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced rapidly and brought to zero within the next thirty years. As of yet, the commitments of national governments would lead to a warming by at least 3°C.

The situation would become exponentially worse once climate change reaches certain tipping points. In the chart below are listed some of the main climate tipping points, such as the Arctic sea ice or the Amazon rainforest.

  • Active Philanthropy (2020) Climate Philanthropy Guide “Funding the Future – How the climate crisis intersects with your giving”, p.9

The good news is that the solutions to fix the climate crisis are available even now – from more sustainable energies, to more energy-efficient infrastructure, buildings and transport systems, as well as greener farming and food production. There is no one silver bullet to solve the problem of climate change, yet there is plenty of effective silver buckshot to choose from to accelerate the move towards a carbon-free, climate-safe future. Climate philanthropists and social investors can affect change in key sectors and regions or strengthen levers for climate action.

If you would like to find out more about philanthropic options for climate action, go here.