So you want to be a climate scientist?

Test your climate literacy and find out how we all influence climate change in part one of our new series on climate communication.

As we all know, climate change is an increasing problem around the world and in our communities. Yet as individuals, it can often be hard to know how to make a difference. In this post, we’ll briefly outline the basics behind climate science. Then, we’ll delve into details of why climate change matters, what impacts we’re already experiencing and could see in the future, and how we can make a difference with our knowledge.

What is climate literacy?
Being “climate literate” means that you understand basic principles behind the Earth’s climate system. You understand how humans and our society influence the Earth’s climate, and how the Earth’s climate influences us and our society.

Determining the difference between climate and weather is an important part of climate literacy. Weather is the day-to-day, hour-by-hour changes in the conditions in a specific area. Climate is determined by the long-term patterns of temperature and precipitation averages on a broader scale.

The sun is the main energy source for the planet’s climate system. Much of the sunlight that reaches the earth directly heats the land, the ocean, and the atmosphere. Some sunlight, however, reflects back into space by bouncing off surfaces like clouds or the polar ice caps. This greenhouse effect is a natural mechanism that keeps the planet livable; heat-trapping gases like water vapor and carbon dioxide keep the planet’s surface warm enough for life. But the natural greenhouse effect is amplified to a dangerous level by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal that release carbon dioxide. This is unnatural warming is known as climate change.

Since the earth’s systems and processes are so interconnected, a significant change in one part of the system—such as the composition of gases in the atmosphere—means other systems are also unbalanced. So too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has an influence beyond simply warming the atmosphere—the ocean, for example, absorbs more carbon dioxide, which causes problems for creatures like shellfish.

How do humans influence the climate?
Our activities are disrupting the climate system. Around 97% of climate scientists agree that the increase in global average temperatures in recent decades is due to human activities, mostly the burning of fossil fuels and the substantial change in land cover, such as wide-scale deforestation.

Besides the direct warming of the atmosphere, climate change has other consequences for our planet and for the organisms that depend on a stable climate, including humans. Particularly in southern New England, sea level rise caused by the combination of melting Arctic ice and expanding warm seawater is a major concern. When alongside increasing incidents of extreme weather, sea level rise poses a big threat. In many parts of the world, the most vulnerable and poorest populations live in low-lying coastal areas—just one of many examples of the disproportionate affects of climate change on those least responsible and least able to adapt.

Why does this matter?

Even if we start acting to halt climate change tomorrow, the natural processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are a lot slower than those adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere are. Scientists now say that we’re “locked in” to a certain level of warming regardless of future emissions—so we need to start adapting and preparing ourselves while still reducing emissions and trying to limit the damage too.

If we want to be less vulnerable as a society to the impacts of climate change, we need to understand the science—we need to be climate literate—but we also need to use that knowledge effectively in our lives. Personal changes will have to go hand-in-hand with changes on a larger scale to protect our world. And many of the changes to help reduce the impact of climate change are also going to help out people right now—such as improved public health infrastructure and more sustainable methods of transportation.

Cartoon by Joel Pett.
Cartoon by Joel Pett.

The next posts in this series will talk about how to talk about climate change with the people around you—and actions that we can all take to help our planet. We’re also looking forward to big news on climate from the Pope. Stay tuned!

Posted by Sarah Ganong, media coordinator at CFE/Save the Sound.

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