Climate Change: A 2023 Primer

Climate change is a term used to describe the long-term shift in the average weather patterns of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. This shift is largely attributed to human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal for energy. When these fuels are burned, they release greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), into the atmosphere, which trap heat from the sun and cause the planet’s temperature to rise. As a result of this warming, the Earth’s climate is changing rapidly, and this has dire consequences for every aspect of human life.

One of the most immediate and obvious impacts of climate change is rising global temperatures. The Earth is currently about 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in the 19th century, and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen by 50%. If left unchecked, this warming will continue, and could reach catastrophic levels, with consequences such as worsening droughts, rising sea levels, and mass extinction of species.

Climate scientists agree that to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, global warming needs to be kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. However, unless significant action is taken, the planet could still warm by more than 2 degrees Celsius by then. Some estimates suggest that global warming could even exceed 4 degrees Celsius in the future, leading to devastating heatwaves, millions losing their homes to rising sea levels, and the irreversible loss of plant and animal species.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt across the globe, with extreme weather events becoming more intense and threatening lives and livelihoods. Further warming will make some regions uninhabitable, as farmland turns into desert. East Africa recently experienced its fifth season of failed rains, which put up to 22 million people at risk of severe hunger, according to the UN’s World Food Programme. Extreme temperatures can also increase the risk of wildfires, which have already devastated parts of Europe in recent years. In addition, hotter temperatures mean that previously frozen ground will melt in places like Siberia, releasing greenhouse gases trapped for centuries into the atmosphere, further worsening climate change.

The impacts of climate change are not limited to the land. The planet’s oceans and its habitats are also under threat, with research suggesting that between 10% and 15% of marine species are already at risk of extinction. In a warmer world, land animals will also find it harder to find the food and water they need to live, leading to the potential loss of species such as polar bears and elephants.

Climate change will have different effects across the world, with some regions experiencing extreme heatwaves and widespread drought, while others will suffer from more intense storms and flooding. Island nations in the Pacific region are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, which could cause them to disappear entirely.

Governments around the world have recognized the urgency of the climate crisis and have taken steps to address it. In 2015, nearly 200 countries signed the Paris Agreement, which committed them to working together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In November 2022, world leaders gathered in Egypt for COP27, where they made new commitments to tackling climate change.

While governments and businesses must take the lead on climate action, individuals can also play a role in limiting their impact on the climate. Simple steps such as taking fewer flights, living car-free or using an electric car, reducing consumption of meat and dairy products, reducing energy use, buying energy-efficient products, and improving home insulation can all make a difference. However, substantial changes are needed across all sectors of society to limit the worst impacts of climate change.