While climate change isn’t always fast, its effects show up over time. Take the average temperature of the Earth. In the last 140 years or so, the average air temperature of the planet has risen nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit.
Other signs of climate change include the decreasing size of the polar ice caps, the increasing number of extreme weather events, and changing rain patterns. While some people still debate the very existence of climate change, most scientists agree that it is real and a potential danger to humans.
That might lead you to wonder, “What are the main causes of climate change?” Let’s start with the causes.
What Are the Main Causes of Climate Change?
When you get right down to it, there aren’t that many sources of climate change. Let’s explore the biggest ones below.
Probably the most direct contributor to climate change is the concentration of greenhouse gases that end up in our atmosphere. Greenhouse gases essentially trap heat inside the earth’s atmosphere, rather than letting it escape into the cold vacuum of space.
Now, the atmosphere of the planet already does this to an extent. It’s part of what keeps the planet a livable place. By adding greenhouse gases to artificially high levels, though, humans amplify the greenhouse effect.
Over time, that generates extra heat that slowly drives the average temperature higher. The overall concentration of greenhouse gases has nearly doubled in the atmosphere in the last century. That may help explain why the increase in the earth’s temperature has sped up in recent decades.
Types of Greenhouse Gases
Humans create greenhouse gases with everything from industrial activity to driving to the grocery store. There are several common types of greenhouse gases, including:
- Carbon dioxide
- Nitrous oxide
The most common source of these greenhouse gases is burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately, we burn fossil fuels for everything from transportation to energy production to basic heat.
Another major cause of climate change is massive deforestation on a global scale. A single full-grown tree can scrub nearly 50 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air per year. Now imagine was an acre or 50 acres of forest can do for the air.
Unfortunately, forests are often a prime target for agricultural expansion. A common reason for deforestation is the expansion of grazing land for cattle. Industrial farming of cash crops like soy also plays a role.
For a sense of the scale of deforestation, approximately 124 million acres of forest were lost to deforestation between 2015 and 2020.
While manmade causes still serve as the main drivers for climate change, there are other causes as well. Changes in astronomical activity, for example, can affect the climate.
There are two possible pieces of astronomical activity that might affect the climate. One possible cause is sunspot activity. When sunspots reach a low ebb, it can drive a slight cooling of the earth, while peak sunspot activity might drive a slight heat increase.
Another possible source of climate change comes from solar wind activity, although most scientists view solar winds as a negligible driver for climate change.
A more immediate and natural driver for climate change is volcano activity. Historically, major eruptions caused noticeable changes in weather activity and the climate.
When a volcano erupts, it can drive gases and particulates up to the level of the stratosphere. While particulate materials like volcanic ash will typically clear over the course of several weeks, the gases are another matter.
Of particular interest are sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. The injection of extra carbon dioxide could potentially speed up global warming. The injection of sulfur dioxide could actually promote global cooling.
As sulfur dioxide breaks down, it creates sulfate aerosols that hang around in the atmosphere. Those aerosols increase the amount of solar radiation that the upper atmosphere reflects back out into space.
The less solar radiation that makes it inside the atmosphere, the less the lower atmosphere warms. That can bring about a certain level of global cooling for a period of several years.
Preventing Climate Change
The goal of preventing climate change has a number of potential avenues, each with its own proponents and detractors. Let’s explore some of the common and less common approaches to caring for the environment.
Laws and Treaties
Governments have, ironically, both a lot of power and a limited ability to prevent climate change. On the one hand, governments can sign on to treaties that address climate change. Several such treaties exist and most agree on common courses of action to limit manmade climate change.
At the practical level, governments act on those treaties by passing laws to reach the goals laid out in the treaties. A common example of such a law would be an emissions reduction law for automobiles. Since automobiles are a prime source of greenhouse gases, lowering their emissions should help stave off climate change.
Governments can also pass laws or design programs intended to encourage the development of alternative energy. For example, the U.S. government offered substantial tax incentives to homeowners who installed residential solar panel systems on their homes.
Governments can also directly subsidize alternative energy industries with tax breaks or even direct investment.
Some governments are also committed to reforestation projects. While reforestation alone won’t solve the problem, it can help limit the problem.
On the individual front, there is a lot of focus on sustainable living or, minimally, zero carbon footprint living. This approach focuses on lifestyle choices that reduce the individual’s impact on the environment.
For example, industrial agriculture has a demonstrably negative effect on the environment. So, sustainable living proponents encourage individuals to grow some of their own food and to buy from local food producers. The less distance your food travels, the less fossil fuel use it takes to put it on your plate.
Sustainable living advocates also encourage sustainable design in terms of homes. For example, you might use lumber and recycled stone as the main materials. You’d also use design to maximize the efficiency of your home in terms of water and energy use.
Less extreme activities might include solar power or solar thermal systems at your home to minimize dependence on fossil fuel-derived grid electricity. Even basic recycling can help reduce your carbon footprint by ensuring materials get reused.
If you live somewhere it’s practical, you can walk or bike to nearby locations. You can also use public transit to go places when time isn’t a pressing concern.
Climate change and technologies have a sometimes tense relationship. On the one hand, any kind of mass-produced technology will inevitably involve serious energy use that depends at least in part on fossil fuel use. Plastic components also rely on oils that, more often than not, are fossil-fuel based.
While solar panels offer an excellent way to offset your grid dependence, they still come out of a manufacturing process. Wind farms are another popular alternative to traditional power plants, but someone must make the metal components. Shaping metal takes a lot of heat, and that heat must come from somewhere.
On the home front, people can invest in energy-efficient appliances. They can weatherize their homes so that they lose less heat in the winter and retain more cool air in the summer. In locations where it’s practical, you can invest in an electric car to cut down on your fossil use.
Direct Air Capture
Some companies are looking for technologies that will directly aid the planet, such as direct air capture technologies. Direct air capture technologies, in a nutshell, suck in air from the outside.
The devices then remove some of the carbon dioxide directly from that air and trap it. The cleaner air goes back out into the atmosphere, while the carbon dioxide gets packaged.
Ideally, that carbon dioxide gets sold off to industries that can make use of it. The alternative is that the company pumps the carbon dioxide deep beneath the surface of the earth.
Again, direct carbon dioxide capture cannot solve the problem by itself. The technologies involved often use a lot of energy, which is hard to offset using only alternative energy sources. It is, however, another possible tool that can help limit manmade climate change.
Climate Change and Caring for the Planet
The question of what are the main causes of climate change only has a small handful of answers. Human beings are one the biggest causes as the main source of greenhouse gases and deforestation.
The bigger question becomes how people can care for the planet in a more sustainable way. Governments do their part with laws that force more sustainable behaviors.
Individuals must commit to lifestyles that reduce their use of fossil fuels. With luck, businesses will innovate technologies that help reduce climate change.
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