Climate Change and its Impact on the Environment

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Human-induced climate change has contributed to changing patterns of extreme weather across the globe, from longer and hotter heat waves to heavier rains. From a broad perspective, all types of changes in the atmosphere have effects on economic and resources and on the ecosystems which resources are part of. Several resource and economic sectors are sensitive to climate change because the climate strongly affects the levels and types of resources. Finally, climate changes have implications for international affairs because they may lead to large population movements as people flee regions that are severely affected by drought or flood. Climate change can affect human health directly or indirectly. For example, a coalition of developed western countries may try to reduce climate change through the limitation of carbon dioxide emissions per capita with large penalties or fines for exceeding the fixed amount. As a consequence, it is perceived that ecological efficiency might lead to financial savings in the energy industry.

Causes of Climate Change

The climate change is happening due to global warming and the consequences of scientific anomalies and creative, however erratic, innovative endeavors of mankind. The nature of the climate change is well defined in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. The IPCC report states that: “Climate change is a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity. This is the definition of climate change adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is ‘a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods’.

Effects of Climate Change

Changes in the climate can also result in more frequent and severe weather. Studies have suggested that there has been an increase in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes over the past 30 years. Because hurricanes get their energy from the warmth of the sea, there is a possibility that they will become stronger if sea temperatures continue to rise. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood of the storms causing damage when they reach landfall. High temperatures also have an effect on droughts and heat waves. According to the Environmental Defense Organization, the European heat wave of 2003 caused an increase in daily mortality rate by 2% to 3% and an estimated 70,000 deaths in total. Global warming can also change patterns of infectious diseases. For example, it is predicted that climate change will increase the areas in which insects that carry disease can live, thus infecting a greater number of people.

The evidence supporting the fact that the earth is getting warmer comes from studying early blooming of plants, the migration of animals to cooler regions, and most importantly, documented temperature increase in colder countries. A small temperature change globally can evidently change the world in which we live. For example, a temperature increase of 1-2 degrees will cause a change in the growing season for plants and crops, thus resulting in food shortages and a shorter harvest.

Meteorologists have warned people for years that those responsible for climate change are going to start seeing more and more nasty weather. Air pollution and global warming are changing the environment in a way that will have a negative impact on the world. The earth is becoming warmer because of an increase in the greenhouse effect, which is due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

Current Global Efforts to Address Climate Change

A number of efforts are going into help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere. The Kyoto Protocol is an agreement that was drawn up by the United Nations, which only came into effect in 2005. Its aim is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Participating countries (approximately 30) agreed to, by the end of the year 2010, reduce their emissions to a certain target level. The countries in the agreement are mostly those that are listed as more economically developed. One criticism of this agreement is that the set targets are only voluntary. The European Union has agreed to try to reduce emissions to around 8% below levels in 1990. If successful, all countries in the EU will then be able to increase their emission levels by up to 8%. The USA has not ratified the agreement and as you may know, they are one of the leading countries in emissions. Nonetheless, the USA has initiated its own goals for trying to slow down emissions. One of the US companies, citizens and firms in applying current cutting-edge science and technology to help reduce the amount of resources put to waste, and decrease emissions from say, industrial processes. This is being done through a public program in the US, part of a national partnership by the EPA agency and various private sector companies and organizations aiming to help the US achieve its greenhouse gas intensity reduction goal.

Rising Global Temperatures

When greenhouse gases are released into the air, they act like a blanket, preventing heat from escaping into space, hence, keeping the Earth warm. This is a natural process. However, over the past century, human activity has greatly increased the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere leading to a more enhanced greenhouse effect which in turn has led to global warming. On average, the Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius. This may not seem like a significant number, however, the effects that this small change in temperature has had on the planet are anything but little. Rising temperatures can cause damage to plants and animals in the form of forest destruction and animal extinction, and is thought to be a cause for the increase in forest fires over the past 20 years. Another major problem that rising temperatures has caused is the melting of the polar ice caps. The polar ice caps have shown very large decreases in ice mass over the past few decades. Satellites that monitor the ice caps have shown that Arctic sea ice is now decreasing at a rate of 11.5 percent per decade, relative to the 1979-2000 average. In 2007, it was recorded that there was a record minimum in the amount of Arctic sea ice, the past two decades having seen the lowest sea ice extents since data began being recorded in 1979. This shows that the ice has been melting at an alarmingly increasing rate. This also has had effects on penguins in Antarctica for example, as their habitat is diminishing and it’s thought that the sea ice changes are a big factor in threatening this species. This is just one example of how animal habitats are being disrupted all over the world.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Earth’s climate is determined by a balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing thermal radiation. This system is in equilibrium, and it is this balance that allows Earth to sustain life. However, the burning of fossil fuels over the last century has significantly altered the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a natural process that warms the Earth’s surface. When the sun’s energy reaches the Earth, some of it is absorbed and warms the Earth; the rest is radiated back to space as infrared radiation. Infrared radiation has longer wavelengths than the incoming solar radiation. Infrared radiation is absorbed and re-emitted by greenhouse gases. Without the greenhouse effect, the Earth’s average temperature would be 18-20 degrees Celsius colder. However, if the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rises, this leads to an enhanced greenhouse effect, and this, in turn, leads to global warming. The primary greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. Carbon dioxide is mainly released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use patterns. Since the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide levels have increased by 36%. Methane, which is emitted during the production and transport of coal, oil, and gas, also from livestock and other agricultural practices, has increased by 148%. Nitrous oxide, emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, has increased by 18%. The concentration of methane and nitrous oxide has increased significantly in the last few centuries. The result of increased levels of these gases has led to a warmer climate and changes in weather patterns. According to the IPCC, aerosols also have a significant effect on the greenhouse effect. They affect the Earth’s climate system by scattering and absorbing solar radiation and modifying the properties of clouds. However, the effect of this is complex, and global warming may occur. Although these gases only remain in the atmosphere for a decade, the long-term changes in carbon dioxide levels have led to increases in the Earth’s average temperature. In a UKCIP climate change study, changes in carbon dioxide were found to have caused over 80% of the increase in the Earth’s average temperature.

Melting Polar Ice Caps

In order to stop the melting of ice caps, we need to reduce global warming.

Ecosystem changes have already been seen, one major instance being the drowning of the Svalbard Seed Vault. This results in increased loss in biodiversity, which will have an impact on future generations.

Polar bears compete with humans for some food resources. When sea ice is unavailable, these bears may be forced to forage elsewhere, resulting in conflict with humans who may also be hunting for the same food.

Polar ice caps define the very existence of the various bio cultures and ecosystems. The continued existence of the polar bear and many other endangered species is also affected. It also affects the human inhabitants of these areas in many ways, including increased prices of important food items and increased storm damage from hurricanes and changing weather patterns.

Changes in Weather Patterns

With the possibility of an increase in the Earth’s temperature of up to 5 degrees in the next century, there is likely to be a global increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts. Although global precipitation is expected to increase, its distribution and frequency will be so erratic that it results in an increase in both flooding and drought in different regions. Increased temperatures can also enhance the rate of water loss from soil and surface water, increasing the intensity and frequency of droughts. This can have a serious effect on the world’s population and environments. These extreme weather conditions can result in the loss of crop productivity, and in more severe cases, crop failure. Many of the world’s rivers are likely to dry up more frequently, and regions that rely on mountain snowmelt and monsoon rainfall will suffer the most. The human suffering caused by drought can be great, and in the more severe cases, can lead to mass migration of displaced populations.

I believe that changes in weather patterns are more of a local effect than a global effect, however, they are both interlinked. With an increase in the Earth’s temperature, the earth will experience an increased frequency of heat waves. With a higher atmospheric temperature, spells of extreme weather could become more frequent and worsen the effects of global warming. Climate change will lead to an increased incidence of extreme high temperature events in large parts of the globe in the following decades. In the future, it is likely that an increasing proportion of warm spells and heat waves will be attributed to global warming. It is impossible to attribute any particular heat wave to global warming, but the trend towards more frequent and severe heat waves in the UK in recent years is likely to be an impact of climate change both here and worldwide. Heatwaves are particularly dangerous to the young, the old, and the ill, and can lead to an increase in tropical diseases. It could also lead to an increase in violent and oppressive regimes across the world, as food and water supplies become scarce. Dry conditions are also suitable for bush fires, which can create an abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Loss of Biodiversity

Deforestation can be defined as the large-scale removal of trees from forests. In tropical areas, forests are often cut down to clear space for agriculture or for harvested timber, which contributes a great deal of CO2 to the atmosphere where it becomes trapped as a greenhouse gas, leading to global warming. The WWF provides a substantial amount of information documenting the various causes and effects of deforestation, as well as the link between climate change and deforestation. On their website, they provide detailed information on 10 major drivers of deforestation, which include: infrastructure expansion (roads, dams, etc.), logging (legal and illegal), agriculture (commercial and subsistence), climate change, fire, cattle ranching, oil and gas exploitation, palm oil production, and mining. With the exception of subsistence agriculture, all of these drivers are linked to profit. Oil and gas exploration can lead to permanent habitat destruction. Although the land area taken up by infrastructure and drilling is small, there is often significant damage to surrounding areas through activities such as seismic line clearing. According to a study on the effects of seismic lines on forest birds in Alberta, the lines may have effects on bird communities up to 90m away, and their long-term effects may be permanent. This study and others like it provide evidence to support the claim that current and future methods of oil extraction can have severe impacts on wildlife and their habitats.

Deforestation and Habitat Destruction

Tropical and temperate deforestation, in the form of industrial clear-cutting, is happening at an alarming rate. The forests are being felled to make way for the development of agricultural land for subsistence farming, cash crops, and livestock rearing, development of permanent settlements, and for exploitation of logging and mining operations. In the process, there is often a failure to consider the long-term consequences of deforestation. A shift in the location of agricultural land to satisfy market and consumer demands in developed countries has put a heavy strain on tropical forests, especially in the developing world where its comparative advantage is its natural resource. Deforestation has a major impact on the environment, including the release of carbon dioxide from the trees into the atmosphere in addition to destroying one of the best means of combating the rising levels of greenhouse gas. It also disrupts the water cycle, as trees release water vapor into the atmosphere, meaning a dry climate results after clearance. This lowers the productivity of agriculture as well as affecting the income of the countries involved. Economic migration to cities and to other countries is often the result and can cause further deforestation. The effects can be witnessed in the form of soil erosion, landslides and increased flooding – all of which have obvious environmental and social consequences. Damage to the tropical rainforests can be irreversible, making this a very serious issue for the entire globe.

Extinction of Species

Eventual extinction of whole ecological systems. Some ecosystems will be compromised as changing conditions may exceed their adaptive capacity. For example, some barrier islands may be submerged as sea level rises. In some cases, the species comprising these ecosystems will be able to move to suitable surrounding habitat. In other cases, the species may be prevented from moving due to lack of suitable habitat, or their movement may be blocked or greatly slowed by human land use. In cases where the species is unable to move to more suitable habitat or cannot move fast enough, it faces ultimate extinction. Steps have been taken to identify those areas subject to the least human-induced impact and most likely to facilitate movement of species (i.e., coarse filter conservation). The conservation of these areas may help maintain biodiversity in the face of climate change. Finally, and most disturbingly, global warming has the potential to greatly exceed the adaptive capacity of some species. This is particularly true of high elevation and insular species. These species and the ecosystems they comprise may be forced to “climb the mountain or march to the poles” in search of suitable climate. If they are unable to move upwards to smaller areas of remaining suitable climate rather than being further compressed into habitat islands, they may face extinction. Simulation of global warming impacts for Canadian national parks has shown that high elevation species may be at great risk due to loss of suitable climate and habitat.

Impact on Ecosystems

Changes in climate can have both direct and indirect effects on ecosystems. A change in climate can affect an ecosystem by changing the way living organisms, vegetation, and water act within the environment. These changes may increase the frequency of natural disasters such as forest fires, hurricanes, and flooding. A large number of plants, communities, biomes, and ecological systems are dependent on natural disturbances, such as fire and flooding, for ecosystem maintenance and renewal. Frequency and intensity in these disturbances will lead to changes in an ecosystem’s structure and the replacement of its species. An example is the increase in intensity of forest fires in the Mediterranean. The effects of climate change on ecosystems can be variable. There is the risk of an increase in catastrophic events such as the extinction of species. It has been suggested that a rise in atmospheric CO2 and climate change could increase the risk of species extinction. Simulation studies suggest that a 2°C increase in temperature could result in extinction rates of between 15% and 40%. This is due to the inability of a species to migrate or the destruction of its habitat.

Importance of Biodiversity Conservation

Biodiversity is complex. It is difficult to prove that loss of species and a decrease in biodiversity will negatively affect an ecosystem, but a lot of evidence exists to show that a very low biodiversity is detrimental to the proper functioning of the ecosystem. A reason put forward for the conservation of biodiversity is that the sum total of an ecosystem’s functioning and the ecosystem services that it provides are linked to the amount of species diversity within that ecosystem. Primarily, the species in an ecosystem are a resource for humans, providing food, medicine, and resources. It is thought that the loss of potential resources is a key reason why species and biodiversity conservation are important to humans. The resources and ecosystem services provided by species and biodiversity are often categorized into two areas: provisioning services and intangible or regulating services. Provisioning services are the products resourced from an ecosystem, i.e. food and water. Intangible or regulating services are benefits obtained from environmental regulation such as pollination and seed dispersal, nutrient cycling and waste decomposition, the maintenance of air and water quality, and preventing the spread of diseases. The cost of losing these resources and ecosystem function has promoted the valuation of biodiversity. The idea that everything in nature has a value and that it is the diversity of life and its ecological roles which provide the ecosystem services that are essential to human life and wellbeing has led to moves to conserve biodiversity in terms of the value that it provides to humanity.

Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies

Renewable energy sources, which include wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, biomass energy, and hydro energy, do not emit greenhouse gases and thus reduce a society’s dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels. This has the flow-on effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating an energy supply that is more resilient to changes in the global climate. Furthermore, renewable energy sources can strategically be placed and used to restore or enhance environmental conditions, in turn reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping to adapt to climate change impacts. However, the implementation of renewable energy technologies has proven difficult in the past, with obstacles including costs and uncertainties in the policy arena. Adaptation involves a strategy of trial and error and changing of policies as the understanding of climate impacts increases. By undertaking renewable energy technology trials in various locations and having the ability to remove the equipment if it is decided the technology is unsuitable, renewable energy sources are more adaptable to uncertain future climatic conditions. It is more likely with the current learning by doing and learning by probing approaches to find a niche for renewable energy technologies where they can effectively help reduce and adapt to climate change.

Mitigation can be defined as taking action in an effort to reduce the severity of the climate change problem, while adaptation involves taking action to avoid the consequences of climate change. Balancing mitigation and adaptation is essential for reducing the adverse effects of climate change. Mitigation and adaptation not only help to solve the potential climate change problems, but also the existing climate change impacts. A strategic, economy-wide approach to mitigating climate change requires focusing on reducing the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change, and enhancing the sinks that absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. By identifying a multitude of mitigation and adaptation options, societies can potentially lower the human influence on climate change, while also providing co-benefits for endeavors to sustain development, increase resilience to environmental change, and reduce the sensitivity to those changes.

Renewable Energy Sources

Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, biomass, biofuels, and geothermal have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The harnessing of renewable energy reduced the country’s dependence on imported energy, increased energy security, lowered energy costs, and avoided the costs of mitigating climate change and the risks associated with damage from environmental impacts. In 2009, Malaysia launched its initiative to achieve 5.5% renewable energy usage by 2015 with the introduction of the National Renewable Energy Policy and Action Plan. This aims to increase the percentage of electricity generated from renewable energy sources and to develop a green technology industry in Malaysia. To provide a conducive environment for the use of renewable energy, adequate regulatory and institutional frameworks, and financial and fiscal incentives such as feed-in-tariff (FiT) mechanism are to be implemented. This will, in turn, encourage research and development of renewable energy and its utilization in the long run. Despite its promising potential, progress in renewable energy development has been relatively slow due to the lack of awareness and the limited understanding of its benefits to the consumers and stakeholders in the energy sector. This has to be overcome in order to change mindsets and to create demand for renewable energy, which will translate to a reduction in energy use from non-renewable sources.

Sustainable Agriculture Practices

Sustainable agriculture has an important role to play in reducing emissions and capturing the greenhouse gases that are responsible for climate change. Practices such as agro-forestry, conservation tillage, crop-livestock integration, and use of natural vegetation can increase the amount of carbon stored in soils and vegetation, as well as reducing emissions of other greenhouse gases. Forests have a significant potential to mitigate climate change. The Bali Action Plan highlights the role of afforestation and reforestation in Article 1 and has agreed that there should be “policy approaches and positive incentives on issues relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries”. In addition, it was agreed that conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks should also be part of the global efforts to mitigate climate change. Agriculture also needs to adapt to climate change. Predicted changes in temperature and precipitation may be beneficial in some areas but are likely to be detrimental in others. Increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as droughts and flooding, may have significant impacts on agricultural productivity and food security. In many developing countries, most farmers have little capacity to cope with and adapt to the impacts of climate change. National and international funding and research in this area is vital.

Climate Change Education and Awareness

In addition to institutional education, public service announcements using the media and other engaging programs can be used to reach the adult population. This may be the most important sector to target, as research has shown they have the least understanding of climate change. The term “education” often implies a focus on the younger generation; however, in this case, it must be a lifelong effort for all.

Today, the natural greenhouse effect and human-induced climate change is an abstract concept for many. It is often confused with depletion of the ozone layer and has become synonymous with weather. To further the public’s understanding, climate change issues must systematically be integrated into school and university curriculums. By drawing on scientific research, this can be accomplished in an effective and accurate manner. It has been suggested that climate change be taught as part of a more interdisciplinary science curriculum, combining elements of biology, chemistry, and physics. For university students, lectures specific to climate change science and sociological implications can be added into a variety of programs. This will provide future teachers, health professionals, engineers, etc. with an understanding of how climate change is relevant to their field.

The development of a more informed and involved populace is vital for the implementation of any of the aforementioned mitigation strategies. Education is a catalyst for action; it creates new societal norms, fosters public support for governmental action, and increases the feasibility of long-term behavior change. Environmental education, however, must be relevant and comprehensible for the public to realize an issue’s importance as well as the solutions.

Building Resilient Communities

One of the greatest hurdles for community resilience to natural disaster is political short termism. Measures to reduce the impact and incidence of natural disasters often involve short term cost for a long term gain. It is therefore important for leaders to recognize the significance of natural disaster risk and act in a way which will provide a better outcome for future generations. By prioritizing disaster resilience in decision making at all levels of government and undertaking preventative measures, the future impact and cost of disaster events can be reduced.

The Australian Government recognizes the significance of natural disasters for the community and has developed a national strategy for disaster resilience which aims to empower communities to reduce the risk and consequences of disasters. This strategy includes the integration of consideration of natural disaster risk into land use planning and building developments. This will reduce the impact of new disaster events and the cost of rebuilding, result in less damage to infrastructure, and ultimately protect human life. The strategy also includes tools and information for householders so that they are able to assess and reduce the risk of damage to their homes which will limit the personal impact and cost of recovering from a disaster event. The availability of employment and business opportunities following a disaster is crucial in returning the community to its previous state. Measures taken to increase resilience of infrastructure by the private sector will provide more employment and economic activity in the reconstruction phase.

Being prepared for the frequency and severity of many types of natural disasters is an increasing necessity for community wellbeing. Building a sustainable community that is able to bounce back from disaster through good preplanning will provide a better outcome in the recovery phase and represent a more efficient use of resources. A reduction in community vulnerability will limit the impact of disasters and the cost of rebuilding. Community resilience is the ability of a community to use available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations. Measures taken to increase community resilience to natural disasters will also be beneficial to the community in dealing with negative effects of climate change.

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