Warming temperatures and increased amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere are threatening the planet

By Alayna Press ’17

Climate change has been a hot topic in world news recently. Conversation on the issue hit a high point at the Conference of Parties (COP21) talks in Paris during the two day Sustainable Innovation Forum on Dec. 7 and 8 of last year. Leaders from around the world such as President Barack Obama, prime minister of France Francois Hollande, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon discussed the climate crisis amidst the turmoil of the Paris terrorist attacks that happened only a few days earlier.

While political policy on climate change has been the focus of these debates, the science behind the phenomenon is a helpful aspect to understanding the political maneuvers.

The simplest explanation of climate change comes down to four main gases: water vapor, nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide. These gases block heat from escaping the atmosphere. The right balance of these chemicals keeps enough heat in the atmosphere to keep the planet warm enough without overheating it.

Unfortunately, certain human activities like the burning of fossil fuels has significantly increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen almost 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

The consequences of the increase in greenhouse gases are difficult to accurately predict, but the general effects of climate change include an increase in the average temperature of the Earth, severe weather, and a rise in sea levels. The increased levels of greenhouse gases are trapping heat inside our atmosphere. Increased heat will melt the glaciers around the North and South pole, causing an increase in sea levels, and the heat will also cause the ocean water to expand, raising sea levels even more.

In fact, the effect of rising sea levels can be seen already in the Marshall Islands.

Increasingly high tides have been causing floods in the islands. According to The New York Times, around 17 percent of the country could be completely underwater by 2050.

However, not all effects of climate change are inherently negative. Changing climate and greenhouse gas levels could actually be beneficial to certain organisms. According to an article titled, Vital Signs of the Planet by NASA, some crops and plant life could benefit from the atmospheric changes and increased levels of carbon dioxide, but the change in climate patterns and temperature could change where crops need to be planted to grow properly.

Another weather related phenomenon that has gotten  a lot of attention recently is El Niño. The term El Niño is used to describe the fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the East-Central Pacific.

Despite concerns about the cause of this weather change, El Niño is not actually created by climate change. It’s a natural phenomenon that has existed since long before human impact was an issue.

Therefore, the record-breaking warm temperatures this winter were not caused solely by climate change, but it did play a role. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet’s average temperature has steadily increased since the 1960’s. In addition, the last few years have broken records with extreme heat and extreme cold.

The effects of climate change are not yet catastrophic but they are becoming visible. Positive changes to environmental policies and a day-to-day commitment from the people who live on this planet are needed to keep the effects of climate change from increasing to irreversible levels.