Above: Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet at the Paris Climate Summit in November 2015 (Presidencia de la República Mexicana, Wikimedia Commons)
Did you watch the news in December 2015? If so, you probably heard about a big climate change conference that took place in Paris, France. It was part of a series of annual meetings on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC aims to minimize the impact that humans have on Earth's climate. Previous UNFCCC meetings include Kyoto (1997) and Copenhangen (2009).
The key to understanding climate change is understanding greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases are in our atmosphere. They prevent some of the heat around the Earth from escaping. This is useful, because it keeps the Earth’s temperature livable for you, me and all living organisms.
The problem is that recent human activities have been putting a lot more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. The main one is carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning fossil fuels. More greenhouse gases mean more heat is being trapped. More heat being trapped means higher global temperatures. There are some benefits to a warmer world. But there are also many negative impacts, like droughts, glaciers melting and more people getting sick due to heat stress.
The Earth’s climate systems are very complex. This makes it very difficult to predict the exact impacts of climate change. Take the examples of positive and negative feedback loops. Negative feedback loops occur when increasing temperatures cause something that reduces (but not eliminates) warming. For instance, higher temperatures cause dryer conditions, which result in dried soil particles in our air. These particles can reflect incoming sunlight.
Meanwhile, positive feedback loops occur when increasing temperatures cause something that increases warming. For example, higher temperatures reduce the amount of snow and ice on our planet. This causes less incoming sunlight to be reflected away, which means more of it can be used to heat the Earth. Researchers know that climate change will cause some warming. However, they are still working out the exact influence of these feedback loops.
Scientists may not know the exact impact, but they do know climate change is a global issue. This is why we need all of these international meetings. Some climate change meetings are more successful than others. However, the Paris meetings can be counted as a big success. All countries, both developing and developed, agreed to limit warming of the planet to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels (the time before humans started using large amounts of fossil fuels). This was a big achievement. Before the meetings, countries disagreed on how to deal with climate change. No one was sure an agreement like this could be reached.
Not only were they able to reach an agreement, the countries even set two aspirational goals. They want to limit warming to 1.5 °C and produce net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by the second half of the 21st century. The targets of 2 °C and 1.5 °C are not hard benchmarks. The world will not end if temperatures exceed these numbers. These are just targets that countries can work towards, and that will prevent many of the negative impacts of climate change.
The targets set by the Paris meetings are promising and countries can begin to sign this agreement on Earth Day 2016 (April 22). However, many analysts believe these targets will be very difficult to achieve. The Government of Canada has not yet announced its plans for meeting these goals. It will be interesting to see how it proceeds. What do you think the government should do?
Environment Canada Climate Change website:
This site provides updates on actions the Government of Canada plans to take to reduce climate change - and information on what you can do, as well.
Every couple of years, the IPCC (an international body tasked with studying climate change) publishes reports on the latest knowledge of climate change. You can find the reports at the above website. If you’re just starting off in the area, you can read the “Summary for policymakers” documents, as they provide a good summary of the findings. If you know a bit about the topic, try reading the actual reports.
Computer modelling website:
Computer models are used to predict the impacts of climate change. This site allows you to use your own computer to contribute to a climate model.
A bunch of interesting articles on climate change can be found on CurioCity!