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climate change: the challenge

from issue 14: by Ophelia Tynan

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Even if we try, it’s hard to now avoid the issue of climate change. Everywhere we go, there is mention of this strange and bizarre phenomenon – the television, the bookstore, the newspaper, the cinema, the mall, the department stores, the supermarket… why the fuss? Why is this scientific sensation such a strong influence in our society? Why has it been one of the strongest issues in politics all over the world, and why have entire countries pledged to fight this cause?

what is climate change?
In a nutshell, climate change is when the average temperature of the earth – currently 15°C – warms or cools. Another word for climate change is global warming, although this phrase is slowly being phased out because people didn’t take the threat seriously enough when the phrase suggested warming as something good and enjoyable.

limate change has occurred in the past, though not for many thousands of years. Ice ages are an example of sudden climate changes that occurred for a number of natural reasons still being discovered by scientists today.

causes of climate change
There are many reasons why climate change occurs, both natural and caused by human activity. Some factors include:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions: although greenhouse gas emissions are a relatively new cause of climate change historically speaking, today they are the largest cause of climate change action. Greenhouse gases come from places such as coal-fired energy plants, petrol-fuelled vehicles, and so on.
  • Deforestation: removing forests for development or agricultural production removes a crucial part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Solar variation: the sun emits different levels of heat during its life, and there is ample evidence to suggest that past climate changes have been related to this.

the three tipping points for climate change
Many climate scientists, including Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery, believe that there are three tipping points. Flannery argues that there are points in climate change activity that, if they were to occur, would trigger runaway climate change, impossible to stop. These are:

  • The collapse of the Gulf Stream: the Gulf Stream is the centre of what is called the ocean conveyor belt – it sends the strongest ocean currents around the world. It only works with the precise amount of fresh water and salt water, but climate change is changing this delicate ecosystem incredibly quickly. If large amounts of fresh water from Greenland or the Arctic melted into this system, or if the Atlantic Ocean pumped too much salty water into it due to increased water evaporation, the ocean conveyor would simply shut down. And when this happens, it would destroy Europe’s climate and send it into an ice age.
  • Collapse of the Amazonian rainforests: the water evaporation in the air, reducing rain and humidity, causes the Amazonian rainforests to fade and die. Not only would this kill hundreds of species and destroy the tourism industry for the Amazonian rainforest, it would destroy the largest forest – hence, the largest source of greenhouse gas reduction – and make our emissions skyrocket.
  • Methane gas release from the sea floor: a certain kind of natural greenhouse gas – methane – is trapped underneath the sea floor by ice crystals. The methane is kept safe and locked into the ice crystals by the freezing temperatures. However, if the deep sea temperatures were to increase, the massive amounts of methane would be released. The last time this occurred, it caused the largest extinction event that ever occurred.

impacts of climate change
Variations in the atmosphere and temperature may not seem important in the grand scheme of things; it is a matter of converting the complex science into reality. If climate change was to take hold by 2100, even a one or two degree increase in our average temperature, we would have catastrophic events such as:

  • Rising sea levels: millions of people around the world currently live within one metre of the current sea level. If this were to change even by 0.5 of a metre, this would displace millions of people, leaving them without homes and destroying countries’ economies. If Greenland, Antarctica or the Arctic melted, we could see sea level rises of over six metres, wiping out entire cities. If current predictions are underestimated, as many scientists are now arguing, world maps would have to be redrawn. We are facing a crucial moment in history – seeing and creating the next Atlantis.
  • Extinction of many species such as the polar bear: even though the extinction of thousands of species is heartbreaking enough, it would include many species such as birds, insects and marine life that would destroy ecosystems, causing massive problems for humanity.
  • Extreme weather: as Australians, we already know the effects of wild weather. We have bushfires, cyclones, droughts and floods. However, climate change would not only continue this, it would intensify it. This would cause major economic, humanitarian and environmental crises that would cost the country and the world more than a mere dollar amount.

These are a small selection of major environmental impacts that would occur if we allowed climate change to gain any more speed than it already has running.

action on climate change
Climate change has the potential to change the world in hundreds of different ways. However, action to stop it has been slow at best. Political leaders are the hardest minds to change, and have been halting progress on climate change prevention for many reasons, such as:

  • Interests in the business community: many industries and businesses feel they would lose wealth and jobs to help prevent climate change, such as General Motors and the death of the electric car. Many politicians such as President George Bush and Prime Minister John Howard have strong ties to the business communities, hence their slow uptakes to climate change action.
  • The Greenhouse Mafia: Clive Hamilton, author of Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, wrote about the self-named ‘Greenhouse Mafia’, made up of some of the strongest and most influential industry representatives. Hamilton reports that not only did they pressure the government in favour of climate change inaction, but they had an active role in creating policy and attitudes towards climate change within Parliament.
  • Economy: most anti-climate change action leaders believe that the economy must be sacrificed in order for us to take action on climate change. However, there is ample evidence from many economists and activists that suggests that this is completely incorrect. Taking action would open us to new business opportunities, create jobs and wealth, as well as preserving future generations’ futures.

get involved!
To do something about climate change, take one of these steps:

  • Petition local and federal politicians.
  • Use ethanol-based petrol whenever possible in your car. Even better: walk, cycle, skip, jump, run, or hopscotch to work or school.
  • Switch to green energy supplied by wind, solar and hydro power.
  • Join a pressure group like Greenpeace to help campaign.
  • Use less power in the house – turn off lights, switch off power points when you’re not using electrical equipment, and turn the thermostat down just one degree in the winter to save mountains of energy.

where to find more information
Websites:

Books:

  • The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery
  • Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit by Al Gore
  • Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change by Clive Hamilton

Films:

  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • Who Killed the Electric Car?

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