If you’re a human being living on planet earth, you may have come across the term “climate change” in some way or another. The decline in bee populations? Climate change. Rising sea levels? Climate change. Coral reef bleaching? You guessed it! Climate change.
But what is climate change really? This article will shed some light on a topic that every single person should be aware of.
If you close the tap while brushing your teeth, you care about saving water. If you switch the light off when you leave a room, you care about saving power. If you wait to find the nearest bin instead of tossing a sweet wrapper on the ground, you care about the environment.
We are all activists for something whether we realise it or not. So why not make it official?
Here is a crash course on climate change so you know exactly what you’re talking about at the next family get-together or corporate retreat.
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Climate vs Weather
One of the most important distinctions that you’d have to make is between climate and weather. The National Aeronautical Space Agency (yes, Nasa) defines climate as the change in the average conditions such as temperature and rainfall in a broad region over a long period of time.
For example, the climate around the Highveld generally comprises dry, cold winters and frequent summer thunderstorms which provide an above-average annual rainfall. The climate around Cape Town can be described as being cold, wet and windy in winter with hot, clear and sunny summers.
Weather describes what it is like at your specific location at any given time. For example, if it is raining outside right now, that is the weather. Storms, tornadoes, snowfall and hurricanes are all-weather events. If it is extremely cold in Pretoria during winter, that does not mean that the climate is generally cold in Pretoria, that is just the weather at that specific time.
The earth is wrapped in an invisible layer of gases that make up the ozone layer. This layer protects us from dangerous solar radiation, specifically ultra-violet radiation. The ozone layer reflects much of this radiation away from earth with only a tiny amount making it through. Without the ozone layer, life on earth would be impossible. Oxygen and other gasses which are critical for life would not be contained around the planet and the sun’s heat would just be too intense to even give any life-form a chance of survival.
By allowing just enough heat into the atmosphere, earth is at the perfect temperature to sustain life. Not too cold, not too hot, just perfect. Imagine the planet being a frozen landscape like the Arctic or like rolling dunes of the Sahara. Not the best habitats for life to flourish.
The heat we receive from the sun is trapped by gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, all of which exist naturally in just the right amounts in our atmosphere. Like a glass greenhouse structure retains heat to grow heat-loving plants or crops, these gases which also can retain heat, are known as “greenhouse gases”.
You would know fuel as diesel, petrol, gas, paraffin, coal. Fossil fuels are those fuels that are derived from oil, coal and natural gas which are extracted from deep within the earth through mining.
These fuels are the remains of long-dead carbon-based lifeforms such as prehistoric forests and dinosaurs which died and compacted under layers of sediment over millions of years. South Africa is currently one of the top 7 coal-producing countries in the world digging out an average of 224 million tons of the black stuff from the earth every year.
Eskom uses 90 million tons of that to generate 90% of our annual electricity with other sources like nuclear, solar, wind and hydro-power accounting for only 10% of electricity production.
Fossil fuels are comprised largely of carbon and when burned, produce carbon dioxide, which we learned is great at keeping the planet warm. Coal has been used industrially as a fuel since the mid-1700s with oil being used on a large scale around the mid-1800s. Burning these fuels did help power civilisation for just over 200 years but it came with a cost that we have only begun to understand in the last few decades. Think of yourself wearing a thick winter coat on a hot summer’s day in Durban, not good.
Yes, the earth has had several climate-changing events but these took place over thousands sometimes millions of years, not two centuries. Animals, insects and plant life which have evolved over millions of years cannot just go inside and switch on an aircon or heater, they evolved to survive in a specific climate and would take a few hundred generations to adapt to even a slight change in average global temperatures.
Renewable refers to something that is sustainable and does not negatively affect the environment. Solar energy, power from the sun, is considered renewable because the sun will never burn out (at least for another 5 billion years give or take). Fossil fuels are not considered renewable because once they are extracted from the earth and burned, they cannot be replaced. Eskom assures us that South Africa has enough coal reserves to last another 200 years but remember, just like you wouldn’t want to be wearing a thick coat on a hot summer’s day, the earth would not enjoy being any warmer either.
Besides solar power, there are several other forms of renewable energy sources that are cleaner and more sustainable than fossil fuels. These can be hydroelectricity which uses flowing water to turn a turbine that generates power or a wind-energy which uses wind to turn a turbine that produces electricity. Other innovative solutions exist such as using algae to produce biogas which can be used to power vehicles or turning human waste into coal for cooking.
How can I help?
Tackling climate change may seem daunting at first, after all, you are just one person, right?
Well, you are not alone. There are millions of people around the world doing their best to reduce the impact on our planet.
You can start by planting a tree or a shrub in your garden to absorb some of that carbon dioxide or driving less and walking more. Eating less meat would make a huge difference but that’s an article for another day. There are hundreds of easy, budget-friendly ways to reduce your carbon footprint, just look for what is achievable for you and your family. Every change, no matter how small, makes a huge impact.