Contemporary climate change includes both global warming and its impacts on Earth’s weather patterns. There have been previous periods of climate change, but the current rate of change is distinctly more rapid and is not due to natural causes. Instead, it is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. Burning fossil fuels for energy production creates most of these emissions. Certain agricultural practices, industrial processes, and forest loss are additional sources. Greenhouse gases are transparent to sunlight, allowing it through to heat the Earth’s surface. When the Earth emits that heat as infrared radiation the gases absorb it, trapping the heat near the Earth’s surface and causing global warming.
Due to climate change, deserts are expanding, while heat waves and wildfires are becoming more common. Increased warming in the Arctic has contributed to melting permafrost, glacial retreat and sea ice loss. Higher temperatures are also causing more intense storms, droughts, and other weather extremes. Rapid environmental change in mountains, coral reefs, and the Arctic is forcing many species to relocate or become extinct. Climate change threatens people with food and water scarcity, increased flooding, extreme heat, more disease, and economic loss. Human migration and conflict can also be a result. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls climate change the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. Even if efforts to minimise future warming are successful, some effects will continue for centuries. These include sea level rise, and warmer, more acidic oceans.
Many of these impacts are already felt at the current 1.2 °C (2.2 °F) level of warming. Additional warming will increase these impacts and may trigger tipping points, such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations collectively agreed to keep warming “well under 2 °C”. However, with pledges made under the Agreement, global warming would still reach about 2.7 °C (4.9 °F) by the end of the century. Limiting warming to 1.5 °C will require halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Some effects of climate change, clockwise from top left: Wildfire intensified by heat and drought, worsening droughts compromising water supplies, and bleaching of coral caused by ocean acidification and heating.
Making deep cuts in emissions will require switching away from burning fossil fuels and towards using electricity generated from low-carbon sources. This includes phasing out coal-fired power plants, vastly increasing use of wind, solar, and other types of renewable energy, and taking measures to reduce energy use. Electricity generated from non carbon emitting sources will need to replace fossil fuels for powering transportation, heating buildings, and operating industrial facilities. Carbon can also be removed from the atmosphere, for instance by increasing forest cover and by farming with methods that capture carbon in soil. While communities may adapt to climate change through efforts like better coastline protection, they cannot avert the risk of severe, widespread, and permanent impacts.
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