As you read this, a massive geologic experiment is underway. It is being conducted not by scientists in a lab, but by the seven billion people who call the earth home. As we go about our daily lives, we are all contributing, often unwittingly, to changes in the earth’s atmosphere that could affect the way we live for generations to come.
Every year, humans burn billions of tons of coal and oil. Fossil fuels are the foundation upon which our modern economies are built. The energy that we get from burning fossil fuels powers homes, businesses, cars, and planes. But when we burn something, be it paper, wood, coal, or oil, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) doesn’t interact with light from the sun the same way it interacts with heat given off by the earth. It “traps” the heat instead of letting it escape out into space, and the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more heat it traps. Since we burn a lot of fossil fuels, we also release a lot of CO2. As a result, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is steadily increasing, and with it the earth’s average temperature. Scientists predict that by the end of the century, earth could be somewhere between 3.2°F and 7°F warmer than it is today.1
When the media talk about climate change, they tend to focus on melting ice caps and rising sea levels—vivid images to be sure, and easy to turn into a news graphic, but not representative of how climate change will affect many of the world’s people. Climate change is about more than just the world getting warmer. A region’s temperature plays a significant role in determining how much rain it gets, and when; the timing of winter’s first freeze, spring’s first thaw; whether it is prone to drought, or flood; and what kinds of plants and animals can live there. A warming world will change all of that—more dramatically in some areas than others, but everyone will be affected in some way. Everyone will have to adjust.
Climate change is not the end of the world. Geologists will tell you that earth has seen its share of global catastrophes, and none of them have managed to “kill” the planet. Human beings will certainly not be the first to succeed where asteroids and continent-scale volcanism have failed. That does not mean, however, that climate change doesn’t have the potential to make life on earth much more difficult for us than it needs to be. Unless we take steps to reduce our CO2 emissions, adapting to the “new normals” of a warmer world will be both unpleasant and expensive.