Climate Change: Causes, Effects, and Solutions
On Global Warming and Climate Change
Climate change is “a change in the statistical properties of the climate system when considered over long periods of time, regardless of cause” (“Climate change,” n.d.). Using this definition, climate variations over periods shorter than a few decades, like El Niño, do not exemplify climate change.
The term is often used to particularly denote the climate change caused by human activity, as opposed to environmental changes caused by Earth’s natural processes. In this sense, the term climate change has become synonymous with anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. To differentiate the two related concepts, global warming refers to surface temperature increases, whereas climate change comprises global warming and everything else affected by rising greenhouse gas levels.
Taken together, global warming and climate change refer to “measurable increases in the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and landmasses” (Mastrandrea, 2009). The Earth is observed to be undergoing a period of rapid warming fundamentally caused by increasing levels of heat-trapping gases, called greenhouse gases, in the atmosphere.
The greenhouse gases and greenhouse effect
The sun provides the energy that lights and warms the earth. The sun’s short-wave radiation enters the atmosphere and is absorbed by the earth’s surface. In turn, the earth’s surface releases to space some of this heat as long-wave infrared radiation. However, a fraction of this long-wave infrared radiation remains trapped in earth’s atmosphere, soaked up by some atmospheric gases. “Absorbing and reflecting heat radiated by Earth, these gases act somewhat like the glass in a greenhouse, and are thus known as greenhouse gases” (Schneider, 2009).
The greenhouse effect refers to the process through which the greenhouse gases retain the radiant energy or heat provided to Earth by the Sun. All life on earth depends on this greenhouse effect, for without it, the earth would be too cold, about -18°C (0°F), and ice would cover the whole planet.