The idea of climate change is a contentious issue, and one that has become inextricably tied to political, cultural, and even religious causes. The question of whether or not human activity is catastrophically warming the Earth seems simple, but the finding the answer has difficult. But despite this, beneath the mess of opposing viewpoints and contradictory evidence lies a bedrock of truth—a truth that each of us has the responsibility to search out.
To help you get started, we’re going to briefly examine the science of climate change so that you can make your own informed decision. Make it well. The future of the planet might just be at stake.
A Difficult Question
To illustrate why the question of climate change is so contentious, let’s make a comparison.
The greatest works of literature are often some of the most complex. These are the texts that are studied and taught in universities all over the world, ones that can be written about, explored, and unpacked in seemingly infinite ways.
The complexity of great pieces of literature grants them immortality because of the many ways in which they can be interpreted. Because no one human mind can see every thematic possibility at once, contradictory themes and meanings emerge from these books, poems, and essays—everyone sees something different in the complex.
The process of climate change is a lot like literature—its immense complexity leaves it somewhat open for interpretation, especially by those with a limited understanding of our atmospheric processes.
And so, because of this, different groups are able to create arguments for or against climate change.
But there’s a problem.
Many of these groups seek to further their own ends, choosing to see the facts through a distorted lens rather than seeking the truth of what is actually happening to our world. And when people advocate for a particular version of the world rather than the way the world truly is, division occurs.
This division is strikingly partisan, the dividing line running between two broad camps—Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats. Republicans tend to maintain that the Earth’s climate is not changing, or that the change is wholly natural rather than manmade. Democrats, on the other hand generally assert that human activity is changing the climate.
These two groups, though, are like freshmen in their first English class, confident that they have all the answers, yet wholly uninformed and unequipped to discern and disseminate the truth.
But there is a third group that is equipped to help us find the truth. Let’s take a look at what the scientific community has to say on climate change.
The Facts of Climate Change
Here’s a fact that most people don’t know: according to NASA, 97 percent of climate scientists—experts in their fields—agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.
Let’s take a look at the basics of what they know.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which simply means that it traps heat within the Earth’s atmosphere, much like the glass of a greenhouse might. This gas is a byproduct of fossil-fuel combustion—cars, power plants, and anything else that runs on gas or oil.
Since the advances made during the industrial revolution, we’ve been relying on the burning of fossil-fuels for more and more of our needs, and thus have pumped more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
For hundreds of thousands of years, carbon dioxide levels have risen and fallen at a predictable rate. “However, according to Scientific American, in the past century, carbon dioxide levels have measurably spiked far higher than they’ve been in nearly 800,000 years.
As a result of the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, average surface temperatures across the Earth have increased by about a degree—this may not seem like much, but it’s enough to begin melting glaciers and arctic ice, causing sea levels to rise about 17 centimeters.
So how do scientists know this? Earth-orbiting satellites, as well as other measurement and environmental surveillance technologies, are allowing scientists to see the big picture like never before. The information, collected through these high-tech sources over many years, creates evidence which can be interpreted.
This evidence is compelling, and while it doesn’t give us the whole picture, scientists do agree that it suggests that human industrial activity is affecting the global climate.