So What Is Climate Change, Exactly?

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We’ve all heard the term recently. “Climate change.” Dun, dun, dunnn.

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It’s been spouted from the mouths of politicians, doomsday-sayers and those grassroots activists with the cardboard signs and recycled water bottles alike. Maybe your science teacher has asked you to do a project on it or you’re one of the recycled water bottle toting activists yourself. If the latter is true, then you probably know a lot about climate change and its effect on the environment.

If not, and the phrase sounds like vague environmentalism with a dash of hyperbole, then this post is for you.

When I was small, climate change had a different name: global warming. I remember squirming on the hard wooden bench in the children’s room of my local library, reading about the greenhouse effect and a slowly roasting earth. At the end of it all, I believed that the clouds trapped heat and we were all going to get really bad sunburn from the ozone layer being depleted.

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But global warming is just one aspect of what’s been more aptly named climate change. The warming bit comes from the fact that infrared radiation, or what we perceive as heat, is being trapped more and more by the gases that fill our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide levels are up 25 percent since 1957 (or since my dad was born), according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, but researchers have found that nitrous oxide and methane are two of the most dangerous culprits filling our skies. These gases are present in the atmosphere at much lower concentrations than CO2, yet methane alone traps 3 and a half times as much heat as carbon dioxide does.

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With all this added heat in the atmosphere, Earth’s average temperature has been steadily rising. The result of these elevated temperatures is a shift in the earth’s climate: droughts in dry regions are more intense, extreme weather events are more frequent, and polar ice caps are melting – leading to a rise in global sea level which threatens coastal communities worldwide. Not only that, these ice caps serve as our “global heat buffers,” reflecting sunlight and helping to maintain a steady temperature globally. Without them, the planet will heat up at a faster rate – and it all snowballs from there (or fireballs?)

Communities are already being affected, like Tangier Island, Virginia, a community right here in the United States that is only 4 feet above sea level at its highest point -and sinking. In 100 years, it’s predicted that the island will be no more than a memory.

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It’s clear that climate change is capable of having tremendous impacts on our planet, and consequently, on us. Now that you know this, what can you do to change things? Or Do you think it's all humbug?