Climate Science 101

Climate Science can get extremely complicated and it’s easy to get bogged down or overwhelmed by the details. So, without further ado, here are the very basics of climate science and how it’s affecting our planet:

Climate change is happening because we are throwing the Earth’s carbon cycle out of wack. Carbon is an element that is essential to life because we eat it, incorporate it into our bodies, poop it, and breathe it out. For us humans, carbon makes up about 18% of our bodies and our food is made of 50% carbon (source). When we eat and digest this food, our bodies break the food down into less complex molecules, which produces energy that we use to run, dance, skip, and even Netflix and Chill. 

Lots of other organisms do this too. On Earth, carbon moves between the atmosphere, soil, and oceans because plants and animals transform carbon from one type of molecule to another (source). In essence, the CO2 we breathe out is used by plants to make sugars to grow (through photosynthesis) (source). Yes, plants literally turn air into food and it’s rad AF. Animals then eat that fruit, leaf, bark, or root and transform the carbon in the plant into different molecules that provide energy. During this energy-making process, CO2 is made as a waste product and humans, worms, tigers, bacteria, and almost any other living animals breathe it out for plants to use again (source). Pretty cool, eh? And since there are billions of plants and animals on earth, massive amounts of CO2 are taken up by plants and released by animals every day (source). 

At one point in time, the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air through animal respiration was roughly equal to the amount of CO2 taken up by plants (source). 

It looked a little something like this: 

But then we found fossil fuels and we threw the carbon cycle out of wack. Fossil fuels made our modern-day lifestyles possible. Clothes no longer took weeks to make by hand, traveling 25 miles no longer took an entire day on horseback, and when your best friend Sofía moved three states away, she was no longer gone forever. Fashion, entertainment, travel, and freedom to do as we please are what fossil fuels brought us, but there’s a trade-off for these luxuries.

Fossil fuels are made of carbon, just like you, me, the plants, and the bees (source). But, fossil fuel carbon was hidden underground for millions of years until we started extracting it (source). When we burn fossil fuels to run our cars, turn on our lights, and make our clothes, large quantities of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. This means that there is now more CO2 in the atmosphere than plants can absorb, which changes more than we could have ever imagined (source). 

Excess CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat from the sun — instead of heat from the sun bouncing out of our atmosphere, it bounces right back toward us, which causes global temperatures to rise (we’re talking the whole world here, folks, not just the city you live in). Higher global temperatures increase the amount of water in the air because more evaporation occurs — you’ve seen this happen when water droplets form on the inside of a lid covering a hot pan. More water in the air forms more clouds and ultimately alters weather patterns, which causes extreme events like droughts, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires (think Australia, California, and Puerto Rico). Extreme weather affects not only humans but plants, animals, our food and water supply, air quality, sea-levels (they rise), and more.

The new carbon cycle that includes fossil fuels looks like this:

These are the very basics of climate change. Not everyone has the time to know every intricacy of climate change, but we all need to know the basics in order to take action. At the end of the day you, me, the government, and big industry are all on the hook for this, but you, me, the government, and big industry can make the carbon cycle balanced again.

For actionable steps to take against climate change, read: What Science Says We Can Do About Climate Change

If you want a fabulous visual of climate change, watch this Bill Nye the Science Guy video.

PS: If you can’t access any of the primary sources we’ve cited in this article, reach out and we’ll send you a copy!

Savannah Adkins
Savannah Adkins

During some daylight hours, Savannah is a climate change scientist studying how dirt makes all of our lives possible. But her real profession is as a house plant addict, mountain biker, & attempter of skiing down mountains. In her free time, Savannah enjoys dancing around the house, drinking wine, and listening to the Grateful Dead. Oh, and making poop jokes… always making poop jokes.

Chiara Forrester
Chiara Forrester

Chiara is happiest when she’s in the mountains on skis, a bike, or running. She also loves Ariana Grande (117 hours this year, thanks Spotify), making dinner with friends, and laughing too loudly at her own jokes. An ecologist who’s passionate about science communication and increasing diversity in STEM, Chiara is currently a PhD candidate in Boulder, CO, studying alpine plant ecology, undergraduate education, and the use of science in federal land management. 

NOTE: THIS IS A LIVING RESOURCE! As with all resources on Outdoor Advocacy Project, there is always room to continue the conversation, add a new perspective, bolster the resources, and share new findings. Got something you want to add, change, challenge or amplify? Let us know in the comments, or e-mail team@outdooradvocacy.com to write your own.

Author: OAP

Katie Boué is a Cuban-American outdoor advocate, freelance writer + social media expert, professional adventurer, climber, public speaker, former van-dweller, and public lands wonk. She is Miami-raised and traded flat Florida swamps for a life of exploring mountains, camping in the desert and playing in the snow. Boué currently lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her partner Brody Leven and dog named Spaghetti.

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