You’ve heard about climate change on the news, in devastating social media posts, and as a hot topic in major political debates. You’ve witnessed the wildfires in California, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, and flooding in Nebraska in real life or on TV. You know that fossil fuels are bad and are the main cause of climate change. But, have you ever wondered HOW climate change is causing crazy weather events and WHY fossil fuels are contributing to these disasters?
It’s all about carbon, the element that makes up most of you and me. Carbon is essential to life, but can also be detrimental to all living beings. That’s extremely confusing, so let’s break it down.
Fossil fuels. There are three main types of fossil fuels you may have heard of: coal, oil and natural gas. All of these are primarily made of carbon from algae and plants that have been pressurized underground for millions of years (like a mega instant pot). During the industrial revolution, we found that digging up fossil fuels and heating them up releases a BUNCH of energy, which we now use to move our cars, turn the lights on in our homes, heat our water, make our clothes, package our food, and manufacture our bikes, skis and hiking boots. We use fossil fuels to make our morning coffee and our afternoon beers, we use it to make roads and fly to awesome places. Fossil fuels allow us to use computers, call our moms, and facetime our siblings. The list could legit go on forever and ever, but the main point is that we use fossil fuels for EVERYTHING.
Oh, and plastic is made of fossil fuels too.
The Problem. Although fossil fuels have made the Western World possible, paved the path for globalization, and make our lives 876,587,364 times more convenient, they also have a dark side. You’ve probably heard of it too: Carbon Dioxide (aka CO2). It’s what you, me, and all other living animals exhale. But when we burn fossil fuels, a GIGANTIC amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere, which creates a thick layer of gas that doesn’t allow heat to escape into space. Atmospheric gasses that trap heat are called greenhouse gases and if you remember how Frosty the Snowman died in the classic holiday cartoon, you remember that greenhouses are fab at making things hot.
Greenhouse gasses ultimately cause higher global temperatures (emphasis on global because excess CO2 doesn’t necessarily mean that temperatures in your particular city will rise). Overall increases in temperature allow more clouds to form because warmer air holds more water, and more clouds change weather patterns. This is why we can have gnarly polar vortexes in one place and record low snowfall in another. It’s also why we can have crazy rain and hurricanes in one area and extremely hot, dry, and wildfire-prone weather in another.
Our weather is changing for the worse and our fossil fuel consumption is to blame.
Other factors. There are other greenhouse gasses besides CO2. Methane (CH4), which is also termed the nice and pretty name of “Natural Gas”, traps heat in our atmosphere 30 times better than CO2. There are benefits of Natural Gas, but it regularly leaks out of storage facilities and pipelines into the atmosphere. Nitrous Oxides (NOx) are produced when nitrogen from the air is heated up in our car engines and it traps 290 times more heat than CO2. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are chemicals that we’ve invented to keep our refrigerators cold, the AC on in the house, and to make our pots and pans “non-stick” (aka Teflon). CFC’s get into our oceans and atmosphere and traps heat a whopping 1,000 – 10,000 times more heat than CO2.
If you’re thinking, “Well, crap!”, you’re not alone. I’m right there with ya, along with 99.9% of all other scientists.
Some good & bad news. When it comes to CO2, plants use it to grow. This means that we could potentially reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by planting trees and conserving open green spaces because the plants will turn it into sugar and incorporate it into their leaves, roots, branches, and trunks (aka photosynthesis). Scientists often call this carbon storage because CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and collected in the plant. BUT, we don’t have enough time, money, people power, or land to plant the number of trees needed to reduce an adequate amount of CO2 that will reverse climate change (source).
So… what can we do? This is the question of the century (and probably the next few centuries). As of now, science points to a few solutions:
- Stop using so many damn fossil fuels. This is the BEST way we can prevent climate change from getting worse. We can do this individually, but VOTING for government officials and laws that will regulate industrial use of fossil fuels will help even more. (Fun fact: 100 companies are responsible for 71% of total greenhouse gas emissions)
- Plant trees & preserve green spaces. Although planting trees won’t solve all of our climate change problems, it will still help. Especially since clear-cutting forests and destroying natural landscapes actually releases CO2 (source). Restoring forests and other ecosystems won’t just reduce CO2, but will also increase biodiversity, air quality, and water quality, along with overall human health. To put this together, planting native trees in your backyard and advocating for the protection of places like Bears Ears National Monument and the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area are essential to fighting climate change.
- Invent carbon capture and storage technologies. Honestly, this climate change solution is the one we should have the least hope in. Carbon capture and storage is essentially a way of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it underground. There have been recent advances in this technology, but since we don’t have a way to implement it around the world, it’s an unreliable solution and we don’t have the time to wait around for it.
Thoughts to take with you. You CAN make a difference. Although big industry is the biggest contributor to climate change, you can educate yourself, you can vote, you can change your consumer habits, and you can talk to your family and friends. TOGETHER we can create a movement of change.
Let’s do this fam. We’re all in this together (cue the High School Musical soundtrack).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to write your own.