What is Climate Change?

Last updated: 4th November 2010

What is Climate Change? Well, before you can understand this concept you need to understand what the word climate means...

What is Climate?

Climate is the "average weather" of a place over a long period of time (usually 30 years). It includes temperature, rainfall and wind. By knowing a place's climate we can guess that summer will quite warm, about 19C and that winter will be quite cold, about 3C. To figure out the climate for Ireland, weather information is collected from all around the country every hour and is recorded. By comparing these records over a long period of time we can figure out what Ireland's weather is usually like.

Because we know what the weather is usually like, we can forecast what the future weather is probably going to be like. Of course, it can change and the weather forecasters aren't always right! Engineers, farmers and town planners are some of the people that rely on climate data for their job. They use it so that they can sow the right crops and design roads, drains, buildings and bridges correctly.

Climate is important for town planners to take into account when designing structures such as roads, drains, buildings and bridges. They use climate data to make sure that they are not damaged by weather conditions or cost more than necessary to build if they are built for severe conditions that probably won't happen. 

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What is Climate Change?

So now that we know what climate is, we can understand what climate change is. Climate change is a significant change in the average weather or climate that a place experiences. Climate change is caused by the build up of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The build up of GHGs is caused by human activities such as burning fossil fuels for transport, energy and heating and cutting down trees

Warming of the climate caused by the build up of GHGs is definite, as proven by increases in the global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising sea levels. This global warming is having a domino effect on rainfall amounts, wind speeds and ocean levels.

If climate change continues at it's current pace, increased global temperatures will result in dangerous and irreversible impacts on our planet. The challenge for us all, in Ireland and elsewhere, is limiting and adapting to climate change.

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Carbon Sinks And Carbon Sources

A carbon sink is anything that takes in more carbon then it gives out. A carbon source is the opposite, it gives out more carbon than it takes in. Forests, soils, oceans and the atmosphere all store carbon and this carbon moves between them in a continuous cycle. This movement means that forests act as sinks or sources at different times.

However, not all stores of carbon naturally fluctuate. When it comes to climate change, the most important carbon stores are fossil fuel deposits. They are buried deep inside the earth, naturally separated from the carbon cycling in the atmosphere which is a huge benefit. When humans burn coal, oil and natural gas they turn fossil carbon stores into atmospheric carbon, this ends the separation. By allowing the carbon to be released from fossil fuels, greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations have risen to more than 30% higher than they were at the start of the industrial revolution. This rise is changing the carbon cycle and altering the global climate.

Planting trees causes other plants and the soil to turn into carbon sinks and to absorb the fossil fuel emissions being released into the atmosphere. The Kyoto Protocol (the international communities’ main instrument for halting global warming) suggests that trees and soil absorbing carbon dioxide is just as valid a means to stopping climate change as cutting carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.

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Deforestation and Reforestation

Deforestation is clearing down the Earth's forests on a massive scale. It usually damages the quality of the land it leaves behind. Forests still cover around 30% of the world's land area, but areas larger than the whole of Ireland are removed each year.

At the current rate of deforestation, the world’s rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years.

There are many reasons forests are cut down however most are related to money or people's need to provide for their families. The biggest contributor to deforestation is agriculture. The easiest way to create more room for fields to plant crops or for grazing livestock is to cut down trees. Often, many small farmers will sometimes each clear a few acres by cutting down trees and burning them in a process known as “slash and burn” agriculture. This results in a large amount of acres being removed.

Another contributor to deforestion are logging operations. Logging operations provide the world’s wood and paper products. They cut down countless trees each year. Loggers, some of them acting illegally, also build roads to access more and more remote forests—which leads to further deforestation.

Forests are also cut as a result of growing urban sprawl.

Some deforestation is unintentional. Some is caused by a combination of human and natural factors like wildfires and subsequent overgrazing, which may prevent the growth of young trees.

The quickest solution to deforestation would be to simply stop cutting down trees. Even though deforestation rates have slowed a little in recent year, this is unlikely to happen because of financial matters.

A more realistic solution is to carefully manage forest resources by eliminating clear-cutting to make sure that forest environments remain intact. The cutting that does occur should be balanced by the planting of enough young trees to replace the older ones felled in any given forest. The number of new tree plantations is growing each year, but their total still equals a tiny fraction of the Earth’s forested land.

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Effects of Deforestation

Deforestation has many negative effects on the environment:

1) A loss of habitat for millions of species. 70% of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and many cannot survive the deforestation that destroys their homes.

2) Deforestation drives climate change. Forest soils are moist, but without protection from sun-blocking tree cover they quickly dry out. Trees also help the water cycle continue by returning water vapor back into the atmosphere. Without trees to fill these roles, many former forest lands can quickly become barren deserts.

3) Removing trees deprives the forest of portions of its canopy, which blocks the sun’s rays during the day and holds in heat at night. This disruption leads to more extreme temperatures swings that can be harmful to plants and animals.

4) Trees play a critical role in absorbing the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming. Fewer forests means larger amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere - and increased speed and severity of global warming.

5) Forests can provide a natural barrier to disasters such as over-flowing rivers. In China, authorities have admitted that excessive felling could have led to the worst case of flooding seen there in 1998. This has resulted in a ban on logging in eastern Tibet and an emphasis placed on re-forestation. Bangladesh has seen similar loss of forests and resulting floods too, for example.

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Reforestation as a way of Tackling Climate Change

One of the ways of tackling climate change and global warming is idea of using "Carbon Sinks" to soak up carbon dioxide. To aid in this, reforestation, or planting of new forests, has been suggested. This is a popular strategy for the logging industry and nations with large forests interests, such as Canada, the United States, various Latin American nations, and some Asian countries such as Indonesia.

Though this idea has some potential, it would not be effective on its own. This is because creating new forest areas would require establishing a new ecosystem whereas in an old forest there is already a rich ecosystem and an established biodiversity base. Another criticism is that reforestation doesn't properly tackle all of the root causes of climate change or promote actual emissions reduction.

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What You Can Do To Help

Here are some simple things you can do to help stop climate change:

1) Tell people! Tell other people you know about climate change and what they can do to help. By helping spread the word you'll help other people understand why things need to change.

2) Know what damage you're doing with each choice you make. Learn as much as you can about climate change so that you can make the right choice.

3) Turn off your computer once your finished, don't leave it on stand-by. Conserve energy by using your computer’s “sleep mode” instead of a screensaver.

4) Un-plug unused electronic devices such as phone chargers. Even when electronic devices are turned off, they use energy.

5) Plant a tree. Trees suck up carbon dioxide and make clean air for us to breathe.

6) Don't use plastic bottles; use a reusable flask.

7) Buy products with less packaging and recycle paper, plastic and glass. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

8) When possible, walk, cycle, rollerblade, skateboard or take public transport instead of driving. When that's not possible car-pool with some friends.

9) If you're cold, instead of turning up the heating throw on another jumper. If you're too hot make sure you turn off any radiators before opening windows.

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