Chapter 1 Climate Change Basics

What is Climate Change?
The United States has been the principal culprit of Greenhouse gas emissions
Sources of Fossil Fuel Emissions Globally
Major Sources of Greenhouse Gas emissions in the US
We Need to keep Global Warming below 1.5 degrees
We are not doing well in meeting the 1.5-degree target
Why is 350 so important?
Climate Change Drives Extreme Weather
Climate change hastens disease spread across the globe
Human Extinction is the Worst-case scenario
– Curbing Climate Change Starts with Stopping the Burning of Fossil Fuels
– Fossil Fuel Industry is Impeding action on climate change

What is climate change?

Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. It is also called global warming, the ongoing increase in global average temperature

“Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750…The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture.” [1]

The United Nations notes that “since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas… Greenhouse gas emissions act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping the sun’s heat, and raising temperatures…. Examples of greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change include carbon dioxide and methane. These come from using gasoline for driving a car or coal for heating a building, for example. Clearing land and forests can also release carbon dioxide. Landfills for garbage are a major source of methane emissions. Energy, industry, transport, buildings, agriculture, and land use are among the main emitters.” [2]

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. The IPCC prepares comprehensive Assessment Reports about the state of scientific, technical, and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place.

The IPCC in 2019 reported that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were higher than at any time in at least two million years. The earth’s average surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2,000 years. Between 2011 and 2020, the annual average area of sea ice coverage in the Arctic reached its lowest level since at least 1850. And the global average sea level has risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in at least the last 3,000 years.

Other key findings from the IPCC’s are:

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred.”

“Continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation and the severity of wet and dry events.”

“Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.” [3]

Anthropogenic Climate Change means that humans are the cause. [4]

Methane is 80 times more potent short-term (20 years) as a greenhouse gas compared to carbon.[5] Leaks from natural gas pipelines are a major source of methane. Many have promoted natural gas as a bridge fuel to a clean energy future, and until recently, the problems with methane have been downplayed. It is now clear that natural gas is a gangplank to a climate disaster.[6]

The United States has been the principal culprit of greenhouse gas emissions

While China has surpassed the U.S. as the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. still is the leading country in terms of cumulative emissions.[7]

The United States has been burning coal, oil, and natural gas far longer than China. As of 2017, the U.S., with just over 4 percent of the world’s population, was responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. China was responsible for less than a sixth. The 28 countries of the European Union cumulatively came in just behind the United States.[8]

The United States still has the highest carbon dioxide per capita emissions among the industrial nations at 14.2 metric tons, but those emissions have been dropping since the early 1970s.  China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions was 7.4 metric tons in 2020, higher than those for the European Union at 5.8 metric tons but lower that Japan’s 8.1 metric tons. Russia had 10.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per capita.[9]


Sources of Global Greenhouse Gas emissions (in 2018 in billion tons of CO2e) [10]

Below is information from Fight the Fire about where emissions come from.

Burning Fossil Fuels 40 billion tons

Manufacturing electricity 15
Transport 10
Heating industrial materials 5
Natural gas leaks 4
Industrial byproducts 3

Heating buildings 3

Agriculture 7 billion tons
Cattle and sheep 3
Fertilizers 3
Rice 1

Other 8 billion tons

Deforestation 5
Landfills and Sewage 1.5
F-gases 1.5

TOTAL 58 billion tons

Carbon Footprint by Country 2022 [11]

Top 10 CO2-emitting countries in the world (Total CO2 in Mt)

  1. China — 11680.42
  2. United States — 4535.30
  3. India — 2411.73
  4. Russia — 1674.23
  5. Japan — 1061.77
  6. Iran — 690.24
  7. Germany — 636.88
  8. South Korea — 621.47
  9. Saudi Arabia — 588.81
  10. Indonesia — 568.27

Top 15 Countries with the Highest CO2 Emissions per Capita (metric tons)

  1. Palau — 55.29
  2. Qatar — 35.64
  3. Trinidad and Tobago — 21.97
  4. Bahrain — 21.60
  5. Kuwait — 20.91
  6. United Arab Emirates — 20.70
  7. Brunei Darussalam — 17.95
  8. Saudi Arabia — 16.96
  9. Oman — 16.9
  10. Australia — 15.22
  11. Canada — 14.43
  12. Kazakhstan — 14.22
  13. United States — 13.68
  14. Turkmenistan — 13.37
  15. Luxembourg — 13.24

Countries with highest use of Renewable Energy

Here are the places with the highest shares of primary energy from renewable sources as of 2019, along with the change in this amount in percentage points since 1965. [12]

  1. Iceland: 79.08% (+55.25)
  2. Norway: 66.18% (-0.32)
  3. Brazil: 45.02% (+18.70)
  4. Sweden: 42.24% (+8.7)
  5. New Zealand: 35.40% (-2.48)
  6. Austria: 33.70% (+9.76)
  7. Switzerland: 30.64% (-6.93)
  8. Ecuador: 30.39% (+22.36)
  9. Denmark: 30.16% (+30.12)
  10. Canada: 27.64% (+3.66)

42 United States: 8.71% (+4.66)

Major Sources of Greenhouse Gas emissions in the U.S.

Much of the public discussion around creating a clean energy future focuses on the electricity sector. However, the production of electricity is a small part of greenhouse gas emissions. The mix of emission sources varies from state to state and from nation to nation. For instance, in New York State, buildings account for 32% of emissions, transportation 28%, and electricity 13%.[13]

Here is an overview from the federal EPA of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.[14]:

  • Transportation (27% of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions) – Transportation accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions primarily come from burning fossil fuel for our cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes. Over 90% of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum based, which includes primarily gasoline and diesel.
  • Electricity production (25% of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions) – Electric power is second largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 60% of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas.
  • Industry (24% of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions) – Industrial emissions primarily come from burning fossil fuels for energy, as well as greenhouse gas emissions from certain chemical reactions necessary to produce goods from raw materials.
  • Commercial and Residential (13% of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions) – Emissions from businesses and homes arise primarily from fossil fuels burned for heat, the use of certain products that contain greenhouse gases, and the handling of waste.
  • Agriculture (11% of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions) – Emissions from agriculture come from livestock such as cows, agricultural soils, and rice production.
  • Land Use and Forestry (13% of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions) – Land areas can act as a sink (absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere) or a source of greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S. since 1990, managed forests and other lands are a net sink

Electricity is the easiest to move to 100% renewable energy. The general goal is to reduce energy use as much as possible and then electrify everything that remains. A challenge is that some industrial processes, particularly cement, require high temperatures that have proven difficult to commercially generate. Cement alone accounts for 8% of worldwide emissions.[15] This is a major reason why governments have tended to set long term emission goals (by 2050) as net zero rather than real zero.

We Need to keep Global Warming below 1.5 degrees

Lowering the target for global warming to try to keep it to 1.5 degrees Celsius was the big win for the developing world against the U.S. and other industrial nations at the Paris climate summit which sought to keep the 2-degree goal. The final agreement was to keep warming “well below 2 degrees” while also agreeing to “aim to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change.”[16] Since Paris 1.5 degrees has increasingly become the target.

1.5°C of warming will still expose millions of people to more extreme climates, rising sea levels and more frequent weather-related disasters including heatwaves, drought, flooding, and wildfires. Additional increases in average temperature will make their severity and frequency worse. The negative impacts from global warming are hitting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities hardest, partially because they tend to be close to the equator where the temperature rise will be greater.

“With an average temperature rise of more than 1.5°C, all climate impacts become more severe, including extreme temperature, droughts, water and food scarcity, and biodiversity loss. This is partly due to ‘tipping points’ – where climate change causes damage to the natural systems that help to stabilize temperatures, resulting in accelerated warming.  If the average global temperature were to rise by 2°C, for example, the IPCC has predicted that 37 per cent of the world’s population would be exposed to at least one deadly extreme-heat event every five years, compared to 14 per cent in a 1.5°C scenario. That’s an extra 1.7 billion people affected with just half a degree of further warming. This is just one illustration of why every decimal point matters in the fight to stay within 1.5°C.”[17]

“With a 1.5°C rise, about 4% of Earth’s terrestrial land area is projected to undergo a transformation of ecosystems from one type to another. With a 2°C global temperature rise, about 13% is projected to undergo a shift. With a 2°C increase, compared with a 1.5°C increase, the number of heat-related deaths and the number of people infected with vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are projected to increase.”[18]

It’s difficult to predict what our world will look like with 2.5°C or more of warming, but large areas could become uninhabitable for humans.

The developing world will be the principal victims of climate change that has largely been driven by the Global North. Climate reparations by the industrial polluters are needed to pay for the damage we are causing.[19] In addition, action must be taken to enable such countries to develop and raise their people’s standard of living now that the path of burning fossil fuels to drive one’s economy is now foreclosed to them. How do they catch up? (See chapter on reparations) https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/08/1-5-or-2-degrees-celsius-of-additional-global-warming-does-it-make-a-difference/

We are not doing well in meeting the 1.5-degree target

The average global temperatures are now between 1.1-1.2°C higher than pre-industrial. Eight of the top 10 warmest years on our planet occurred in the last decade. [20] Odds are increasing that the annual average global temperature will rise beyond 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, in at least one of the next five years, the UN weather agency has warned.[21] Others such as the World Meteorological Organization said that the odds of exceeding the limit short term are quite a bit higher.

In October 2022, the IPCC said to stay within that 1.5-degree goal, total greenhouse gas emissions need to fall 43% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels. But their estimate, based on the existing government pledges, is that the world is headed toward a 10.6% increase in annual emissions by 2030 over 2010 levels, with a temperate rise of 2.5 C (4.5 F).[22]

Deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, tropical cyclones, severe flooding events, and other disasters have become more common. “In 2019, storms, floods and other extreme weather events displaced more than 13 million people across Asia and Africa. Rising heat and drought are killing crops and trees, putting millions worldwide at increased risk of hunger and malnutrition, while mosquitoes carrying diseases like malaria and dengue are spreading into new areas. Roughly half the world’s population currently faces severe water scarcity at least part of the year.”[23]

The most recent state of the climate report found the atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide grew at the fifth-fastest rate on record in 2021 to reach its highest point in 800,000 years.[24]

Other scientists find the IPCC overly optimistic with reduction targets that are too slow to keep global warming in check.

A recent study published in the Journal Science finds that even the most aggressive goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions aren’t sufficient to avoid several major climate change tipping points (like the melting of the permafrost, collapse of ice shelves), in which rising temperatures cause irreversible damages that in turn cause more global warming.[25]

Since the world is failing to cut emissions to an adequate level, the IPCC has supported investing in trying to remove CO2 from the air. Swedish teenage climate activist criticized the IPCC for relying upon the highly speculative carbon emission efforts to slowdown the timetable to reduce emissions., and even then, the IPCC only predicted a 67% chance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees. Even cutting emissions in half by 2030 would still only give the world a 50% chance of staying within 1.5 degrees.[26] (more on the problems and challenges of carbon capture later.)

Why is 350 so important?

350.org, founded in 2008 by author Bill McKibben and students such as May Boeve at Middlebury College in Vermont, has been one of the most important groups mobilizing the public worldwide to demand action on climate. They are perhaps best known for launching the campaign to divest college, religious and public pension funds from fossil fuels, and being one of the lead organizers of the 400,000 People’s Climate March in NYC in 2014.[27]

As humanity evolved over the past several hundred thousand years, atmospheric CO2 levels ranged between 200 and 300 ppm. The preindustrial level of CO before the industrial revolution was about 280 ppm.[28]

Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 must be reduced from current levels of around 420 parts per million to at most 350 ppm to avoid dangerous climate change and provide a good chance of limiting future warming to 1.5°C.[29] Unfortunately, that number has steadily increases since 350.org was founded. It hit 415 ppm in 2021.[30]

Climate Change Drives Extreme Weather[31]

Extreme weather events that were once rare occurrences are now increasingly commonplace. 100-year weather events may happen every 5 to ten years. 1,000-year events may occur every few decades. While we cannot pinpoint climate change as the cause of for a particular extreme weather event, it has been shown to make these events more destructive and more frequent.[32]

Global warming is swinging the pendulum out wider on the weather we experience, while making it more intense. Heat provides more energy to storms, so hurricanes warmed by the ocean waters grow to categories 3, 4 and 5 rather than staying at category 1 levels. As regions such as California and Australia grow hotter and drier, wildfires are growing in size, ferocity, and speed. Heat waves are growing in frequency, intensity, and length.

Warmer air increases evaporation, putting more water vapor into the air for storms to sweep up and turn into rain or snow. In upstate New York where I live, it is expected that while the amount of rainfall will remain relatively the same, the rainfall will be less frequent but more intense. Our environment – plants, soil – are not adapted to absorbing 2 inches of rainfall at a time, leading to more erosion and flooding while also harming our food supply. While winters overall are getting milder, individual storms are getting more intense both from stronger winds and increased water vapor leading to heavier snowfall.

The number of weather events causing more than $1 billion in damages is increasing. In 2021, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and a winter storm and cold wave were among 20 weather and climate disasters that cost $1 billion or more in the U.S., totaling $145 billion and killing 688 people.[33]

Climate change hastens disease spread across the globe

A major problem with human driven climate change is that it is occurring much faster than changes driven by nature – faster than species including humans can adapt and evolve. There are limits to how fast trees and plants can move (shift) to respond to changing temperatures.

Insects that cause diseases in humans, animals, trees, and plants can rapidly move to thrive in new biospheres with higher temperature,[34],faster often that their natural predators that keep them in check are able to move. Insect biology, climate quirks, and public health preparedness will influence whether outbreaks occur. The spread of Lyme disease and malaria are examples of this.[35]

Human Extinction is the Worst-case scenario

While human extinction is a slight possibility, scientists in an August 2022 study warned that the risk of global societal collapse or human extinction has been “dangerously underexplored. Facing a future of accelerating climate change while blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk management at best and fatally foolish at worst.” The authors stated that there are “ample reasons” to suspect global heating could result in an apocalyptic disaster and called for the world to start preparing for the possibility, starting with the IPCC issuing a special report. Climate breakdown could trigger other catastrophic risks, such as international wars or infectious disease pandemics, and worsen existing vulnerabilities such as poverty, crop failures and lack of water. The IPCC should especially examine famine, extreme weather, war, and disease. [36]

Since the turn of the century, global deaths attributed to air pollution have increased by more than half. Air pollution was responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths around the world in 2019. 4.5 million deaths were the result of outdoor air pollution, emitted by vehicles and industrial sources like power plants and factories. Poorer countries bear a disproportionate share of the impacts of pollution deaths. [37]

Curbing Climate Change Starts with Stopping the Burning of Fossil Fuels

While the world needs to rapidly transition to a clean energy future – wind, solar, battery storage, conservation, regenerative agriculture – the single most important step is to cut greenhouse emissions, getting to real zero as soon as possible. While this may seem an obvious point, it often is pushed to the side by governments. which then can find that emissions fail to decline as much as expected even as the percentage of renewable energy significantly increases. Germany is perhaps the best-known example.[38]

Fossil Fuel Industry is Impeding action on climate change

Money talks in politics.

The oil and gas industry made an estimated $2.8 billion a day in pure profit for the last 50 years. According to the study’s authors, that vast wealth “is providing the power to ‘buy every politician, every system’ and delay action on the climate crisis.”[39]

A campaign contribution has long been the best investment that Wall Street can make. For every dollar the fossil fuel industry contributes to American politicians, they receive $119 in federal exploration and production subsidies.[40]

Donald Trump was the largest recipient of campaign donations by the oil and gas industry in the 2020 presidential election, receiving 3.8 million dollars. Of the top five beneficiaries, only one was a Democratic Party member – presidential candidate, Joseph Biden. In total, fossil fuel contributions to the GOP were $63.6 million during that election cycle.[41]  Researchers have found a correlation between an increase in anti-environment votes and an increase in contributions. [42]

In the closest federal races in the 2022 mid-term elections, “the oil and gas industry has spent an estimated average of $4.3 million per Senate seat and $490,000 per House seat through direct contributions, funding for party committees, and funding for super PACs. Twenty oil & gas companies and industry trade associations contributed more than $52 million to right-wing super PACs and party fundraising committees, and more than $4 million to candidate PACs.” (These numbers will increase once post-election campaign filings are made.)[43]

During the 2017-2018 midterm election cycle, corporations, individuals, and trade groups in the fossil fuel industry spent $265,773,915 in lobbying and $93,392,002 in contributions to national-level candidates, parties, and outside groups, bringing the total spending to $360 million in two years. That’s $500,000 per day. During the same period, renewable energy companies spent $26 million. For every dollar spent on behalf of wind, solar, or hydroelectric energy interests, $13.70 was spent by fossil fuel interests.[44]

In addition to campaign contributions, there is a revolving door between the fossil fuel companies, the regulatory agencies and elected officials, as individuals move back and forth between the private and public sector.[45] Be a friend to the fossil fuel industry as a regulator or elected official and there will be a high paying job as a consultant or lobbyist waiting for you on departure. Many “monetize” their time as public servants.

While scientists have sounded the alarms for decades, the fossil fuel industry mounted an aggressive disinformation campaign casting doubt about the science of climate change and played into the American media’s propensity for on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand reporting. So, while the overwhelming scientific consensus was the burning fossil fuels was driving climate change, the American media tended to give 50 percent of the airtime is given to the less than 1 percent who profess to be skeptics.[46]

 

[1] https://archive.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/spmsspm-human-and.html

[2] https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/what-is-climate-change

[3] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/ipcc-weve-already-warmed-planet-catastrophic-effect-level-catastrophe-us

[4] https://geo.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Geology/Book%3A_An_Introduction_to_Geology_(Johnson_Affolter_Inkenbrandt_and_Mosher)/

[5] https://unece.org/challenge

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/29/opinion/gangplank-to-a-warm-future.html

[7] https://world101.cfr.org/global-era-issues/climate-change/who-releases-most-greenhouse-gases

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/01/climate/us-biggest-carbon-polluter-in-history-will-it-walk-away-from-the-paris-climate-deal.html

[9] https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/international-issues/chinas-carbon-dioxide-emissions-more-than-twice-those-of-the-u-s

[10] Fight the Fire, https://theecologist.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/Fight_the_Fire_0.pdf, p. 38

[11] https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/carbon-footprint-by-country

[12] https://solarpower.guide/solar-energy-insights/countries-largest-shares-renewable-energy-solar

[13] Table ES.3, https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/administration_pdf/ghgsumrpt21.pdf

[14] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

[15] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/can-concrete-a-major-co2-emitter-be-made-greener

[16] https://www.dw.com/en/ipcc-tackles-15-degree-celsius-climate-target/a-19475794

[17] https://www.tearfund.org/stories/2021/10/why-1-5-degrees-the-crucial-climate-target-explained; https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/08/1-5-or-2-degrees-celsius-of-additional-global-warming-does-it-make-a-difference/

[18] https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/08/1-5-or-2-degrees-celsius-of-additional-global-warming-does-it-make-a-difference/

[19] Climate change is devastating the Global South | Climate Crisis | Al Jazeera

[20] https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2022/january/last-eight-years-have-been-the-hottest-on-record.html

[21]https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/05/1092842

[22] https://gizmodo.com/un-report-climate-change-2-degrees-warming-1849704926; https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/

[23] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/climate/climate-change-ipcc-report.html

[24] https://www.ametsoc.org/index.cfm/ams/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate/

[25] https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abn7950

[26] https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit

[27] www.350.org

[28] https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/what-ideal-level-carbon-dioxide-atmosphere-human-life

[29] https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/climate_law_institute/350_or_bust/pdfs/CLI_350_factsheet.pdf

[30] https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/10/1129887

[31] https://earthjustice.org/features/how-climate-change-is-fueling-extreme-weather

[32] https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/influence-climate-change-extreme-environmental-events

[33] https://www.npr.org/2022/01/11/1072077479/extreme-weather-in-u-s-cost-688-lives-and-145-billion-noaa

[34] https://www.fs.usda.gov/ccrc/topics/insect-disturbance-and-climate-change

[35] https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2200481119

[36] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/01/climate-endgame-risk-human-extinction-scientists-global-heating-catastrophe

[37] https://insideclimatenews.org/news/17052022/outdoor-air-pollution-health/

[38] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2017/10/10/why-arent-renewables-decreasing-germanys-carbon-emissions

[39] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jul/21/revealed-oil-sectors-staggering-profits-last-50-years

[40] https://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-industry-influence-in-the-u-s/

[41] https://www.statista.com/statistics/788056/us-oil-and-gas-lobbying-spend-by-party/

[42] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/24/oil-gas-industry-us-lawmakers-campaign-donations-analysis

[43] https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/research/big-oil-money-looms-large-in-competitive-elections/

[44] https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/01/fossil-fuel-political-giving-outdistances-renewables-13-to-one/

[45] https://therevolvingdoorproject.org/amid-climate-crisis-biden-stacks-administration-with-fossil-fuel-industry-allies/

[46] https://truthout.org/articles/the-dirty-business-of-coal-how-our-addiction-to-an-18th-century-energy-source-is-killing-us/