Top Question: What Can I Do About Climate Change?
- Start a conversation. Talking about climate change is the best way to kickstart action, says Chief Scientist Katharine Hayhoe.
- Vote at the ballot box (and the store). At every level, elected leaders have influence on policies that affect us all. And support companies taking climate action.
- Take personal action. Calculate your carbon footprint and share what you’ve learned to make action contagious.
Climate Change Basics
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Each of these terms describes parts of the same problem—the fact that the average temperature of Earth is rising. As the planet heats up (global warming), we see broad impacts on Earth’s climate, such as shifting seasons, rising sea level, and melting ice.
As the impacts of climate change become more frequent and more severe, they will create—and in many cases they already are creating—crises for people and nature around the world. Many types of extreme weather, including heatwaves, heavy downpours, hurricanes and wildfires are becoming stronger and more dangerous.
Left unchecked, these impacts will spread and worsen, affecting our homes and cities, economies, food and water supplies as well as the species, ecosystems, and biodiversity of this planet we all call home.
All of these terms are accurate, and there’s no perfect one that will make everyone realize the urgency of action. Whatever you choose to call it, the most important thing is that we act to stop it.
Yes, scientists agree that the warming we are seeing today is entirely human-caused.
Climate has changed in the past due to natural factors such as volcanoes, changes in the sun’s energy and the way the Earth orbits the sun. In fact, these natural factors should be cooling the planet. However, our planet is warming.
Scientists have known for centuries that the Earth has a natural blanket of greenhouse or heat-trapping gases. This blanket keeps the Earth more than 30 degrees Celsius (over 60 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than it would be otherwise. Without this blanket, our Earth would be a frozen ball of ice.
Greenhouse gases, which include carbon dioxide and methane, trap some of the Earth’s heat that would otherwise escape to space. The more heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the thicker the blanket and the warmer it gets.
Over Earth’s history, heat-trapping gas levels have gone up and down due to natural factors. Today, however, by burning fossil fuels, causing deforestation (forests are key parts of the planet’s natural carbon management systems), and operating large-scale industrial agriculture, humans are rapidly increasing levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
The human-caused increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is much greater than any observed in the paleoclimate history (i.e. ancient climate data measured through ice sheets, tree rings, sediments and more) of the earth. As a result, temperature in the air and ocean is now increasing faster than at any time in human history.
Scientists have looked at every other possible reason why climate might be changing today, and their conclusions are clear. There’s no question: it’s us.
One of the main reasons scientists are so worried about climate change is the speed at which it is occurring. In many cases, these changes are happening faster than animals, plants, and ecosystems can safely adapt to – and the same is true for human civilization.
We’ve never seen climate change this quickly, and it is putting our food and water systems, our infrastructure, and even our economies at risk. In some places, these changes are already crossing safe levels for ecosystems and humans.
That’s why, the more we do to mitigate these risks, the better off we will all be.
Effects of Climate Change
Climate change is affecting our planet in many ways. Average temperatures are increasing; rainfall patterns are shifting; snow lines are retreating; glaciers and ice sheets are melting; permafrost is thawing; sea levels are rising; and severe weather is becoming more frequent.
In particular, heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense. Tropical cyclones like hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones are intensifying faster and dumping more rain. Wildfires are burning greater area, and in many areas around the world, heavy rainfall is becoming more frequent and droughts are getting stronger.
All of these impacts are concerning because they can harm and even potentially lead to the collapse of ecosystems and human systems. And it’s clear that they become more severe the more heat-trapping gases we produce.
Rapid changes in climate can directly and indirectly impact animals across the world. Many species are approaching—or have already reached—the limit of where they can go to find hospitable climates. In the polar regions, animals like polar bears that live on sea ice are now struggling to survive as that ice melts.
It’s not just how climate change affects an animal directly; it’s about how the warming climate affects the ecosystem and food chain to which an animal has adapted. For example, in the U.S. and Canada, moose are being affected by an increase in ticks and parasites that are surviving the shorter, milder winters.
In western North America, salmon rely on steady-flowing cold rivers to spawn. As climate change alters the temperature and flow of these waterways, some salmon populations are dwindling. This change in salmon population affects many species that rely on salmon like orcas or grizzly bears.
Changes in temperature and moisture are causing some species to migrate in search of new places to live. For instance, in North America, species are shifting their ranges an average of 11 miles north and 36 feet higher in elevation each decade to find more favorable conditions. The Central Appalachians are one resilient climate escape route that may help species adapt to changing conditions.
There are some natural places with enough topographical diversity such that, even as the planet warms, they can be resilient strongholds for plant and animal species. These strongholds serve as breeding grounds and seed banks for many plants and animals that otherwise may be unable to find habitat due to climate change. However, strongholds are not an option for all species, and some plants and animals are blocked from reaching these areas by human development like cities, highways and farmland.
Here at The Nature Conservancy, we use science to identify such locations and work with local partners and communities to do everything we can to protect them.
From reducing agricultural productivity to threatening livelihoods and homes, climate change is affecting people everywhere. You may have noticed how weather patterns near you are shifting or how more frequent and severe storms are developing in the spring. Maybe your community is experiencing more severe flooding or wildfires.
Many areas are even experiencing “sunny day flooding” as rising sea levels cause streets to flood during high tides. In Alaska, some entire coastal communities are being moved because the sea level has risen and what used to be permanently frozen ground has thawed to the point where their original location is no longer habitable.
Climate change also exacerbates the threat of human-caused conflict resulting from a scarcity of resources like food and water that become less reliable as growing seasons change and rainfall patterns become less predictable.
Many of these impacts are disproportionately affecting low-income, Indigenous, or marginalized communities. For example, in large cities in North America, low-income communities are often hotter during heatwaves, more likely to flood during heavy downpours, and the last to have their power restored after storms.
Around the globe, many of the poorest nations are being impacted first and most severely by climate change, even though they have contributed far less to the carbon pollution that has caused the warming in the first place. Climate change affects us all, but it doesn’t affect us all equally: and that’s not fair.
Whether you live close to a coast or far from one, what happens in oceans matters to our lives.
Earlier, we described how greenhouse gases trap heat around the planet. Only a small fraction of the extra heat being trapped by the carbon pollution blanket is going into heating up the atmosphere. Almost 90% of the heat is going into the ocean, causing the ocean to warm.
Warmer water takes up more space, causing sea level to rise. As land-based ice melts, this addition of water from land to the ocean causes the ocean to rise even faster.
Warmer oceans can drive fish migrations and lead to coral bleaching and die off.
As the ocean surface warms, it’s less able to mix with deep, nutrient-rich water, which limits the growth of phytoplankton (little plants that serve as the base of the marine food web and that also produce a lot of the oxygen we breathe). This in turn affects the whole food chain.
In addition to taking up heat, the oceans are also absorbing about a quarter of the carbon pollution that humans produce. In addition to warming the air and water of our planet, some of this extra carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the ocean, making our oceans more acidic. In fact, the rate of ocean acidification is the highest it has been in 300 million years!
This acidification negatively impacts many marine habitats and animals, but is a particular threat to shellfish, which struggle to grow shells as water becomes more acidic.
There’s also evidence that warming surface waters may contribute to slowing ocean currents. These currents act like a giant global conveyor belt that transports heat from the tropics toward the poles. This conveyor belt is critical for bringing nutrient-rich waters towards the surface near the poles where giant blooms of food web-supporting phytoplankton occur (this is why the Arctic and Antarctic are known for having such high abundance of fish and marine mammals). With continued warming, these processes may be at risk.
Climate change is disrupting weather patterns, leading to more extreme and frequent heatwaves, droughts, and flooding events that directly threaten harvests. Warmer seasons are also contributing to rising populations of insect pests that eat a higher share of crop yields, and higher carbon dioxide levels are causing plants to grow faster, while decreasing their nutritional content.
Flooding, drought, and heatwaves have decimated crops in China. In Bangladesh, rising sea levels are threatening rice crops. In the midwestern United States, more frequent and intense rains have caused devastating spring flooding, which delays—and sometimes prevents—planting activities.
These impacts make it more difficult for farmers to grow crops and sustain their livelihoods. Globally, one recent study finds that staple crop yield failures will be 4.5 times higher by 2030 and 25 times higher by mid-century. That means a major rice or wheat failure every other year, and higher probabilities of soybean and maize failures.
However, farmers are poised to play a significant role in addressing climate change. Agricultural lands are among the Earth’s largest natural reservoirs of carbon, and when farmers use soil health practices like cover crops, reduced tillage, and crop rotations, they can draw carbon out of the atmosphere.
These practices also help to improve the soil’s water-holding capacity, which is beneficial as water can be absorbed from the soil by crops during times of drought, and during heavy rainfalls, soil can help reduce flooding and run-off by slowing the release of water into streams.
Healthier soils can also improve crop yields, boost farmers’ profitability, and reduce erosion and fertilizer runoff from farm fields, which in turn means cleaner waterways for people and nature. That’s why climate-smart agriculture is a win-win!
Solutions to Climate Change
Yes, deforestation, land use change, and agricultural emissions are responsible for about a quarter of heat-trapping gas emissions from human activities. Agricultural emissions include methane from livestock digestion and manure, nitrous oxide from fertilizer use, and carbon dioxide from land use change.
Forests are one of our most important types of natural carbon storage, so when people cut down forests, they lose their ability to store carbon. Burning trees—either through wildfires or controlled burns-- releases even more carbon into the atmosphere.
Forests are some of the best natural climate solutions we have on this planet. If we can slow or stop deforestation, manage natural land so that it is healthy, and use other natural climate solutions such as climate-smart agricultural practices, we could achieve up to one third of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F). That’s the equivalent of the world putting a complete stop to burning oil.
When it comes to climate change, there’s no one solution that will fix it all. Rather, there are many solutions that, together, can address this challenge at scale while building a safer, more equitable, and greener world.
First, we need to reduce our heat-trapping gas emissions as much as possible, as soon as possible. Through efficiency and behavioral change, we can reduce the amount of energy we need.
At the same time, we have to transition all sectors of our economy away from fossil fuels that emit carbon, through increasing our use of clean energy sources like wind and solar. This transition will happen much faster and more cost-effectively if governments enact an economy-wide price on carbon.
Second, we need to harness the power of nature to capture carbon and deploy agricultural practices and technologies that capture and store carbon. Our research shows that proper land management of forests and farmlands, also called natural climate solutions, can provide up to one-third of the emissions reductions necessary to reach the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal.
The truth, however, is that even if we do successfully reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we will still have to address harmful climate impacts. That’s why there is a third category of climate solutions that is equally important: adaptation to the impacts of global warming.
Adaptation consists of helping our human and natural systems prepare for the impacts of a warming planet. Greening urban areas helps protect them from heat and floods; restoring coastal wetlands helps protect from storm surge; increasing the diversity of ecosystems helps them to weather heat and drought; growing super-reefs helps corals withstand marine heatwaves. There are many ways we can use technology, behavioral change, and nature to work together to make us more resilient to climate impacts.
Climate change affects us all, but it doesn’t affect us all equally or fairly. We see how sea level rise threatens communities of small island states like Kiribati and the Solomon Islands and of low-lying neighborhoods in coastal cities like Mumbai, Houston and Lagos. Similarly, people living in many low-income neighborhoods in urban areas in North America are disproportionately exposed to heat and flood risk due to a long history of racist policies like redlining.
Those who have done the least to contribute to this problem often bear the brunt of the impacts and have the fewest resources to adapt. That’s why it is particularly important to help vulnerable communities adapt and become more resilient to climate change.
We need to increase renewable energy at least nine-fold from where it is today to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid the worst climate change impacts. Every watt that we can reduce through efficiency or shift from fossil fuel to renewables like wind power or solar power is a step in the right direction.
The best science we have tells us that to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, we must globally achieve net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050. To do this, the world must immediately identify pathways to reduce carbon emissions from all sectors: transportation, agriculture, electricity, and industry. This cannot be achieved without a major shift to renewable energy.
Clean energy and technological innovation are not only helping mitigate climate change, but also helping create jobs and support economic growth in communities across the world. Renewable energy such as wind and solar have experienced remarkable growth and huge cost improvements over the past decade with no signs of slowing down.
Prices are declining rapidly, and renewable energy is becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels all around the world. In some places, new renewable energy is already cheaper than continuing to operate old, inefficient, and dirty fossil fuel-fired power plants.
However, it’s important that renewable energy development isn’t built at the expense of protecting unique ecosystems or important agricultural lands. Without proactive planning, renewable energy developments could displace up to 76 million acres of farm and wildlife habitat—an area the size of Arizona.
Fortunately, TNC studies have found that we can meet clean energy demand 17 times over without converting more natural habitat. The key is to deploy new energy infrastructure on the wealth of previously converted areas such as agricultural lands, mine sites, and other transformed terrain, at a lower cost.
Thoughtful planning is required at every step. For instance, much of the United States’ wind potential is in the Great Plains, a region with the best remaining grassland habitat on the continent. TNC has mapped out the right places to site wind turbines in this region in order to catalyze renewable energy responsibly, and we’re doing the same analysis for India and Europe as well.
There can also be unique interventions to protect wildlife where clean energy has already been developed. In Kenya, for instance, a wind farm employs biodiversity monitors to watch for migrating birds, and can order individual turbines to shut down in less than a minute.
The Nature Conservancy is committed to tackling the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. These two crises are, as our chief scientist says, two sides of the same coin.
What we do between now and 2030 will determine if we get on track to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement while also conserving enough land and water to slow accelerated species loss. That’s why we have ambitious 2030 goals that focus on people and the planet.
We're combatting these dual crises by:
- Enhancing nature’s ability to draw down and store carbon across forests, farmlands and wetlands by accelerating the deployment of natural climate solutions.
- Mobilizing action for a clean energy future and new, low-carbon technologies in harmony with nature.
- Supporting the leadership of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
- Building resilience through natural defenses such as restored reefs, mangroves and wetlands that reduce the impact of storms and floods.
- Restoring and bolstering the resilience of vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs and coastal wetlands.
- Helping countries around the globe, like India and Croatia, implement and enhance their commitments to the Paris Agreement.
Visit Our Goals for 2030 to learn more about TNC’s actions and partnerships to tackle climate change this decade.
Why We Must Urgently Act on Climate
Some amount of change has already occurred, and some future changes are inevitable due to our past choices. However, the good news is that we know what causes it and what to do to stop it. It will take courage, ambition, and a push to create change, but it can be done.
Reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is an ambitious goal, one that’s going to require substantial effort across every sector of the economy. We don’t have a lot of time, but if we are prepared to act now, and act together, we can substantially reduce the rate of global warming and prevent the worst impacts of climate change from coming to pass.
The even better news is that the low carbon economy that we need to create will also give us cleaner air, more abundant food and water, more affordable energy choices, and safer cities. Likewise, many of the solutions to even today’s climate change impacts benefit both people and nature.
When we really understand the benefits of climate action—how it will lead us to a world that is safer and healthier, more just and equitable—the only question we have left is: What are we waiting for?
Scientific studies show that climate change, if unchecked, would overwhelm our communities and pose an existential threat to certain ecosystems.
These catastrophic impacts include sea level rise from melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica that would flood most major global coastal cities; increasingly common and more severe storms, droughts, and heatwaves; massive crop failures and water shortages; and the large-scale destruction of habitats and ecosystems, leading to species extinctions.
To avoid the worst of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that “every bit of warming matters.” When it comes to limiting climate change, there’s no magic threshold: the faster we reduce our emissions, the better off we will be.
In 2015, all the countries in the world came together and signed the Paris Agreement. It’s a legally binding international treaty in which signatories agree to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C (3.5° F) above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels.”
Every day that goes by, we are releasing carbon into the atmosphere and increasing our planetary risk. Scientists agree that we need to begin reducing carbon emissions RIGHT NOW.
To reach the goal of the Paris Agreement, the world must make significant progress toward decarbonization (reducing carbon from the atmosphere and replacing fossil fuels in our economies) by 2030 and commit ourselves to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This is no small feat and will require a range of solutions applied together, to reach the goal.
As the IPCC says, “every action matters.” You can be part of the climate change solution and you can activate others, too.
It’s really important that we use our voices for climate action. Tell your policy makers that you care about climate change and want to see them enact laws and policies that address greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts.
One of the simplest—and most important—things that everyone can do is to talk about climate change with family and friends. We know these conversations can seem like a recipe for discord and hard feelings. It starts with meeting people where they are. TNC has resources to help you break the climate silence and pave the way for action on global warming.
You can also talk about climate change where you work, and with any other organization you’re part of. Join an organization that shares your values and priorities, to help amplify your voice. Collective change begins with understanding the risks climate change poses and the actions that can be taken together to reduce emissions and build resilience.
Lastly, you can calculate your carbon footprint and take actions individually or with your family and friends to lower it. You might be surprised which of your activities are emitting the most heat-trapping gases. But don’t forget to talk about the changes you’ve made, to help make them contagious—contagious in a good way, of course!