Climate change facts: the science and impacts

04 Sep 2017
Our planet is warmer now than at any point in the past 650,000 years.

What is climate change: why is the planet warming?

This warming is caused by a build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

The gases trap heat by forming a blanket around the Earth – like the glass of a greenhouse.

These gases stay in the atmosphere for many years. And as they build up, the planet’s temperature rises. A warmer world leads to a more extreme climate – with more severe droughts, floods and storms. And as the world warms up, feedback-loops can accelerate warming: melting polar ice means less of the sun’s heat is reflected back into space.

Greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – and by cutting down forests. Greenhouse-gas levels have rocketed in the last 100 years.

 

Graph plotting atmospheric CO2 concentration synthesizing ice core proxy data 650,000 years in the past capped by modern direct measurements.
Credit: Global Climate Change – Earth Science Communications Team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

 

The latest climate change science

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases updates on the latest climate change science. We have pulled out 10 key findings on climate change [PDF] from a recent report.

There is over 95% certainty that human influence is the dominant factor in warming since the mid 20th century.

To put this into perspective – scientists are as certain that humans are warming the planet as they are that smoking causes cancer.

There isn't a safe temperature rise. Each degree of warming will bring more extreme weather [PDF] and sea level rises. 

Climate change impacts are happening now and are increasing in severity and likelihood – from floods in Asia and Europe to droughts and hurricanes in the USA.

Climate change is already displacing millions of the world's poorest people. And it's affecting people here in the UK too – as flooding will continue to get worse.

DEMAND PROTECTION FOR CLIMATE REFUGEES

Global action on climate change

Having already hit over 1°C of warming, the best we can aim for now is 1.5°C. This is the aim of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which 160 countries including the UK have officially signed and committed to meet.

There are masses of other bodies endorsing the need for urgent action – from the Ministry of Defence, the British Medical Association and the CBI (Confederation for British Industry) to the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and over 1000 US companies and investors including Adidas, Tesla, Nike, Unilever, eBay, Virgin, Gap, and Mars.

How do we stop dangerous climate change?

At least 80% of all proven global fossil fuel reserves – coal, oil, and gas – must stay in the ground to meet the Paris Agreement goals. That’s why we are calling for an end to new fossil fuel exploration – we cannot afford to burn [PDF] more than a tiny fraction of existing coal, oil and gas.

Ban fracking now

The Paris Agreement calls for “global emissions peaking as soon as possible, and rapid reductions thereafter”.

Two of the biggest solutions are being far more efficient in how we use energy, and moving from coal, oil and gas to 100% renewable energy as fast as possible.

The good news is that this is starting to happen, and is accelerating fast. Renewable electricity costs have plummeted in the last few years, and the amount of wind and solar power is rocketing, all over the world.

The task is urgent – it is what happens between now and 2030 that overwhelmingly determines whether we can keep to 1.5°C, and save as many lives and livelihoods as possible.

Change needs to happen quickly. But it has to be done in a fair way. Rich countries like the UK must lead the way. We are far more responsible for the global climate change we see today – our economy has been built on exploiting coal, oil and gas. Rich countries also have a responsibility to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and cope with impacts we can no longer avoid.