Climate change is an exceptional challenge
Original Finnish text: Pinja Sipari/Ilmastoterveiset etelästä-hanke, BMOL ry
Compared to many other sustainability challenges, climate change is a very large-scale and highly complex phenomenon. On the other hand, the solutions of climate change are an extensive representation of a sustainable way of living. In the following text, the causes, effects and solutions of climate change are explained in a very compact manner.
Human action changes the climate
Climate change is caused by the enhancement of the natural greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a phenomenon where some of the gases in the atmosphere, e.g., water vapour and carbon dioxide, act like the glass walls of a greenhouse: they let the sunlight onto the Earth's surface but prevent some of the radiation that has turned into warmth from escaping back into space. The natural greenhouse effect contributes to the survival of life on this planet. Without it, the average temperature of the Earth would be -18 Celsius, i.e., 33 Celsius colder than what it is now.
The current climate change is caused by the massive amounts of greenhouse gases that are produced by humankind. They enhance the greenhouse effect, and as a result, the climate changes. The most significant greenhouse gases produced by humans are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). The major source of emissions is the usage of fossil fuels, i.e., coal, oil and natural gas, in energy production and transport. In addition, agriculture, industrial processes, landfills and forest fires generate greenhouse gases. Furthermore, as a result of logging and peat production, considerable amounts of carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere.
Climate has always changed but the change that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution has been exceptionally rapid. At the root of climate change are problems in our social structures. They are linked to the Industrial Revolution, development of consumer society, energy politics and global markets. Thus, to understand climate issues, one must understand both natural sciences and the issues connected to the function of societies, morals, values and justice.
Climate change causes changes in nature, social unrest and injustice, human rights challenges, difficulties in food production, spread of illnesses and economic instability.
The changes are visible in nature and societies
As a result of climate change, rainfall, temperatures and gas concentration of the atmosphere change. The changes are different around the Earth but in general, temperatures rise and weather conditions become more extreme. Droughts and heavy rains increase and storms intensify. In addition, the amount of snow and glaciers decreases and the sea levels rise. In nature, the survival of many species is at risk since they are not able to adapt to the fast changing climate. However, some other species will benefit from climate change.
For humans, climate change causes changes in nature, social unrest and injustice, human rights challenges, difficulties in food production, spread of illnesses and economic instability.
In the light of what we know now, stopping climate change is not possible anymore. The existing climate emissions will warm the atmosphere for hundreds of years to come. However, human activities have a critical impact on the development of climate change, and if we want, we can still prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic. Governments, municipalities, businesses, civic society and schools as well as people working in them are needed in climate action. We all have our own roles in it.
Rational choices are important
Climate change mitigation requires significant changes in our way of life: in energy production, industry, transport, housing and agriculture. The carbon sequestration of nature's own carbon sinks such as forests and soil should be strengthened. Social change can happen by developing new solutions and putting them into practice through legislation, subsidies and taxation, good urban planning, education and communication, by researching and developing new products and services as well as discussing climate issues and examining the conditions and approaches to it in a constructive but critical manner.
Climate change is not the only environmental issue but a part of a multifaceted tangle of environmental and sustainability issues that plague the modern world. Other environmental issues include, for example, ocean pollution, wasting of natural resources, poor air quality in cities, acidification of oceans and the blue-green algae blooms in the Baltic Sea every summer. Sometimes environmental issues are interconnected but sometimes they are not. Furthermore, the extent of the issues varies: environmental issues can be locally or regionally significant, or as in the case of climate change, significant in a global scale.
The causes and the best solutions for a specific environmental issue need to be known in order to solve it in an effectual manner. If your goal is to have a plastic-free local nature, you should put your trash in a bin and demand your municipality to deliver trash bins with a lid to outdoor spaces to prevent pieces of plastic escaping with the wind and ending up in water bodies. However, stopping people from littering does not change the fact that Southern Finland does not have very many old natural forests that are important for the protection of endangered species. The issues connected to littering and the issues connected to the decrease of primeval forests require a completely different set of solutions.
Furthermore, in slowing down the pace of climate change, some actions are more efficient than others. For example, recycling is generally a good idea but in terms of slowing down climate change, it is clearly more important to abandon fossil fuel based energy solutions, to cut down air travel and to favour plant-based food.
It is expected that climate change will prevent poverty alleviation in the world, and that the water and food shortage caused by it will lead into conflicts and even wars.
Changes are coming
Because the consequences and effects of climate change cannot be completely prevented anymore, adapting to climate change has become essential. The aim of adaptation is to reduce the vulnerability of ecosystems and communities to the effects of climate change. In practice, adaptation can mean, for example, taking the changes in climate conditions into consideration in town and land use planning and building, by developing insurance systems and by protecting wetlands, forests and biological diversity of agricultural systems.
The United Nations is the central actor in organising the intergovernmental work against climate change. The most recent international climate agreement, the Paris Agreement, was negotiated in Paris on December 2015. The agreement went into effect very rapidly already on November 2016.
The Paris Agreement does not include obligations for quantifiable emissions reduction but according to the agreement, the countries commit to prepare, communicate, maintain and achieve their own national emission targets. The general objective is to keep the Earth's average global temperature rise significantly under two Celsius degrees compared to the pre-industrial levels, and to strive towards actions with which global warming could be restricted to under 1,5 degrees. According to the data from 2018, we are still far away from 1,5 degrees: for example, the objectives of the European Union lead to the temperature rise of three degrees. At the moment, the international climate negotiations concentrate on working out the details of the Paris Agreement.
In order to solve the climate crisis, the actions of local government (municipalities), private sector (businesses), civic society (organisations) and citizens are needed along with international co-operation and governmental action.
Climate change in the global South and North
People living in different parts of the Earth have caused and still cause different amounts of climate emissions. In addition, the impacts of climate change are different depending on the location. The majority of historical greenhouse gas emissions were caused by the developed countries. Even today, the developed countries are responsible for over half of the yearly emissions of the world, though only one fifth of the world's population live in them. Correspondingly, the least developed countries inhabit a tenth of the world's population and they produce less than one percent of all carbon dioxide emissions.
Due to the rapid population growth and industrialisation of the developing countries, their quota of emissions is on the rise. It is estimated that by 2025 their quota will consist of almost half of the global emissions. At the same time, emissions increase also in many developed countries.
Although the developed countries are the main contributors to climate change, the biggest impacts are felt by people and groups of people who are already in a vulnerable position, i.e., those who are marginalised due to social, economic, political or other reasons. These people are, for example, citizens of developing countries, future generations and many indigenous peoples such as the Sami people in Finland.
The countries most at risk at the moment are the small island states that can be totally wiped out when the sea levels rise. However, other countries are also in trouble. Water shortage caused by drought, decrease of crops as well as the spreading of infectious diseases cause tremendous problems in these countries. It is expected that climate change will prevent poverty alleviation in the world, and that the water and food shortage caused by it will lead into conflicts and even wars. Some people will have to move away when their habitats are destroyed, and thus, they will become climate refugees. In addition to more large-scale problems, developing countries have poorer chances to adapt to climate change than developed countries.
Climate change is very much about justice and human rights. At the heart of the climate justice is the question of who has caused climate change and who will suffer from it. The international community has proclaimed a number of fundamental human rights whose objective is to ensure a life worthy of human dignity to each and everyone. For the climate justice to be realised, human rights should be realised also in a world altered by global warming. However, the UN states that even at this very moment, climate change compromises the realisation of the following human rights: the right to autonomy, the right to life, the right to the development of one's personality, the right to food, the rights to water and sanitation, health, housing, education and the right to participation in the life of the community.
Climate action in the global South
The countries in the global South are often referred to as actors who are poverty-stricken and in need of development aid. They are the least responsible for climate change but they will suffer the consequences more than anyone else. Furthermore, poor countries have less opportunities to prepare and to adapt to climate change than rich countries. For this reason, during the international climate negotiations, countries have agreed on climate funding that will be used to support the climate actions of the poorest countries. The decision is fairly unanimous but the amount and the criteria have been a major point of discussion in the climate negotiations in recent years.
Even though the Southern countries need help, they are not the passive receivers of aid in climate actions that they are often portrayed as. Active actors mitigate climate change and its impacts in governmental organisations, municipalities, private sector, organisations and civic societies both in global South and North.