25 terms you should know to understand the climate change conversation
For the third year in a row, global leaders surveyed for the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report cited the impact and likelihood of environmental threats as the greatest perils facing the globe in the next decade. But one doesn’t have to wait 10 years to see that prediction shake out: Almost daily there’s more news about climate change exacerbating natural disasters like storms, floods, and wildfires, impacting tourism, threatening many species with extinction, or creating cultural shifts like refugee crises because farms become deserts or inhabited islands are abandoned as sea levels rise.
Climate change was widely considered the most underrepresented issue of the 2016 presidential election. The topic has since become so huge it inspired a CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall in September 2019 during which 10 Democratic presidential candidates gave their views on some of the biggest arguments and solutions related to our planet today. As more of a spotlight is focused on these pressing issues, so, too, appear a myriad of associated buzzwords—from fossil fuels and carbon to biofuels and ozone. And as the climate change conversation becomes increasingly ubiquitous and complicated, it’s helpful to have a grasp on some of its most significant terms—starting with the definition of “climate change” itself.
At its most fundamental, climate change refers to new weather patterns sustained over time (decades to thousands or even millions of years) because of fluctuations in the Earth’s climate system (atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere). The planet has gone through many significant (and natural) climate changes over the past 4.5 billion years, including ice ages and global melts. Then, about 12,000 years ago, the climate reached stable temperatures hospitable to humans. The resulting farming and settling that occurred led to a need for fuel to power newly invented machines; people found it in coal. But as the coal burned, it released the carbon it held. Then came the oil industry in 1859, when Edwin L. Drake drilled the first oil well. All that burning of fossil fuels for industry and transportation—and methane from livestock and the burning of natural gas—has sent much higher levels of emissions into the air than ever before, fueling a period of global warming that is happening faster than at any time in the past 2,000 years. After thousands of years with average temperatures barely fluctuating by more than a degree Celsius, many experts agree the world is likely to experience three degrees of warming by the end of this century. That’s because for the first time, we’re seeing what civilization’s effect on the Earth’s climate system is—and how it affects all of us.
Stacker has compiled 25 terms related to climate change, their meanings, and their significance in the context of today’s warming climate. This gallery is not inclusive (thousands of terms relate to the climate change discussion), but is meant as a starting point to better understand what is arguably shaping up to be the most pressing issue of the near—and distant—future.
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Weather is the specific state of the atmosphere at any given time and in any given place over a limited period (minute to minute, day to day, or week to week). Weather can fluctuate wildly over the course of a month or year, and anomalies in weather patterns, such as heat waves or extreme cold, are not evidence for or against global warming or climate change. July 2019 being the hottest month on record represents a weather pattern that could be construed as an anomaly. But when contextualized, scientists have found that the period between 2015 and 2019 was the warmest five years on record—a fact that illuminates a larger climate pattern taking shape.
Climate refers to weather patterns over time based on statistical data. Weather trends are indicative of larger climate patterns when the trends can be charted over at least a 30-year span. The Navy in August 2019 shut down its climate change task force, an initiative established during the Obama presidency to ready naval leadership for changes in the ocean, including sea-level rise and ocean temperature, related to climate change.
Ice sheets are continental glaciers exceeding 19,000 square miles. In one 24-hour period in August 2019, Greenland’s ice sheet lost 11 billion tons of ice. While it’s normal for the ice sheet to lose some ice every summer (and regain some in the winter), 2019’s melt season came almost a full month early and was exacerbated by record high temperatures.
Global warming, an increase in average global temperature over an extended period, is one aspect or symptom of the much larger problem of human-caused climate change. Today’s global warming is attributed to high levels of emissions, including carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons.
The chemical compound carbon dioxide (one part carbon and two parts oxygen) is a gas produced by respiration and the burning of carbon and other organic compounds. Plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, making the gas a fundamental component of all life on earth. Carbon dioxide traps heat radiating off the Earth’s surface in its atmosphere, making the planet habitable for plant and animal life to thrive. Excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere creates a “greenhouse effect” attributed to today’s warming climate.
By studying air bubbles trapped in ice, NASA scientists have confirmed that today’s carbon dioxide levels exceed CO2 levels of the past 400,000 years.
Parts per million, or ppm, is the mass ratio between a pollutant and the air, soil, water, bodily fluid, or other solution. The latest carbon dioxide measurement by NASA in July 2019, for example, showed levels at 411 ppm. For reference, carbon dioxide levels in various ice ages were roughly 200 ppm and 280 ppm during periods of a milder climate. Carbon dioxide levels in 2013 exceeded 400 ppm for the first time ever recorded; left unchecked, that ratio is expected to exceed 1,500 ppm and signal an uncharted climate never before inhabited by human life.
Methane is a natural gas comprising one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. It releases less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when burned, but is roughly 30 times as strong as CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere, making it an even greater climate change threat. The amount of methane being released into the atmosphere has more than doubled in the past 250 years because of forest fires, natural gas fracking, and mass-produced cattle for meat, and accounts for 20% of global warming, according to Yale Environment 360.
Emissions refer to the expulsion of something (most commonly gases or radiation). When it comes to climate change, emissions might refer to smog over high-density cities like Los Angeles or greenhouse gases released by vehicles. Four major car companies in August defied President Donald Trump’s reduced emissions standards (37 miles per gallon, down from President Obama’s 54.5 miles per gallon standard) and signed a deal with California that self-imposes more stringent emissions standards.
COP and UNFCCC
Conference of the Parties (COP) is the decision-making entity of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an environmental treaty that took effect in May 1992. Annual meetings of the COP (begun in March 1995) negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, review the state of climate change and how countries are dealing with it, and decide to implement aspects of the convention. Today, every country in the world is part of the UNFCCC with the goal of drafting and meeting climate goals. A UNFCCC report in August 2019 outlined how various countries are reacting to its mandates and looked at the status of support for countries in achieving different climate goals.
Tillage refers to a variety of methods for preparing to plant crops, whether by turning over soil, raking it, or digging into topsoil. Because tillage disturbs the top layers of soil, tilling large swaths of land can decrease water absorption, subject topsoil to being blown or washed away by wind and rain, and disrupt a soil’s ability to hold nutrients and microbes. Tillage and the use of fertilizers have been blamed for the loss of as much as a third of all arable land in the past 40 years, making past calamities like the Dust Bowl more inevitable in the future.2018 All rights reserved.