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The case for climate action

Guest blog from Dr. Philip Goodwin, Associate Professor in Earth Systems Dynamics,  School of Ocean and Earth Sciences.

 

As a scientist working in the field of climate change and the carbon cycle, I believe strongly that urgent action is needed.

The truth is, climate change is not a new problem. People have known about the potential for human-caused changes in Earth’s climate for a very long time. The ability of different greenhouse gasses to trap heat was measured back in the 1850s and 1860s. It was quickly realised that if the atmosphere held more of a particular greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, then the climate would be generally warmer.

People have also known that burning fossil fuels, and clearing and burning forests, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been measured continuously since the late 1950s. By the late 1970s it was obvious that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was going up year-after-year, and that human emissions were the cause. Measurements now show that carbon dioxide levels are rising ever faster, because each year more fossil fuels are burnt and more forests are cleared.

A big problem with carbon dioxide is that it is difficult to remove from the atmosphere once it has been put there. Some of the carbon dioxide we emit goes into the ocean, and some gets taken up by land, but the rest will stay in the atmosphere keeping the Earth’s climate warmer than it would be naturally for thousands of years.

Daily temperature records at many locations across the globe have been taken for a long time, with a number of records going back as far as the 1850s. Different teams around the world have looked at the available temperature measurements, and all have agreed on what they mean for Earth’s average surface temperature: so far, temperatures are around 1 degree Centigrade warmer than they were in the late 1800s. The only way we can explain this 1 degree warming is by considering the impacts humans have had on the atmosphere, principally the increase in carbon dioxide.

If nothing is done to limit fossil fuel use and the clearing of forests, then the further increases in carbon dioxide are due to cause Earth’s temperatures to rise by another 3 or 4 degrees Centigrade by the end of this century. Such additional warming would have drastic and devastating consequences. To avoid the most serios consequences of man-made climate change, most of the world’s nations have already signed up to keeping global temperatures less than 2 degrees warmer than it would naturally be, and take steps to achieve just 1.5 degrees warming.

All this shows why it is so important to act quickly now, and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit every year. The less carbon we emit now, the less warming future generations will have to cope with. Eventually, to stop climate warming further, we will have to live in a completely carbon-neutral society.

The more quickly we can achieve a carbon-neutral society, and phase out fossil fuels altogether, the less warming future generations will face. Urgent and significant action is now required: to stop warming going above 1.5 degrees Centigrade, assuming we start emissions reductions now, we will need to reach a carbon-neutral society by the year 2050.

All the information needed to make good decisions for our future climate is out there, and has been for a long time. This is an urgent problem that is only going to get worse unless good decisions are made, both on individual and governmental levels. This is why I am keen to see meaningful action on climate – now.

 

 

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