The Elephant In The Room


Climate change is on everyone’s lips for a variety of reasons. Danielle Crowley lays out some of the effects it could have on us.

CLIMATE change. It’s arguably one of the most polarised scientific concepts in recent years. But what exactly will it do, and why does it make so many people so worried?
Earth’s climate has been in flux since the beginning. There are many factors that can cause it, such as changes in the way the Earth moves through space, changes in the gases that make up our atmosphere, and variations in the amount of solar energy that reaches us. This is perfectly natural. It’s what led to the steamy rainforests that covered the globe just after the end of the dinosaurs, and created the vast snowy scenes of the many ice ages the Earth has gone through. If the planet has gone through cycles of heating and cooling, for all of its 4.5 billion year old history, then why all the fuss today?

In a word: us. In the past, global climate patterns changed slowly, giving organisms plenty of time to adapt or in some cases die out. The problem with human driven climate change is that it’s too fast for the vast majority of living things to adapt, resulting in what some scientists call “the 6th extinction”. The last major extinction was the one that killed the dinosaurs.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, the average global temperature has been rising steadily. Since 1880, this has gone up by 0.8 degrees Celsius. “So what?”, you may be saying, what’s the issue with this? Now Ireland will get proper summers.

Less than a degree of an increase sounds tiny, but as we are already witnessing, it can change the World as we know it.
Melting ice has consequences far beyond just the loss of a magnificent habitat and wildlife. Like polar bears, native hunters in the far north rely on sea ice to hunt. If this takes longer to re-freeze in the summer and freeze in the winter, their window for safe and efficient hunting gets smaller and smaller. If the ice disappears, their way of life goes with it.
Icebergs are born in a process called calving from glaciers. Warming conditions have seen many glaciers shrink dramatically, and if they produce more icebergs in the process, shipping lanes could be full of them. Eat your heart out Titanic. The melting of mountainous glaciers could have even more catastrophic consequences. About one-sixth of the world’s population depends on the freshwater supplied from glaciers, which is used in everything from drinking water to farming. If the glaciers vanish, their water source could too.
Speaking of melting ice, do you live near the sea? About half of the world’s population lives about 60km from the ocean, along with three-quarters of the world’s biggest cities. If the sea rises to the highest estimated levels (these are the most pessimistic scenarios, say if we decided not to change our ways at all), say goodbye to London, Dublin, Bangladesh, Venice and parts of Florida.

Ice is just one example though. What are some of the other effects? The increased temperatures are not just restricted to land; they are affecting our seas too. Not only are oceans getting warmer, they are getting more acidic. When the water heats up, it is able to dissolve more atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is particularly bad for coral reefs. Corals are sensitive to rapid changes in water conditions, and if stressed enough will die.

If we lose the reefs, not only do we lose an amazing habitat that supports thousands of species, we lose a valuable economic resource. The worldwide value of reefs is £5.7 trillion, mainly thanks to tourism and fishing. Reefs act as natural barriers against the full force of storms and tsunamis, and keep many coastal communities safe. Corals have been used to find treatments for asthma, cancer, heart disease and arthritis. The reefs are the aquatic equivalent of rainforests, and just as we would suffer from the loss of the rainforests, we would also suffer from the loss of our reefs.

There is another, slightly less publicised risk from rising temperatures. Countries in northern climes are protected from malaria carrying mosquitoes due to their cooler temperatures. If this changes, places such as Ireland could suddenly find themselves dealing with outbreaks of diseases formerly restricted to the tropics.

Humans cannot deal with external temperatures that stay over 35 degrees Celsius. If global temperatures rise by seven degrees, it is suggested that certain areas of the globe would become uninhabitable for humans, resulting in mass migrations.
You’ve also probably noticed that people tend to become more irritable when it gets hotter. You’re not imagining things, statistically people really do become angrier the hotter it gets. And not just on an individual level. This correlation is also seen in civil conflicts. Mix soaring temperatures, lack of water, failing crops and human aggression, and you have the ingredients for serious social issues.

The focus has been on temperature, but we are dealing with a whole plethora of affects. Changes in rainfall patterns and atmospheric composition are all predicted to occur, which in turn affect the lives of everything. Ranges of birds and butterflies are fluctuating, bird migrations and nesting times are changing, and some studies even suggest that animal behaviour is evolving to deal with their new conditions. Studies of zebra finches suggest that parents sing a special “heat song” to their eggs that seems to result in smaller adult body sizes when the chicks reach adulthood. Smaller body sizes deal with heat better than larger ones.

The scary thing is that we don’t fully know what will happen. All we know is that something is occurring, and we are (mostly) to blame. And we all better do something, even if it is as simple as cutting down your car usage, because the elephant in the room is getting uncomfortably warm.