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What is climate change?

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Increased warming:
Sea and iceThe problem that we face today is that the ‘blanket’ of greenhouse gases that occurs naturally in the troposphere is quickly getting thicker and this results in the rapid warming of the world’s climate.

The changes that scientists can measure in the atmosphere, oceans, ice caps and glaciers conclusively indicate that the world is already warming in response to past greenhouse gas emissions.

The temperature rises when the climate system adjusts to restore the balance between incoming and outgoing energy. A rise in temperature, global warming, occurs in addition to other changes in cloud cover and wind patterns.

Up until now the earth’s average temperature has been stable but now the ‘blanket’ which regulates  the planet’s climate is getting thicker at an unprecedented speed  due to the large amount of artificial emissions of greenhouse gases. These emissions result in an enchanced greenhouse effect. This occurs because of the adjustment that the climate has to make as a result of the thick blanket of GHG.

Over the past 100 years (1906-2005), the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by around 0.74°C. The rate of warming averaged over the last 50 years is nearly twice the rate for the last 100 years.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere:
Air PollutionThe artificial greenhouse gases that are causing global warming largely come from fossil fuels formed by long-dead plants and animals and from the oceans due to the increase in the Earth's temperature.

Other sources caused by humanity are burning coal, oil and natural gas releases.

Meanwhile, massive herds of livestock emit methane, as do rice farms and waste dumps.

Long-lived gases such as CFCs, HFCs and PFCs, used in air conditioning and refrigeration, are manufactured by industry and eventually enter the atmosphere.

Almost everything we produce and consume today means GHG emissions. Many of these GHG-emitting activities are now essential to the global economy and form a fundamental part of modern life.

Getting from one place to another, transport, demands a lot of energy as well. Energy which results in GHG emissions and housing accounts for 30 percent of  global GHG emissions.




MINUSTAH Military Personnel Assists Hurricane VictimsOne of the consequences of global warming is that there will become more water, but not everywhere.Climate change is expected to increase the severity and frequency of weather-related natural hazards such as storms, high rainfalls, floods, droughts and heat-waves
More precipitation has been observed in the eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia in recent decades. But the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia have experienced drying.

More intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas since the 1970s.

The consequence of a warmer atmosphere is that it becomes less stable and produces more precipitation and speeds up evaporation.
As a result there will be a decline in the quantity and quality of freshwater supplies.

Wind patterns and storm tracks are also likely to change as well as the increase in heat waves.

The intensity (but not the frequency) of tropical cyclones are expected to increase, with larger peak wind speeds and heavier rains.


The Earth’s natural systems are changing:
Egret bird in Mysore Bird Sanctuary, Ranganthittu, India / UN Photo/John IsaacWildlife and biological diversity are already threatened by habitat destruction and other human-generated stresses.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in the most fragile and marginal ecosystems around the world such as coral reefs and mountain habitats. A changing ocean environment is destabilizing coral reefs that are exceptionally sensitive to changes in the temperature and to the acidity of water in which they form.

20-30 percent of species on earth also face an increased risk of extinction as wildlife and biological life confronts new challenges from climate change.

The sea level is rising:
Another consequence of global warming are the higher sea temperatures, which have implications for sea life, and  the sea level rise, as Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets slowly lose mass.

Sea levels rose by around 17 centimetres during the course of the 20th century. Geological observations indicate that they rose far less over the previous 2,000 years.

Snow cover is also decreasing in most regions and mountain glaciers are melting.


Direct impact on individuals

Nomad and His Son in Darfur / UN Photo/Stuart Price

Climate change is altering the face of disaster risk, not only through increased weather related risks and sea-level and temperature rise, but also through increases in societal vulnerabilities from stresses on water availability, agriculture and ecosystems
Air pollution cuts 8.6 months off the life of the average European.

It is evident that it is the poorest communities that will be the most vulnerable to climate change since they have fewer resources to invest in preventive methods. Coastal populations, indigenous people and subsistence farmers are most at risk.

Climate change is a significant and emerging threat to public health. The distribution of infectous diseases, such as malaria, which currently claims the lives of around 2,5 million people every year, already contributes to the global burden of disease, and this contribution is expected to grow in the future.

Malnutrition is also likely to increase as a result of changes in the climate.
Many lives are lost due to natural disasters resulting from climate change. Of those deaths over 96% have in recent years occurred in developing countries.

A rising number of displaced people following natural disasters are also to be expected.

The human activity most affected by climate change is agriculture. Agriculture is also the main source of livelihood for most poor rural people. Crop failures and livestock deaths are causing higher economic losses, contributing to higher food prices and undermining food security with ever-greater frequency.

It is now generally recognized that climate change poses potentially severe macroeconomic, fiscal and financial challenges.


Copyright, United Nations, UNRIC, 2009. All rights reserved.