How Dire Climate Change, Explained with Graphs

Article by SydneyBlu Garcia-Yao

Climate change is nothing to scoff at. It's happening and if we don't stop it soon, who knows where the world could end up. Below are some graphs that illustrate how severe climate change currently is and how much worse it could get. 

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Image Description: A graph of sea ice extent over the last century or so. Source: NSIDC

Starting out with a simple one, you can see how Arctic sea ice isn't reaching out as far as it used to. Note here that this is not referring to the Antarctic Ice Sheet: the Arctic and Antarctic are very different. For example, the Arctic basin is confined to the ocean and protected by land all around while Antarctica is on land. This makes it melt and freeze more throughout the year. Antarctica is also affected by more factors like warm ocean water. 

With, sea ice decreasing rapidly, this means two things. First of all, it means that the Earth's albedo, or reflectivity, is decreasing; this leads to more solar radiation being absorbed by the Earth instead of re-radiating back into space. As sea ice melts, the Earth's albedo gets lower which just leads to more melting and decreasing albedo. This cycle is known as a positive feedback loop because the event triggers itself over and over until it spirals out of control as the effects are being compounded. 

Secondly, decreasing sea ice means a higher sea level: this is when it gets worrisome for humans, as many people live in coastal cities. (Many major economic centers are also coastal.) If sea levels get high enough, those cities could be demolished. It's all a matter of time with the ice melting as fast as it is. 
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Image Description: A chart of temperature anomalies on the surface and lower troposphere over the last century. Source: EPA
This chart shows how much higher or lower the temperature was that year versus the average (on this chart, 0). The shorter bars indicate mild deciations from the norm, while longer bars signify ectreme deviations. As you can see, ever since 2000, really starting the 1990s, there have been consistently hot, extreme years, which is extremely alarming to see especially compared to the last century when it was a lot more balanced and natural. The last year in which it was colder on average was the end of the 20th century, and it was only mild - you have to go back a century to see any significantly cold years.

This, of course speaks to the trend at large of global warming. But the extreme temperatures within each year is also important. Buildings must heat or cool their interiors respectively in order to maintain a comfortable living temperature of around 65 degrees fahrenheit. The more heating/cooling it takes to get to 65, the more energy used, and our current methods of energy generation largely contributes to the climate change and temperature swings. This leads to another positive feedback loop, such that the more extreme temperatures require more energy to maintain a livable environment, the more energy consumed contributes to more extreme temperatures; and as we discussed previously, positive feedback loops like this are especially dangerous.   

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Image Description: A graph showing the temperature changes throughout the past thousand years. Source: Britannica

Climate Change is normally detrimental to human survival. As the diagram notes, the little ice age was only about a degree celsius colder than average, but it made a huge impact. In this time when glaciers advanced, frigid winters and cool summers led to crops dying and famines. As ocean temperatures plummeted, so did the fish population. Colonies collapsed from starvation. Remember, this resulted from a degree change in average temperature. 

We have surpassed that benchmark. (Note that the last two decades are not shown in the chart.) Our temperatures have increased more than a degree. The only reason why we have not truly felt the effects is because of, among others, our technology. Also, the effects are never truly felt except in hindsight. 

This graph only goes to 2000. But trust me. It’s only getting worse. 

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Image Description: A graph showing the predicted concentration of greenhouse gases up until 2100. Source: EPA

Some of the scariest charts show the different routes our future could take. The worst part is that it always seems that no matter what, it will still be bad: just less bad. This graph shows the concentration of greenhouse gases in parts per million. Currently we are at 385-400 ppm for CO2 alone. Some scientists think that once we reach 450, there's no going back. The Lowest Emissions Pathway is the only way to make sure our Earth is kept for the future. (RCP stands for representative concentration pathway for reference and take into account things like climate policies and more.) But when Trump pulls out of the paris climate agreement and completely reverses all the good Obama has done, it seems hard to believe it's possible. Where we're going now, we may end up with the Highest Emissions Pathway, more than triple our current emissions.    
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Image Description: A chart showing sea level rise and sea level rise commitment. Source: ResearchGate

The last graph shows "transient" sea level rise or short term sea level rise compared with sea level rise "commitment," or the long term sea level rise. The shading shows the upper and lower limits of each pathway. What this chart shows is the bottom line, representing the sea level at that point following that pathway, in this case, RCP 8.5. However, it shows what sea level will occur in the future, even if we all stopped emitting greenhouse gases. The arrow on the graph points the where we surpassed at least one meter of sea level rise. Now, there is no possibility of less than meter of sea level rise with our technology. However, the sea won't rise that much until at least 2100. This chart shows our fate, even if we stop now.   

What you can do to help: 

There are many articles out there on what you can do to help, ranging from going vegan to using your bike to limiting one time use items. Everything helps. Swapping plastic cutlery for metal or plastic bottles for reusable ones. 

To get more involved, consider supporting charities and other groups aiming to fight climate change. For example, Zero Hour is a youth movement fighting for a future free from famine and the like. 

Just remember, real change happens at the level of policy makers. If we can get them to listen to our cries, maybe we can work together to fix this issue we've created.