Every year, the climate crisis intensifies — promising severe droughts, supercharged storms, blistering heatwaves, and other extreme weather events — threatening the lives and livelihoods of billions of people, and overwhelming the capacities of governments around the world.

But there’s a lot to know and understand about climate change, why it’s happening, and how it’s affecting people’s lives all around the world. So let’s go back to basics and take a look at what we should all know about climate change and what it’s doing to our world. 

What Is Climate Change? 

Simply put, climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns happening over several decades or longer. Since the industrial revolution in the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.

Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, which traps the sun’s heat and raises temperatures. The main greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change include carbon dioxide and methane. These come from everyday uses, like gas for driving a car or coal for heating a building.

Industrialization, deforestation, and large scale agriculture have caused greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to rise to levels not seen in 3 million years. As a result, the planet is now (as of March 2023) 1.22 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels. 

The increase might not seem like a huge difference, but even a half degree increase could expose tens of millions more people to life-threatening heatwaves, water shortages, and flooding. To help understand how rapidly the planet is warming, 18 of the 19 hottest years since record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.

3 Key Things to Know About Climate Change

  • The planet is now 1.22 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels.
  • The 20 richest countries account for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions across time. 
  • We can still prevent catastrophic levels of warming if we act now.

What Are the Causes of Climate Change? 

Basically, climate change is being caused by the current economic system. Instead of treating the planet with care and respect, its naturally occurring resources are viewed as commodities to be exploited for the profit of a few. 

This means that companies are allowed to create products and engage in activities that harm the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, in the interest of making money. Unfortunately, certain countries and industries are especially responsible for this.

The main culprit is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and methane gas for things like transportation, electricity, and heating. 

When we burn these fuels, they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the air, which trap heat and cause the temperature to rise. 

Shockingly, about 75% of emissions come from industries that rely on fossil fuels. The other 25% comes from clearing land, particularly forests, for human use and economic growth.

What Are the Effects of Climate Change? 

A lot of people think that climate change is just about rising temperatures, but it's much more complex than that. The Earth is an interconnected system, so changes in one area can have big effects across the planet.

Climate change is causing a wide range of problems, from droughts and water shortages to more frequent and severe wildfires, floods, and storms — have a look here at some of the extreme weather events around the world just this year

These impacts aren't just environmental — they also have far-reaching social and economic consequences. Climate change could make it harder for countries to provide food and education, build infrastructure, and create jobs.

Unfortunately, we're already seeing the effects of climate change in the world around us. From a devastating cyclone hitting southern and eastern Africa, to a heatwave across Asia, to wildfires in California, it's clear that urgent action is needed to prevent things from getting even worse. 

Find out more here about the effects of climate change, and what we could expect with a temperature rise of 1.5, 2, or 3 degrees Celsius.

Who Is Responsible for Climate Change?

Climate scientists have found time and again that humans are responsible for nearly all global warming that's occurred over the last 200 years. Our activities, like burning fossil fuels for energy and cutting down forests, release greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet. And unfortunately, some countries and individuals are much more responsible for this problem than others.

The great injustice of climate change is that those countries and people that are the most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts, and those who did the least to cause the problem in the first place. 

The United States is the biggest culprit when it comes to historical emissions, accounting for a whopping 20% of all emissions, according to Carbon Brief. But it's not just the US: the richest 20 countries in the world are responsible for 80% of emissions overall. 

That means the vast majority of the world's population, living in more than 150 countries, only accounts for a small fraction of emissions. The whole continent of Africa, for example, accounts for just 2-3% of global carbon emissions — yet the continent is seeing some of the most extreme effects of climate change

And the inequality doesn't stop there. 

The richest 1% of people in the world, for instance, produce more emissions than the poorest 50% of people. And billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have footprints several hundred times greater than the average US citizen, who already has a footprint three times greater than the global average

Global Warming vs. Climate Change: What’s the Difference? 

Climate change and global warming are often used interchangeably but are two separate phenomena. Global warming refers to the long-term increase in Earth's average surface temperature due to human activities, primarily the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. It focuses on the rising temperatures and the resulting impacts.

On the other hand, climate change encompasses a broader range of changes beyond just temperature. It refers to alterations in various climate patterns and systems, including precipitation, wind patterns, ocean currents, and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Climate change encompasses not only the warming of the planet but also the associated shifts in climate patterns and the dire consequences they bring.

Who Is Most Affected by Climate Change?

Climate change affects everyone on the planet in some way, but vulnerable populations such as those living in poverty are the most severely impacted. It is estimated that more than 1 billion people live in poverty in areas that are highly exposed to climate risks such as floods, droughts, and storms.

Vulnerable communities and communities that are already marginalized — such as Indigenous peoples, women, and children — face heightened susceptibility to the consequences of climate change due to limited resources and socio-political challenges.

The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) estimates that in 2050, 3.4 billion people will live in countries facing high or very high exposure to hazards such as cyclones, floods, bushfires, and rising sea levels — compared to 2 billion people in 2022.  That is nearly 35% of the projected global population, with most of this growth expected to occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of climate change: the cruel irony that the countries with the least responsibility for its causes are bearing the brunt of its harshest impacts while having the fewest resources to adapt and cope with the challenges it presents.

What Can We Do to Stop Climate Change?

Despite years of agreements and efforts to limit climate change, the latest report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals that we are significantly off track.

The report highlights that, in the past decade, greenhouse gas emissions have soared to unprecedented levels, causing more severe and widespread disruption and damage to our lives, infrastructure, and ecosystems than previously anticipated. This rapid pace of warming poses challenges for all life on Earth — humans, plants, and animals alike.

But don’t despair just yet. Research has shown that there are actionable steps that can be taken right now in every aspect of our lives, including the simple choices we make daily, that can effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

But, while there are steps we can take as individuals such as reducing our own carbon footprints, what we really need to combat climate change is widespread, global action to completely reform our societies and our global dependence on fossil fuels — and that means world leaders need to be taking action too. 

You can join our Power Our Planet campaign right now to call on world leaders, business leaders, the heads of the world’s multilateral development banks, and more, to take the urgent action needed today to help save tomorrow. Head here to take action and call on world leaders to stand up and tackle climate change.

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Climate Change: What You Need to Know

By Angi Varrial