The Basics of Climate Change Simplified

earth's atmosphere made up of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change

The basics of climate change are simple. So it doesn’t hurt to understand climate change and why there is an overwhelming consensus on the science, just in case you meet someone who is in denial.

If you tend to believe science, it can be enough to hear it from over 90% of climate scientists that say that climate change is real, it’s happening now (not in the future), and is the result of human activity.  It’s not necessary to know how it works- we just believe that the experts that devote their lives to the subject know what they’re talking about.

We don’t need to know every detail of how a medication interacts with our body when we are prescribed something by a doctor. A Doctorate isn’t needed to allow surgery on our broken bones or hearts. And we don’t question that a rocket can make it into space just because we don’t comprehend the mechanics and physics.  We happily try new, untested diets like Keto and Paleo without spending years in college to understand nutrition and biology. These are things we have confidence in the experts on.  We let them do the work, and trust that they will share their scientific findings with us. And usually, the results or acts are observable, on top of that.

Well, the same is true for climate change.  There are experts that have devoted their academic and professional lives to understanding climate.  Who have used the findings of other scientists’ lifetime devotions to the subject as a foundation to learning even more. 

Yet, somehow the existence of climate change is still being denied by some people.  And I say being denied, because the science isn’t debatable.  Luckily, after reading this, you should be able to simply explain the basics of climate change, and how our earth’s systems work to anyone that is in denial of the science.

Because those that are arguing against climate change aren’t arguing the science.  It’s mostly likely because it does not align with their political views. 

the politics of climate change

It’s unfortunate that many of the solutions to climate change are based on governmental action. In order for us to curb emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and N2O, we really need to regulate Big Ag and Energy. This isn’t ideal for those that affiliate with a party interested in less governmental regulations, and open-ended laws for major corporations. Climate change’s existence is the strongest argument for governmental regulation (since the cost of NOT regulating is only the stability of the entire planet). But because of this, people have just decided it’s easier to distrust science. 

Yes, it’s inconvenient that our luxurious lifestyles are causing catastrophic changes to the earth’s systems, altering life as we know it.  Yes, it’d be a slight economic setback for huge conglomerates to have to switch to renewable energy and be responsible stewards of the planet.  But you know what else is inconvenient?  A planetary collapse that can no longer sustain human life. 

(By the way, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” is perfectly named.)

how our climate works

The physics of climate change are well understood and have been since the 19th century.  There is nothing new in understanding how the atmosphere maintains heat that is conducive to the life this planet fosters.

the suns rays come through the atmosphere as light and warm the earth

Here are the basics:

The energy from the sun comes in the form of light. Light has a short wavelength and can penetrate the atmosphere relatively unimpeded. 

About half of the sun’s energy passes through Earth’s atmosphere to the surface. When sunlight enters the lower atmosphere, some energy is bounced back to space by clouds, ice, and other reflective surfaces, and some energy is absorbed by the Earth itself, warming the Earth.

The outgoing energy is reflected as infrared radiation (heat).  Infrared radiation is absorbed by Earth’s natural greenhouse gas layer in the atmosphere.  That’s a good thing because it keeps global temperatures within a boundary conducive to life. It keeps Earth in the “Goldilocks Zone”: not too hot, not too cold.

atmosphere made of heat trapping greenhouse gases above earth

the science

So what leads to climate change?

Greenhouse gases that make up the atmosphere are relatively stable due to the natural earth cycles.  There are enough greenhouse gases to maintain the proper temperature.  However, as the atmosphere thickens with greenhouse gases, from increased emissions caused by fossil fuels, less heat is able to escape.  The addition of more carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases means more solar radiation and trapped heat in the atmosphere.  Which means…

… our temperature goes up.

And our temperature has been doing exactly that since the industrial revolution.  Which, coincidentally, happens to be when we started burning fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels are made of carbon.  When they are burned, they release carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that naturally traps heat in our atmosphere.  Suddenly there is more CO2 in our atmosphere after burning carbon cased fuels.  And at the same time as we are measuring these increases in CO2, we are seeing a rise in global temperatures. 

Hmmm.  Just as you might expect right?

More of a greenhouse gas that traps heat would mean more heat trapped.

Simple logic, I’d say.  It’s hardly even science!

don’t take my word for it- ask Venus.

Our neighboring planets demonstrate the difference a strong greenhouse effect can make on a planet’s physical conditions. Mercury has a weak atmosphere, and as a result it has no greenhouse effect.  It has an average temperature of about 167 degrees Celsius (333 degrees Fahrenheit), mainly because of its proximity to the sun. Despite being further from the sun, Venus is three times hotter than Mercury.  It has an average temperature of about 464 degrees Celsius (867 degrees Fahrenheit). This huge difference in temperature is because of Mercury’s lack of a greenhouse effect versus Venus’ ‘runaway’ greenhouse effect. 

Earth and Venus are about the same size and have about the same amount of carbon. But on Venus, the carbon is mostly in the atmosphere, while on Earth it is mostly in the ground. As a result, Earth’s temperature is 59 degrees Fahrenheit, and Venus’s is 867 degrees Fahrenheit. Venus’ atmosphere has about 300 times more carbon dioxide than Earth’s, which is why it is so outrageously hot.

Think of it like this.  You are sitting outside with a heater blowing directly on you.  You may be warm while the heater is on, but the minute it’s turned off, there’s no heat left.  Now, compare that to being inside with a heating system.  You don’t need hot air directly on you.  But the warm air in the house stays because of the walls, and the temperature doesn’t fluctuate as much.  It’s more stable when the heat stays trapped inside.

Greenhouse gases are like the walls that keep the heat inside the house (earth’s atmosphere).

basics of climate change recap

There is a lot more to learn about climate change but understanding the basics alone make it hard to deny it.  The logical conclusion of increased emissions of carbon-based fossil fuels is increased atmospheric greenhouse gases, which leads to increased temperatures on earth. 

This article discusses CO2, but that’s not the only greenhouse gas.  The Guilty Granola will be putting out more articles on these additional greenhouse gases, but the logic stays the same.  Humans emitting more of a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere means more heat is trapped in the atmosphere.  It’s as simple as that.

So the next time someone tries to deny climate change, ask them if they can explain how our atmospheric system works.

If not, ask them if they insulate their house.  If they do, ask them why.  They’ll likely say something along the lines of “to trap more heat” or “so I don’t lose heat” or “so I’m not cooling the outside”.  And you can say ‘That’s right! Because the more you insulate your house, the less heat is lost to outside space.”    

Then you turn logic into science and deniers into believers. 

Happy debating!

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