Climate Change

[Back to Physical Challenges: The Earth]


It is clear that the world is undergoing significant, and potentially catastrophic climate change.  The average temperature is higher now than at any time in the history of human civilization, and it will continue to the point of mass extinctions unless we make massive, radical and immediate changes - much of which needs to happen in the next decade.

Climate change is not the only significant physical challenge we face (see Physical Challenges for some others), but it is arguably the largest and most urgent.  Some of the others are largely driven by climate change, and most of the others have the potential to kill many people and many species; climate change, if we do not respond sufficiently well and sufficiently quickly, has the potential to destroy all human civilization, with any surviving humans returning to a basic hunter-gatherer existence, and with no possibility of building another civilization within a geological timescale.

A few quick points.

  • The world is warming on average, but some places may become colder.  This is not a contradiction.
  • If you believe that human activity is not the main reason for the climate change, you have an even greater motivation to make urgent and substantial changes!  If we are not the main cause then, if we are to survive, we have an even larger problem to be solved.
  • The problem is caused by the high levels of 'greenhouse gasses' in the atmosphere: as well as Carbon Dioxide, we also need to be concerned about levels of Methane, Nitrous Oxide and some synthetic fluorinated gases, among others.  But, right now, the main problem is the quantity of Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide.
  • There is no place to hide.  If civilization falls apart (as could easily happen), then there will be no place of safety for the rich and powerful elite, and no pockets of civilization waiting to rebuild once the chaos has settled down.
  • There is a problem with the 1.5 degree warming target: it seems very likely that people will be assuring us that we can still hit the target, years after we have sailed right past it.


We are all affected by climate change, and we can all do something about it.  There are many ways of responding, and we need to do as many of them as possible.  So what can we do?

  • Understand the big picture and the key facts.  Be informed, keep up to date with the changing situation and our developing understanding.  Distinguish between the things we are confident about and what is a current best guess, and between the sources of information which attempt to provide accurate data and those which are pushing a particular story.  Have the facts and the evidence for those facts at your fingertips, so you can use them when necessary.
  • Talk about this.  Keep it at the forefront of peoples attention.  We are very good at ignoring unpleasant and inconvenient truths (how many people can't bring themselves to make a will?) so we need to have climate change, and the things we can (must!) do about it constantly in our faces.
  • Recognize that the situation is complex and constantly changing, but this does not mean that we are not sure of anything.  Changing some detail in a projection is not the same as saying "we got it all wrong," and doing something is better than doing nothing - even if it does turn out that our choice was not the best possible.  Posterity will forgive genuine mistakes, but not inactivity.
  • Resist the message that it all depends upon you making the necessary sacrifices.  Yes, we as individuals do need to make wise (and sometimes difficult) choices for the sake of the planet, but we can only choose between the options which government and business make available to us: between them, government and business have most of the power, so they have most of the responsibility - but we have to make sure they use that responsibility well.
  • Campaign, seek to influence politicians, businesses and public opinion: let them know you care.  Support reforms which take us in the right direction, even if they are not perfect.
  • Vote for people and parties who prioritize the planet.  Most of what needs to happen depends upon governments to take action, and upon international cooperation.
  • Minimize choices and activities which generate greenhouse gasses - partly because we need to do this, partly to provide moral ground for asking others to make changes, and partly to convince the politicians that the general public actually cares about this issue.
  • Partner with other people of good will, even if you disagree about details.  Keep things in perspective.  We need to address both global climate change and global poverty - both because that is the right thing to do, and also because people who are struggling to survive will do whatever they have to, even at the cost of the planet (the Amazon deforestation is a case in point).

 We can keep climate change in mind as we make all the many small choices which make up an ordinary day.  If you need to buy compost, make sure it is peat-free; if you are shopping, buy vegetables which are in season and not shipped across the world.  If you have a car, keep running it for as long as you can, and then (if you really need one!) choose an electric replacement - electric vehicles may be friendlier to the environment, but the embedded cost of creating an electric vehicle is large.  But the biggest change we can make is to convince the governments of the world that drastic action must be undertaken - and not just promised - now.

Find Out More

  • Carbon labeling: a useful edition of 'The Bottom Line', a half hour BBC radio program.
  • MyClimate: a company offering to calculate and offset your carbon emissions
  • Shipping is a bigger problem than aviation (and it is one of the few sectors where emissions are growing instead of falling), so we need to change the fuel for shipping.  In August 2021, we heard that Maersk (the world’s biggest shipping company) has ordered eight ships capable of running on both oil-based fuel and methanol.  When burned, methanol emits less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than fuel made from oil, and that carbon dioxide can (in the future) be cancelled out by the way the methanol is made.  And it is far less polluting than oil.


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