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Human Impact on Climate Change

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In 1958, scientists measured atmospheric CO2 concentration atop Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The CO2 concentration was measured at just 316 ppm (parts per million). In May 2013, the concentration tipped above 400 ppm for the first time. The last time CO2 concentration levels were this high was 3 million years ago when forests grew in northern Canada, and Homo sapiens were yet to evolve. How has carbon dioxide increased so rapidly?


Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming

Greenhouse gases, despite their negative reputation, are crucial for our survival. Without the natural greenhouse effect, the heat emitted by Earth would pass outwards into space. Earth's surface would have an average temperature of -20 °C, too cold for humans to survive.

A greenhouse gas absorbs infrared radiation in Earth's atmosphere. It is so called as it contributes to the greenhouse effect.

The natural greenhouse effect works as follows. Some infrared radiation from the sun passes through the Earth's atmosphere. Greenhouse gas molecules absorb most of it and re-emit in all directions - much like a greenhouse for growing plants. This warms the Earth's surface and lower atmosphere – keeping the heat in like an insulating blanket and the Earth at an optimum temperature. When there is an increase in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, this leads to a rise in the warming effect and, ultimately, the phenomenon that is global warming.

The greenhouse effect is so called due to the similarity between how heat is absorbed under the glass of a greenhouse and the Earth's atmosphere.

Types of Greenhouse Gases

The contribution of a gas to the greenhouse effect, or global warming, depends on its heat absorption, its heat re-emission and the amount present in the atmosphere.

The gases that contribute most to Earth's greenhouse effect are:

  • Water vapour (H2O)

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)

  • Nitrous oxide (N2O)

  • Methane (CH4)

  • Ozone (O3)

Although all naturally occurring, various synthetic chemicals also contribute.

Anthropogenic Impact on Climate Change

If something is anthropogenic, it is caused or influenced by humans.

Since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, anthropogenic activities have caused an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases – primarily carbon dioxide. This leads to an enhanced greenhouse effect or global warming:

Increased greenhouse gas concentrations

More heat is absorbed and re-emitted within the atmosphere

Earth's surface and atmosphere become warmer

Higher temperatures alter Earth's physical systems, causing climate change.

Throughout recent history, humans and our various technological advances have significantly impacted global warming and climate change. Before the Industrial Revolution, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was 280 ppm. Now, the carbon dioxide concentration has increased to over 400 ppm. This corresponds to an increase in average temperature by approximately 1 °C. Although this might seem small, it has enormous impacts on the accumulated heat on Earth and, ultimately, the survival of many species, including humans.

Human Impact on Climate Change: Cause and Effects

We've learned that anthropogenic activities release greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.

Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions stem from burning fossil fuels. The remainder comes from deforestation, land use change, and cement production.

  • Burning Fossil Fuels: Fossil fuels are non-renewable, carbon-rich deposits. When burned, they release energy - but also carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This enhances Earth's natural greenhouse effect, increasing temperatures and causing climate change.

  • Deforestation: The act of cutting down trees is known as deforestation. Forests are carbon stores. When they are cut down, the carbon is released as greenhouse gases, which enhances the greenhouse effect.

  • Land Use Change: Any anthropogenic modification of the landscape is classed as land use change. Often, land use change concerns agricultural and urban expansion, which emit greenhouse gases and various pollutants, affecting the local and global climate.

  • Cement Production: An astonishing 8% of global anthropogenic carbon emissions stem from cement production. Half of these emissions are generated by the chemical process itself – carbon dioxide is produced when calcium carbonate is heated. Other emissions stem from burning fossil fuels to power this production process.

    Over 900g of carbon dioxide is emitted for every kilogram of cement produced.

Human Impact on Climate Change sources of greenhouse gases pie chart StudySmarterThe majority of greenhouse gas emissions originate from four economic sectors.

Effects of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Humans' high impact on greenhouse gas emissions leads to global warming. This raises the overall temperature worldwide, affecting the Earth's climate system.

A climate system is a complex system influenced by the sun and other external mechanisms. The five interacting components are the Earth's air, water, land surface, ice and living organisms.

The major effects of climate change are:

  • Rainfall changes causing droughts or floods

  • Higher temperatures leading to heatwaves and forest fires

  • Melting sea ice, leading to rising sea levels and changing global currents

  • More extreme storms such as cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons

  • Decrease in biodiversity due to a loss or changes in distribution patterns of species on land and the oceans

  • Vulnerability to poverty as a result of forced displacement and severe weather

  • A global rise in hunger and poor nutrition due to less grassland, ocean acidification and a diminished water supply

  • Increased health risks because of pollution and pressures on mental health etc.

The Impact of Human Settlements on Climate Change

Over half of the world's population live in large settlements like towns and cities. These large settlements contribute to climate change. How?

Construction: building houses, roads, and infrastructure require energy and cement production.

Transport: large urban areas (especially those lacking public transport) experience pollution and carbon emissions from cars.

Energy: fossil fuels are burned to produce energy to power homes, schools, businesses, and hospitals.

Waste: landfill sites emit pollutants and methane.

Cities don't just contribute to climate change; they often bear the brunt of its adverse effects. The poorest residents are most at risk of problems like flooding, landslides and extreme weather. They typically live in low-quality housing, lacking adequate infrastructure like storm drains.

An estimated 880 million people living in cities are vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Modelling Climate Change

Models help scientists understand complicated systems. They are also used to test theories, predict future changes and look for solutions to problems.

Climate models use data to solve mathematical equations. Supercomputers are used to analyse the data, which includes:

  • The movements of mass and energy in the atmosphere and oceans

  • Global climate patterns

  • Previous weather records

Circulation patterns move air, water, and heat around the Earth, influencing temperature and rainfall. These patterns are caused by the uneven distribution of solar energy and the movement of the Earth. Weather monitoring stations detect these changes, and data from the monitoring stations are transferred to the supercomputers and used in future climate simulations.

El Niño is an irregular climate pattern impacting the oceans, currents and weather conditions. It is triggered by an increase in sea surface temperatures off the coast of South America. El Niño is detected using buoys, satellites, and sea level analysis. This data is then transferred to the climate model supercomputers.

Climate Models vs Weather Forecasts

Weather forecasts present a detailed picture of expected weather in the near future.

Weather forecasts can predict temperatures, sunshine, and rain within the next week.

Climate models indicate regions likely to experience a change in the long term.

Climate models can predict if an area will be warmer, cooler, wetter, or drier than its current climate.

Predicting Future Climate Change

Climate science is a complicated field. It's difficult to predict how atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations can change in the future, so scientists can never be sure about climate change. Many factors can influence the climate, and there are countless uncertainties due to a lack of data.

Despite this, climate models can help scientists make predictions. They alter variables and equations in the climate model to see how the climate will change according to a scenario.

Scenarios are possible stories about population change, land use, economic shifts, climatic legislation and atmospheric conditions.

These models show how the decisions and behaviours of today can influence the climate of the future.

Positive Human Impact on Climate Change

It's not all doom and gloom in the future. Understanding how our decisions and behaviours affect the climate has helped the world to make meaningful changes.

Positive Changes

  • One hundred and ninety-seven countries have signed the Paris Agreement, the first legally binding global climate agreement. Legislation like the Paris Agreement tracks countries' progress and holds them accountable, encouraging them to make important policy changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement sets a global framework that aims to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

A 1.5°C increase will still substantially impact the climate; however, letting the environment hit a 2°C rise will have a much more significant impact. Devastating large parts of the world and causing astronomical sea levels rises.

  • Over 100 countries have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050. Carbon neutrality is also known as net-zero, which means that all greenhouse gas emissions must be balanced with their removal or elimination.

Japan, South Korea and the European Union are some countries pledging neutrality.

  • Electric vehicles are becoming cheaper and more efficient. Many countries have proposed plans to phase out fossil-fuel-powered cars. Phasing out these vehicles limits the emissions of greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants.

Denmark is completely phasing out petrol and diesel-powered cars by 2030.

  • Millions of people around the world have shifted towards a plant-based diet. Plant-based protein sources emit up to 90% fewer greenhouse gases than meat.

Since 2004, there has been a thirty-fold increase in veganism in the US.

  • Renewable energy resources are becoming commonplace. Electricity from these resources is free from greenhouse gas emissions and is derived from natural, sustainable sources that can be replenished faster than consumed.

45% of Norway's energy comes from hydropower, a renewable energy source.

Things we can do to have a positive impact on the climate crisis. Anyone can make a difference, no matter how small. Here are a few examples:

Opportunities for ChangeChangesWhy Is This Better?
TransportationSwap driving for walking, cycling, or public transport.These methods of transport use less energy and emit fewer pollutants.
DietReduce consumption of meat and dairy.Producing plant-based foods requires less land area and fewer resources.
ClothingInstead of buying new clothes, look for second-hand items.Reusing old clothes saves resources – and money!

Human Impact on Climate Change - Key takeaways

  • Greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation in Earth's atmosphere. Our planet experiences a natural greenhouse effect, maintaining temperatures warm enough to support life.

  • Anthropogenic activities (such as burning fossil fuels) have led to greenhouse gas emissions. This leads to an enhanced greenhouse effect, increasing global temperatures and impacting the climate system.

  • Effects of climate change include rainfall and temperature changes, ocean acidification, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events.

  • Large human settlements contribute to climate change, but may also bear the brunt of its harmful effects. Nearly a billion urban residents are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

  • Scientists predict climate change using models. These models show how today's decisions and behaviours can influence the future climate.


1. British Geological Society, The greenhouse effect, 2022

2. Che Project, Main sources of carbon dioxide emissions, 2017

3. Christina Nunez, Fossil fuels, explained, National Geographic, 2019

4. Climate.Gov, Climate Models, 2022

5. Diego Arguedas Ortiz, Ten simple ways to act on climate change, BBC Future, 2018

6. Earl J. Richie, Exactly How Much Has the Earth Warmed? And Does It Matter?, Forbes, 2018

7. EURACTIV, Denmark calls for EU plan to phase out diesel and petrol cars, 2019

8. European Commission, Climate Action, 2022

9.Good Food Institute, Environmental benefits of plant-based meat products, 2022

10. Grace McGregor, How You Can Have a Positive Impact on the Climate Change Emergency, Brigham Young University, 2020

11. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, 2014

12. Liana Minassian, Why the Global Rise in Vegan and Plant-Based Eating is No Fad (30x Increase in US Vegans + Other Astounding Vegan Stats), Food Revolution Network, 2022

13. Madeleine Stone, 5 possible climate futures—from the optimistic to the strange, National Geographic, 2021

14. Maeve Campbell, Which country is the world leader in renewable energy in 2021?, EuroNews, 2021

15. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Cities: a 'cause of and solution to' climate change, UN News, 2019

16. Meteorological Office, Effects of climate change, 2022

17. Nicola Jones, How the World Passed a Carbon Threshold and Why It Matters, Yale Environment 360, 2017

18. UN News, The race to zero emissions, and why the world depends on it, 2020

Frequently Asked Questions about Human Impact on Climate Change

Causes of climate change include burning fossil fuels, deforestation, land use change, and cement production.

Effects of climate change include rainfall and temperature changes, ocean acidification, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events.

The 5 impacts of climate change are rainfall changes, higher temperatures, ocean acidification, melting sea ice (which leads to rising sea levels and changing global currents) and more extreme weather events.

Human activities often require the burning of fossil fuels (which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere). Other activities that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere include deforestation, land use change, and cement production.

Humans can reduce the effects of climate change by signing international treaties to address climate change, pledging carbon neutrality, and switching to renewable energy, electric cars and plant-based diets.

We can walk or cycle instead of driving, reduce our consumption of meat and dairy, and buy second-hand clothes. These changes use less energy and resources.

Final Human Impact on Climate Change Quiz

Question

What is a greenhouse gas?

Show answer

Answer

A greenhouse gas absorbs infrared radiation in Earth's atmosphere.

Show question

Question

Without the natural greenhouse effect, how cold would Earth be?

Show answer

Answer

Without the natural greenhouse effect, Earth's surface would have an average temperature of -20 °C.

Show question

Question

Which of these is not a greenhouse gas?

Show answer

Answer

Nitrogen

Show question

Question

How does the greenhouse effect work?

Show answer

Answer

Infrared radiation from the Sun is trapped in the atmosphere. Most of it is absorbed and re-emitted by greenhouse gas molecules, warming the Earth's surface.

Show question

Question

How can greenhouse gas emissions lead to an enhanced greenhouse effect?

Show answer

Answer

Increased greenhouse gas concentrations ⇾ more heat absorbed and re-emitted within the atmosphere ⇾ Earth's surface and atmosphere become warmer 

Show question

Question

What is the current atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration?

Show answer

Answer

400 ppm

Show question

Question

What are some effects of climate change?

Show answer

Answer

Falling sea levels

Show question

Question

How do large settlements contribute to climate change?

Show answer

Answer

Construction, transport, energy production and waste services emit pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Show question

Question

How many people living in cities are vulnerable to the effects of climate change?

Show answer

Answer

880 million

Show question

Question

What are climate models used for?

Show answer

Answer

Climate models indicate regions that are likely to experience change in the long term.

Show question

Question

What are scenarios?

Show answer

Answer

Scenarios are possible stories about population change, land use, economic shifts, climatic legislation and atmospheric conditions.

Show question

Question

Why is a plant-based diet better for the environment?

Show answer

Answer

Producing plant-based foods requires less land area and fewer resources.

Show question

Question

What is the Paris Agreement?

Show answer

Answer

The Paris Agreement is the first legally binding global climate agreement.

Show question

Question

Melting sea ice can affect global currents.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What was the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration before the Industrial Revolution?

Show answer

Answer

The pre-Industrial Revolution carbon dioxide concentration was 280 ppm.

Show question

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