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Let's Talk About Climate Change

What you need to know about climate change and other disasters


climate change

Hotter temperatures are just one example of climate change.

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"Global warming" sounds like a summer vacation -- we can wear shorts year-round and grow oranges in Chicago, right?

No, not really. An increase in temperatures worldwide will be just one result of climate change. According to the computer models that experts use to forecast probable changes, northern latitudes like Canada will get more rain, other areas like the Southeast U.S. will experience extended drought, and the Great Lakes region will suffer through more severe winter storms. For these and other reasons, most experts now prefer the term climate change to global warming.

But hasn't climate change happened before?

Though it has, it's never changed like it is currently. Previous climate changes, like ice ages and warming events, have usually occurred slowly, over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. What has scientists alarmed is that the changes we're seeing today are happening at an unprecedented pace -- what's worse, the speed with which climate change is occurring seems to be accelerating. For example, it was feared that the ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica might melt over the next several decades -- but those ice sheets are already disappearing, and ice shelves along the West Antarctic Peninsula experienced huge breaks in 2008 and 2009 that have shocked even the researchers studying this issue.

Are humans really to blame for global warming, er, I mean, climate change?

Yes, according to all available data, and all of us share some degree of responsibility for global climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution began, humans have burned gargantuan amounts of coal, oil, gasoline and other carbon-based fuels -- even whale blubber -- to heat our homes, operate our vehicles, and power our factories. All of these activities create gases like carbon dioxide that absorb heat from sunlight and trap that heat in the atmosphere, much like a greenhouse traps heat -- thus the term "greenhouse gases." Billions of people burning carbon-based fuels for over 200 years have had an impact on Earth's thin atmosphere far in excess of any other source of atmospheric heating (volcanoes, solar activity, etc.).

But there are some scientists who say climate change is just a bunch of alarmist bullhonkey.

There are indeed a small number of scientists who dispute the findings of climate researchers, and some of them are getting inordinate amounts of publicity. But the overwhelming consensus of experts from every corner of the international scientific community is that climate change is real, it's happening right now, and it's caused by human activity. It should also be noted that some climate-change naysayers are in fact spokespeople for groups funded by industries whose profits depend on continued consumption of fossil fuels. ExxonMobil, for example, has come under a storm of criticism for funding lobbying groups that deny the threat of climate change.

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