Climate Change Explained: Where We Are Now and What You Can Do to Help

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

We all know climate change is a critical issue in our world, but with both the environment and global politics changing minute by minute, it can be difficult to understand all the nuances of this concerning phenomenon. But with a little background knowledge, we all have the power to make small adjustments to some daily behaviors to help counteract climate change on an individual and family level. Together, we can make a difference. Here's your 2021 guide to climate change explained—as well as some ways you can help!

What Is the Current State of Climate Change?

The results are in from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NASA, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it's not super news. Evidence presented by each of these organizations shows that our average global temperature is rising, the ocean is warming, glaciers are melting, overall snow cover is decreasing, sea levels are rising, Arctic Sea ice is declining, the ocean is becoming more acidic, and we are seeing more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, heat waves, and more. Yikes.

All of this is happening much faster than any natural fluctuations that occurred before the industrial revolution—when humans really started adding pollution to the air. In fact, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have gone up 48 percent since the start of the industrial revolution, according to NASA.

Calved ice from glacier floating on blue ocean below blue sky

Carbon Dioxide as a Climate Change Indicator

We measure carbon dioxide as an indicator of global climate change because it's a greenhouse gas. The Earth is somewhat like a giant greenhouse: NASA tells us that our atmosphere is warmed by the sun, and that warmth is trapped within our atmosphere like warm air is trapped inside a greenhouse because of all the glass. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and plain old water vapor trap the heat within the Earth's atmosphere so it can't get out—like that glass. We can't survive without this bubble of air around us, but if it gets too hot, that's a problem, too.

Our Earth has warmed and cooled in cycles and seen glacial ice advance and recede over the past 800,000 years, according to NASA. Past levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be measured using glacial ice that's hundreds of thousands of years old. Scientists have compared these levels of carbon dioxide in this age-old ice with those of today. Prior to 1950, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere never—in the entire life of the Earth that has been researched—reached 300 parts per million (ppm). In 2013, as National Geographic reported, we saw 400 ppm—and it's still climbing. As of March 2021, the Earth's atmosphere measured an average of 414 ppm of carbon dioxide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These changes have been mostly attributed to human impact. We have added carbon dioxide to our atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, deforestation (reducing carbon dioxide sequestering), and more. We've added methane through landfill gasses, agriculture, and livestock. Methane is less abundant in the atmosphere but more active. Nitrous oxide is produced through fertilizers, fossil fuels, and biomass burning. The addition of these gasses keeps the highest air in the atmosphere warmer.

This news is a big deal. Admittedly, it's all pretty scary stuff to hear about, but together we can make a difference!

It Takes a Village of the Entire World

It's always best to work together on any big problem, climate change included. There are many movements and coalitions working to slow climate change and its impacts by regulating industrial exhaust and developing and distributing cleaner fuel sources. There may be a group you can join in your hometown to address the issue. Making a positive impact where you live is the best!

If you need some inspiration, check out the UN's Global Goals for Sustainable Development. These seventeen global goals all work together and are aimed at making life on Earth better for everyone. Find a goal that resonates with you, and scroll down to the "Get Involved" section to find nonprofits, individuals, and companies working toward these goals.

Additionally, the Paris Climate Accord is an international agreement of 197 nations working together to stem climate change. Their goal is to limit the Earth's temperature increase to two degrees above preindustrial levels. This will take a lot of work and will include efforts to sequester carbon into biomass by planting more trees and keeping our soil healthy.

What Can I Do about Climate Change?

It's true that businesses, factories, agriculture, processing plants, and large buildings generally all use vastly more resources than we do individually. Green building practices, closed-loop waste systems, and green infrastructure are all the ideals that we should push our local governments and favorite businesses and brands to follow. We should also ask our political leaders to support nonprofits that set aside land for preservation and conservation as well as asking our electricity providers to make greener choices. There is much to do and the work won't stop.

On an individual household basis, we can also make a difference by trying to produce fewer greenhouse gasses. There are really countless ways to make greener choices in nearly every aspect of our lives.

Reducing the trash we produce will reduce methane expelled from landfills. Food waste is particularly harmful, and keeping that organic matter out of the landfill through composting or using your garbage disposal—or getting chickens!—is particularly helpful. Recycling right and prioritizing products made with recycled content help ensure that materials are part of the circular economy and lessen their carbon impact. For example, starting in 2019, Tom’s of Maine designed the first-of-its-kind toothpaste tubes for mainstream recycling with #2 plastics, and more brands are beginning this important transition!

Women prepping food using vegetables and fruits

A study published in Environmental Research Letters listed the top four ways to reduce your carbon footprint. These top four greenhouse gas reduction life-changers include having fewer children, reducing your driving as much as possible, reducing air travel as much as possible, and reducing your meat consumption. Buying green energy and reducing energy usage are also important.

This is not an all-or-nothing proposition, though; you don't have to sell your car to improve your impact if some driving is essential to you. If you can, use your car less: ride your bike for some light errands, telecommute if you can, and take the bus if possible. Plan your vacations to include fewer plane rides, and explore your own country via trail or bus. Start incorporating Meatless Monday recipes into your meal planning, and add more vegetarian or vegan meals overall.

There are other steps you can take right at home, too, like doing an energy audit of your home and then investing in LED light bulbs and efficient appliances to reduce the energy you use. Residents in cold regions can install some light insulation and reduce their heat use. If you live in a warm, dry climate, you might skip the dryer in favor of a clothesline from time to time. It takes a bit of creativity and planning, but together, we can make an impact!

Are you inspired to make changes to alter the future of our planet? For more eco-friendly choices and swaps to make, follow the Thinking Sustainably board from @tomsofmaine on Pinterest!

Image Sources: Pexels | Pixabay | Pexels

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Climate change is a big issue—one that we all need to work together to address. By taking climate change seriously, you can make a big impact on your own. By asking the people around you to join your efforts, you change the world!