The Climate Crisis
You’ve seen it in the news. You’ve heard politicians claim it to be a hoax. You’ve heard David Attenborough beg for its mercy. Climate change is one of the most talked about topics in the world right now and for good reason. But how much do you actually know about it? This section aims to simplify what is an extensively complicated subject and sets the scene for why we should be taking more consideration over our actions as a species.
"You’re worried about the planet? The planet has been through a lot worse – we’re the ones we should be worried about."
Climate & Weather
Weather is what you see out the window right now and is influenced by short term changes in the atmosphere (to be specific, the part closest to the surface known as the troposphere).
Climate is the pattern of weather in a specific region, over a long-term period, referred to as the seasons. Different regions can have different climates and seasonal changes including what the temperatures are like during different seasons, how windy it usually is, or how much rain or snow typically falls.
An easy way to remember is this: look at the clothes in your wardrobe. Weather tells you what to wear today. Climate tells you the types of clothes in your closet.
One of the most scrutinised terms from the past 30 years, climate change is a general term that is used to define changes to the climate of our planet. When talking about climate we usually take a 30-year average of measures of weather that are often referred to as Climate Normals.
These can be analysed on a regional scale but can also take the form of global climate averages. Due to the scale, this considers overall energy received from the sun and how much is stored by the entire planet, hence why a single temperature is often used to represent the change in our climate.
Whilst weather changes occur in the space of minutes or hours, climate changes happen in much longer time frames from several years to over a hundred thousand. Climate change it is a natural process that can be influenced by a variety of predictable patterns, including subtle changes in sea temperature, or astronomical changes such as the earth wobbling every 26,000 years (yes, I know, this can get weird).
"But if climate change is natural, predictable and has happened in the past; what’s the problem?"
A common question asked and for good reason! We are not great at communicating what kind of climate change the world is facing right now and so confusion is inevitable. Unlike ever experienced on planet Earth before is the ever-looming presence of anthropological climate change.
A short history lesson: The reason humans have been able to advance in such a short time is due to a beautifully balanced time in history where it’s not too hot, or too cold. Remember those massive lizards roaming around called dinosaurs? They were able to thrive thanks to an extremely warm period in the history of the Earth, where the poles were devoid of ice and average temperatures of up to 35 degrees Celsius. The current average for the 20th Century is 12.7 degrees Celsius. On the other extreme, 650 million years ago, the Earth was one giant ice cap, colourfully referred to as the Snowball Earth. The balance we are currently in was brought about by ebbing and flowing through these climate changes naturally. What we are facing now in anthropological climate change has never happened in the 4.3-billion-year history of the Earth and refers to the influence we as humans have had on this balance.
Figure 1: Average global surface temperatures (coloured key), and average global surface temperature difference to 1961-1990 average (black line) over the last 65 million years.
T. Westerhold el al., "An astronomically dated record of Earth's climate and its predictability over the last 66 million years," Science (2020).https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6509/1383?rss%253D1=nce.aba6853
Global Warming/Greenhouse Effect
Another hotly (sorry) contested subject matter, thanks again largely due to the communication of what these terms mean.
Let’s start with the greenhouse gases. These beautifully designed pockets often get a bad rep; however, they are the main reason we can inhabitant this planet, and without them we would be a desolate ice desert averaging around -18 degrees Celsius (Brrrr). Of the gang, carbon dioxide (CO2) gets the headlines, but there are plenty others, including water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone (of you guessed it, the ozone layer). These gases trap vital heat energy from the sun that attempts to escape back into space, and that energy is used to feed the planet and make it liveable.
Until, the balance is tipped.
Remember those dinosaurs mentioned earlier? The reason it got so hot back then was due to a large amount of heat energy being stored by greenhouse gases in a process known as Global Warming. This occurs thanks to many different climatic variables, but one that is very important to consider (especially right now) is that ice reflects up to 70% of heat energy, and with no ice poles, it was mostly absorbed by the sea.
What we are seeing now is very similar with the ice caps melting, however the tipping balance this time is happening over the space of centuries, not millennia.
Still confused? Watch this fantastic 3 minute video by the team at Minute Earth to learn more about how greenhouse gases actually work.
"Bit warmer you say? Beautiful, where do I sign up?"
Cast your mind back to when we spoke about the climate being an average of the weather in a certain region. Well, when the balance tips in global temperature, this can have catastrophic effects on the weather, and we’re not talking about the dinosaur or snowball earth period temperature changes, we’re talking 1 or 2 degrees different. Not only that, but the changes back then spanned over hundreds of thousands of years, not a couple of centuries. The truth this is not now a case of uncertainty of what will happen, but more a case of how bad it will be.
To understand where we are heading, we first must understand how we measure our changing climate. While weather forecasts use up to date satellite information and local weather stations to help predict up and coming weather events, climate predictions differ. They look at what the world may look like in 25 to 100 years from now. This is done using "climate models", computer simulations that look at how various factors will change our climate. For example climate scientists can assess the effects of a rise in sea temperatures on sea levels and local weather systems. To create these models and thus assist climate scientists in these predictions, data is used from satellites, trees and ice cores allowing them look into past climates.
In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It states that humans are estimated to have caused 1°C of global warming since pre-industrial levels and this is likely to rise to 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues at the current rate. It is clear however that the rate is increasing. Climate models predict significant increases in extreme weather events, surface temperatures and drought between 1.5°-2°C of global warming. Climate models predict that by 2100 sea levels will be 0.1m (48cm vs 58cm) higher if we exceed global warming of 1.5°C. While 0.1m may not seem much it would expose a further 10 million people to sea rise related risks. By allowing global warming to exceed the 1.5°C increase in global warming we can expect a 3% decrease in crop yield, a 5% decrease in global GDP and a 2 month increase in average drought length by 2100.
The Carbon Brief website has a fantastic interactive web page demonstrating the the impacts of climate change at 1.5°C, 2°C and beyond. Click on their logo to be redirected.
"Sounds bad. How are we doing currently"
In all honesty not well. If you have got this far down the web page, well done. It's alot to take in. The following presentation is the first in our GHASP Anaesthesia Study Day Lecture Series. We are very lucky to have had Professor Hugh Montgomery talk to us about The Planetary Emergency. An intensivist by trade, he has chaired the last two Lancet Commissions on Human Health and Climate Change and has written and lectured extensively on the subject. He was appointed to the post of Leader by London’s Sustainable Development Commission, attended many of the international ‘COP’ negotiations, and led the children’s climate education Project Genie.
This lecture contains some very distressing facts.
The Climate Crisis is a Health Crisis
The relationship between climate change and its effects on health is complex and often modulated by interactions with other ecological processes, social conditions, and adaptive policies and behaviours. In simple terms the effects of climate change on health can be direct or consequential, secondary to environmental and ecological disruption.
“The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”
Figure 2: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health & Exacerbation of Existing inequalities.
California Department for Public Health. Climate Change and Health Equity Program (CCHEP), 2020. cdph.ca.gov/programs/OHE/pages/CCHEP.aspx
To learn more on the heath impacts of climate change read the article below GASP wrote in collaboration with the RCOA as part of their e-learning for health Environmentally Sustainable Anaesthetic Practice series.
This is a fantastic resource where you can learn more about how to practice sustainably. Click on the link below and sign up! You will find the module under additional resources.
Did you know, according to the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index that doctors, nurses and pharmacists are among the three most trusted professions. As healthcare workers we need to be SHOUTING from the rooftops about what is going to be the greatest public health emergency of our lifetime. It is essential that we start doing this now.
It is also time we look inwards. Are we part of the problem?
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