Climate Change

  1. What is climate change?

    Climate change is the term used when a considerable change in the average weather of a region occurs over an extended period of time. These changes can be due to natural factors, such as increased intensity of sunlight or a decrease in the earth’s temperature, as occurred during the last ice-age. However, climate change today refers to the increase of global temperatures as a result of increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  1. What is the greenhouse effect and how does it influence climate change?

    The greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring phenomenon that helps to regulate the earth’s temperature. Without the greenhouse effect the earth’s temperature would be about 30 degrees less, making life much different.

    The energy from the sun passes through the atmosphere and warms the surface of the earth. As the heat rises back towards space, greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, trap some of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere and reflect it back to earth. These GHGs create a type of warming blanket over the earth, behaving in a similar way to glass in a greenhouse.

    However, there has been a huge increase in GHG levels in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. This is due mainly to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, heating and transport. The result of these additional GHGs in the atmosphere is a thickening of the natural blanket of gases that is heating the earth, causing what is known as global warming.
  1. Does human activity affect our climate?

    Yes, human activity has a direct affect on our climate. Since the industrial revolution, GHG levels in the atmosphere have grown steadily. Carbon dioxide emissions alone grew by 80% over the last 30 years of the 20th Century. It is highly likely that this trend in increasing GHG levels is as a result of human activity, e.g. burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, for energy, transport and heating. Such activity releases additional GHGs, trapping more heat in the earth’s atmosphere. This increase in the earth’s temperature is referred to as global warming.

    The main GHGs that derive from human activity are carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4). Sectors with high levels of GHG emissions are agriculture, transport, energy supply, waste, residential and industry.
  1. What are the impacts of climate change around the world so far?

    The Fifth Assessment Report  published towards the end of 2013 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made observations on the impact of climate change. The evidence showed widespread melting of ice and snow at the polar caps, rising sea levels, and increases in both air and sea temperatures. The warmest eleven years on record occurred between 1995 and 2006, and the report maintains that it is likely that heat waves have become more frequent in most areas over the past fifty years.

    An increase in the intensity of storms has also been observed. We have already witnessed the impact of such extreme weather changes, e.g. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, 2005, and Hurricane Sandy in New York, 2012. Changing migratory patterns of birds has also been observed, and according to the IPCC report, significant changes in biological systems are consistent with the anticipated changes as a result of global warming.

  1. What impacts are anticipated in the future?

    It is difficult to predict exactly what changes to expect in the future. Humans have a limited understanding of the process of the natural carbon cycle, and it is equally difficult to predict the development of society.

    However, if climate change continues at its present pace, it is likely that rising sea levels will cause a vast amount of flooding across the planet. This would especially affect small islands and island nations such as the Maldives, and low-lying countries such as The Netherlands and Bangladesh. Weather conditions are likely to become increasingly extreme and storms are likely to intensify. Much productive land may also be lost to desert. Habitats may come under threat and be lost, while many endangered species may become extinct.

    In Ireland, Regional Climate Models (RCMs) based on outputs from Met Éireann have been developed to make predictions on changes in our climate. Between the years 2021-2060, it is predicted that there will be a mean monthly temperature increase by between 1.25 and 1.5 degrees Celsius. Significant changes are expected in rainfall. It is likely to decrease in June by about 10%, and increase in December by between 10% in the south-east and 25% in the north-west. Such winter increases in rainfall will raise the risk of flooding. Atlantic storms are also expected to become more frequent and intense.

    The latest research carried out by Met Éireann, Ireland's Climate: The Road Ahead, was published towards the end of 2013.

  1. What is being done to combat climate change?

    Efforts are being made on a global and national level to try to combat the problem of climate change.

    In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to provide independent Assessment Reports on the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic research on climate change. These reports are used to advise many policy makers on how to adapt to climate change.

    The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which entered into force in 1994, and the subsequent Kyoto Protocol which entered into force in 2005, sets binding targets on the signatory countries to reduce carbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol first commitment period aimed to reduce overall GHG emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. For the Kyoto Protocol second commitment period, Parties committed to reducing GHG emissions by at least 18 percent below 1990 levels in the eight-year period from 2013 to 2020.

    On a national level, legislation has been enacted to allow for emissions trading by companies who emit greenhouse gases. This is a cap and trade scheme that sets a price on carbon emissions. Details of this scheme can be found on the EPA website as can details about legislation

  1. What can I do to help?

    There are lots of ways that you can help the environment. If everyone makes small changes in their lifestyle, the overall impact will be even greater. To find out more about simple changes you can make at home, take a look at our Lights! Cycle! Action! section. You will see just how easy it is to reduce your carbon footprint and make positive environmental choices. Check out our Environmental Awareness section too.

Case Studies

Burning fossil fuels for energy, heat and transport increases GHG levels

Copyright the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government

Burning fossil fuels for energy, heat and transport increases GHG levels - Copyright the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government

The agricultural sector has one of the highest GHG emission rates

Silage making machine at work on a Co. Meath farm.

By permission of Meath Leader.

The agricultural sector has one of the highest GHG emission rates - By permission of Meath Leader.

As climate change continues, flooding will increase around the world

The extensive flooding that affected much of the country in August 2008 damaged roads and much local infrastructure. This section of the N3 which runs from Dublin to Cavan was impassable during the downpours.

Courtesy of Dublin City Council

As climate change continues, flooding will increase around the world - Courtesy of Dublin City Council

Cycling instead of driving reduces your carbon footprint

Photo Credit: 'Segun Olude.

Cycling instead of driving reduces your carbon footprint - Photo Credit: 'Segun Olude.

Buying from the local farmer's market instead imported foods reduces carbon miles

© Cork City Libraries

Buying from the local farmer's market instead imported foods reduces carbon miles - © Cork City Libraries

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