What is “climate change” or “global warming”?

Climate change, or global warming, is generally understood as the gradual increase in the average temperature of earth’s air and oceans (Fisher, 2004; Pew Center for Global Climate Change, 2009). Over the last century, average global temperatures rose by more than 1°F and as much as 4°F in some regions. The IPCC (2007) concludes that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation, rather than natural temperature variations, are the primary cause of climate change. Because of human activities since the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are trapping more of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, leading to warming (Pew Center for Global Climate Change, 2009).

The Science

97% of the world’s leading atmospheric specialists and climatologists agree that climate change, including global warming and the greenhouse effect, is happening and will have major consequences for human society. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that global warming is a serious problem with anthropogenic influences and it must be addressed swiftly to avoid devastating environmental and economic consequences (IPCC, 2007). Yet, this important issue has failed to receive the kind of drastic multilateral action necessary to reverse it or mitigate its potentially disastrous consequences for the earth’s fragile biosphere.

The Impacts

Some effects of climate change have already been observed, and scientists predict more severe consequences in the future. Polar ice is melting at record rates. Glaciers around the globe are in retreat. Sea levels are on the rise. Subtropical deserts are expanding. Storms are increasing in intensity. Ecosystems around the world are already suffering as plant and animal species struggle to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Scientists predict that if the current acceleration in greenhouse gas emissions continues unabated, temperatures could rise significantly by the end of the 21st century. The Arctic region could experience a rise in surface temperatures of as much as 45°F by 2100, which would cause almost all Arctic sea ice to disappear (IPCC, 2007).



Even a less extreme rise in average temperature would produce dramatic and irreversible effects on the earth’s climate, with profound consequences for humanity and widespread drought would occur in some regions due to dwindling water supplies as snow and ice disappear. Other areas could see substantial flooding and more powerful hurricanes and storms. Agricultural production could see a temporary boost due to warmer temperatures, but would eventually suffer as a result of precipitation changes and the spread of crop pests and diseases. Incidences of insect-borne and waterborne diseases, such as malaria and cholera, would increase due to changes in weather patterns. Human health and societal stability would be threatened by any and all of these changes. Damage from climate change could end prosperity in developed countries and threaten human survival in developing countries (Pew Center for Global Climate Change, 2009).

The possible economic costs and consequences involving climate change action or inaction are also staggering. A 2006 report by economist and academic Nicholas Stern for the United Kingdom government stated that the cost of global measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions could total 1% of global economic output annually. But the consequences of failing to take such preventive measures could even result in a massive world “market failure,” costing from five to more than 20 times that amount (Stern, 2006).

Due to the severity of the projected consequences of global climate change, this problem has been one of the most prominent global environmental issues since the 1970s. The proper course of action for combating climate change has been a hot topic of debate in policy circles at the local, national, regional, and global levels.

The Solutions

Personal solutions

Ranging from large to small, expensive to free, there are many decisions individuals can make that will reduce the impact of global warming. George Washington University’s Master of Public Health Program has created a guide titled “Realistic Ways You Can Combat Climate Change, Today,” which provides some of the most effective ways you can help the planet in your daily life, as well as teach others about reducing harm to the environment. With the option to filter how much time, money, and effort a person can dedicate, individuals are able to see how they can contribute in a meaningful way that fits into their budget and lifestyle. Click here to read more. 

Policy solutions

CCAN advocates for a swift transition from fossil fuel-based energy sources to carbon-free, renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy. Along with energy efficiency measures, these energy sources can power the global economy without releasing the carbon emissions that lead to climate change. We support a number of approaches to speed this transition. Follow our campaigns in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2007). IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007. Retrieved September 29, 2011 from http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/contents.html

Pew Center on Global Climate Change. (2009, January). Climate change 101: Understanding and responding to global climate change. Retrieved September 29, 2011 from http://www.pewclimate.org/global-warming-basics/climate_change_101

Fisher, D. R. (2004). National governance and the global climate change regime. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Stern, N. (2006). Stern review on the economics of climate change. Retrieved September 29, 2011 from http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/sternreview_index.htm

Pew Center on Global Climate Change. (2009, January). Climate change 101: Understanding and responding to global climate change. Retrieved September 29, 2011 from http://www.pewclimate.org/global-warming-basics/climate_change_101