Humans & Climate Change
Since the first humans, climate has influenced our activities—what we wear, what we grow and eat, where and how we build our homes.
Starting with the Industrial Revolution, the burning of fossils fuels has influenced the climate and led to rapid climate change. Today, we have to adapt to this change and cut our emissions to lessen its impact. Let’s explore the complicated relationship humans have with the climate, and see what we can do to improve it.
What Do We Have To Do With Climate Change?
How much carbon dioxide (CO2) do we generate? Because we can’t see it, it’s hard to really understand how much gas we produce throughout the day! Each of these yoga balls represents a pound of carbon dioxide. Every day, the average American generates about 57 pounds of carbon dioxide.
Greenhouse gases are naturally found in the atmosphere and are essential to keep our planet at comfortable temperatures. Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have emitted increasingly excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere. Our current atmospheric carbon dioxide level is 400ppm. The last time carbon dioxide was this high was well before humans! At this level and above, the atmosphere traps a dangerous amount of heat, warming land and oceans, eventually turning our planet into an uncomfortably hot place that humans have never experienced before.
Plants and soil absorb and store carbon dioxide in a process called “biological carbon sequestration” that turns them into “CO2 sinks.” This is why deforestation, clearing land for agricultural purposes, and other land changes all contribute to increased carbon dioxide levels. Oceans are also carbon dioxide sinks that quickly absorb about half of our emissions. However, this is making waters more acidic (affecting marine creatures) and warmer (causing changes in sea currents) in climates around the world.
Where Are “Our” Greenhouse Gases From?
- Electricity generation, distribution, and transmission: The burning of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil) to produce electricity is the largest source of carbon dioxide. Circuit breakers and other electricity transmission equipment emit sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), the most potent greenhouse gas.
- Transportation of people and goods: Trains, cars, boats, and planes are powered by fossil fuels, making them the second largest source of carbon dioxide. Motor vehicles’ fossil fuel combustion produces the largest quantity of nitrous oxide (N2O). The largest sources of transportation-related emissions are passenger cars and light-duty trucks.
- Industry: Many industrial and manufacturing processes are powered by fossil fuel combustion, and produce carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. High-tech manufacturing also produces F-gases, while carbon dioxide is emitted also through chemical reactions. There are also indirect emissions (the greenhouse gases emitted by the power plant to make electricity to power buildings and machinery).
- Agriculture: The cultivation of crops and livestock for food produce mainly nitrous oxide and methane (CH4). Fertilizers add nitrogen into the soil, where bacteria transform it into nitrous oxide. Livestock, especially cattle, produce methane through digestion, accounting for 30% of the overall emissions from this sector. Decaying manure also produces methane.
- Commercial & residential: Homes and commercial businesses produce all kinds of greenhouse gases! Burning of fossil fuels (natural gas and petroleum) for heating and cooking generate carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Methane is released also by landfills, while water waste management emits methane and nitrous oxide. F-gases are used as coolants, and can be emitted from leaking fridges, freezers, and air conditioners.
Check out the video below to learn more about where our emissions come from.
Where Will “Our” Greenhouse Gases Take Us?
Most of our activities emit greenhouse gases and have a direct impact on climate change. This is why we need to start immediately to reduce our emissions! The changes in temperature and precipitation brought by climate change will affect us in many ways.
- Food supplies: Droughts, stronger storms, and more floods can damage crops. Similarly, higher temperatures might be too hot to plant certain crops or might bring weeds and pests.
- Health: With longer and more frequent heat waves, more people will be at risk of heat-related illnesses. Warmer temperatures can trigger more allergies and asthma attacks, and allow disease-carrying pests to spread.
- Energy: As temperatures rise, people will use more air conditioning. This can cause increased emissions and potential blackouts. Warmer temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns could also make it harder to produce alternative types of electricity, such as hydropower.
- Water: Warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns can lead to increasing droughts, less snowpack and earlier snow melt. It will also impact the amount of water in lakes, rivers, and streams, as well ground water.
- Cities and communities: People living near the ocean could experience more frequent and destructive floods from rising sea levels. Stronger storms, longer droughts, severe heat waves could damage homes and businesses and be life-threatening.
Ready To Do Your Part?
Think about your day: How do you use energy and water? What do you eat? How do you get around? What do you do in your free time?
Since the Industrial Revolution, our everyday actions certainly have impacted the environment—from polluting air and water, to endangering animals and plants, to forcing climate to change. As we acknowledged these issues, we worked together to change things to make our planet—and our lives—better. Collective action made a difference in the past, and can make a difference as we face the biggest challenge yet—climate change.
Everything generates some emissions—but is also where you can make a difference! Let’s explore some ideas of how you can lower your greenhouse gas footprint.
Check your temps doing laundry!
Turn off lights that you don’t need!
Carpool, walk, bike, & take public transit.
Incorporate more plant-based meals.
Looking for more guidance as you start talking to your children about these topics? Find our Talking to Kids about Climate Change resources here. You can also click here to download our Sustainability Wonder Workbook for activities, checklists, and more, to help bring sustainability home.
Inspired to make change in your own community? Learn how to get involved as a Chicago Conservation Corps leader here.
You can also check out the webinar below to learn all about radical reuse from our partners at Community Glue.