The Nature of Climate Change

  • Locke H
  • Mackey B
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Abstract

F or the good of the climate, the time has come for a major initiative to reunite climate change mitigation efforts with biodiversity conservation and wilderness protection. Recent scientific research has shown clearly that protecting primary ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and peatlands (whether they be tropical, temperate, or boreal) keeps their carbon stocks intact, avoids emissions from deforestation and degradation, and is a necessary part of solving the climate change problem (Lyssaert et al. 2008; Lewis et al. 2009; Phillips et al. 2008; Keith et al. 2009). This new understanding provides a way to make important advances to mitigate both climate change and the biodiver-sity extinction crisis. Climate change has emerged as the leading environ-mental issue of our time with good reason (IPCC 2007a). The rapid rise in Earth's temperature threatens human well-being in several ways: rising sea levels will render millions homeless, populations of malaria-bearing mosquitoes will reach millions of African people who live in areas that were once too cool for these insects, and there will be an increase in the frequency of extreme climatic events such as droughts, fires, floods, and hurricanes. Freshwater will get scarcer in some areas, which will lead to increasing tensions and poten-tially armed conflict about access to this basic resource. It is even possible that we could experience " climate surprises " — rapid, large-scale, and difficult-to-predict changes in the climate system that we know have occurred in the geological past. For example, ocean currents such as the North Atlantic Gulf Stream could change, rendering the climate of western Europe cooler and less agriculturally productive. Climate change also threatens other forms of life with which we share Earth. Coral reefs are bleaching, thus destroying critical fish habitat; climate shifts will result in the extinction of populations of many temperature-sensitive species such as mountain-dwelling pikas; and the habitats of other species such as cold-water trout and polar bears will shift or disappear. These changes are already underway, and they threaten many wildlife species. Carbon Dioxide The general problem that has led to rapid climate change is that we humans are releasing carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere faster than natural processes can remove it. A certain amount of heat in the atmosphere is good and gives us a livable climate, but now the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmo-sphere is causing a rise in global temperature with disastrous consequences. The cause of the rapid climate change we are now expe-riencing is primarily the result of two main kinds of human actions: burning fossil fuels and clearing or degrading nat-ural ecosystems. These activities release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from places on or under the Earth's surface where it was previously stored harmlessly or sequestered as one of a number of forms of carbon we call fossil fuels. The burning of carbon-dense oil, coal, and gas stocks is widely known as the primary source of carbon dioxide. Figure 1—Boreal forest in the Nahanni, Canada. Photo by Harvey Locke.

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Authors

  • H Locke

  • Brendan Mackey

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