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Causes of Climate Change

Climate change is a long-term shift in weather conditions identified by changes in

temperature, precipitation, winds, and other indicators. Climate change can involve
both changes in average conditions and changes in variability, including, for
example, extreme events.

The earth's climate is naturally variable on all time scales. However, its long-term
state and average temperature are regulated by the balance between incoming and
outgoing energy, which determines the Earths energy balance. (Learn more about
the Earths climate system here). Any factor that causes a sustained change to the
amount of incoming energy or the amount of outgoing energy can lead to climate
change. As these factors are external to the climate system, they are referred to as
climate forcers, invoking the idea that they force or push the climate towards a
new long-term state either warmer or cooler depending on the cause of change.
Different factors operate on different time scales, and not all of those factors that
have been responsible for changes in earths climate in the distant past are relevant
to contemporary climate change. Factors that cause climate change can be divided
into two categories - those related to natural processes and those related to human
activity. In addition to natural causes of climate change, changes internal to the
climate system, such as variations in ocean currents or atmospheric circulation, can
also influence the climate for short periods of time. This natural internal climate
variability is superimposed on the long-term forced climate change.

Natural Causes
Human Causes
Short lived and long lived climate forcers

Natural Causes
The Earths climate can be affected by natural factors that are external to the
climate system, such as changes in volcanic activity, solar output, and the Earth's
orbit around the Sun. Of these, the two factors relevant on timescales of
contemporary climate change are changes in volcanic activity and changes in solar
radiation. In terms of the Earths energy balance, these factors primarily influence
the amount of incoming energy. Volcanic eruptions are episodic and have relatively
short-term effects on climate. Changes in solar irradiance have contributed to
climate trends over the past century but since the Industrial Revolution, the effect
of additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere has been about ten times that
of changes in the Suns output.

Human Causes
Climate change can also be caused by human activities, such as the burning of
fossil fuels and the conversion of land for forestry and agriculture. Since the
beginning of the Industrial Revolution, these human influences on the climate
system have increased substantially. In addition to other environmental impacts,
these activities change the land surface and emit various substances to the
atmosphere. These in turn can influence both the amount of incoming energy and
the amount of outgoing energy and can have both warming and cooling effects on
the climate. The dominant product of fossil fuel combustion is carbon dioxide, a
greenhouse gas. The overall effect of human activities since the Industrial
Revolution has been a warming effect, driven primarily by emissions of carbon
dioxide and enhanced by emissions of other greenhouse gases.

The build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has led to an enhancement of

the natural greenhouse effect. It is this human-induced enhancement of the
greenhouse effect that is of concern because ongoing emissions of greenhouse
gases have the potential to warm the planet to levels that have never been
experienced in the history of human civilization. Such climate change could have
far-reaching and/or unpredictable environmental, social, and economic

Short-lived and long-lived climate forcers

Carbon dioxide is the main cause of human-induced climate change. It has been
emitted in vast quantities from the burning of fossil fuels and it is a very long-lived
gas, which means it continues to affect the climate system during its long residence
time in the atmosphere. However, fossil fuel combustion, industrial processes,
agriculture, and forestry-related activities emit other substances that also act as
climate forcers. Some, such as nitrous oxide, are long-lived greenhouse gases like
carbon dioxide, and so contribute to long-term climate change. Other substances
have shorter atmospheric lifetimes because they are removed fairly quickly from
the atmosphere. Therefore, their effect on the climate system is similarly shortlived. Together, these short-lived climate forcers are responsible for a significant
amount of current climate forcing from anthropogenic substances. Some short-lived
climate forcers have a climate warming effect (positive climate forcers) while
others have a cooling effect (negative climate forcers).

If atmospheric levels of short-lived climate forcers are continually replenished by

ongoing emissions, these continue to exert a climate forcing. However, reducing
emissions will quite quickly lead to reduced atmospheric levels of such substances.
A number of short-lived climate forcers have climate warming effects and together
are the most important contributors to the human enhancement of the greenhouse
effect after carbon dioxide. This includes methane and tropospheric ozone both

greenhouse gases and black carbon, a small solid particle formed from the
incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels (coal, oil and wood for example).

Other short-lived climate forcers have climate cooling effects, most notably sulphate
aerosols. Fossil fuel combustion emits sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (in
addition to carbon dioxide) which then combines with water vapour to form tiny
droplets (aerosols) which reflect sunlight. Sulphate aerosols remain in the
atmosphere for only a few days (washing out in what is referred to as acid rain), and
so do not have the same long-term effect as greenhouse gases. The cooling from
sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere has, however, offset some of the warming from
other substances. That is, the warming we have experienced to date would have
been even larger had it not been for elevated levels of sulphate aerosols in the
Impacts of Climate Change
Over the period 1948 to 2010, the average annual temperature in Canada has
warmed by 1.6 C, a higher rate of warming than in most other regions of the world.
Increased winter and spring temperatures have contributed to this warming trend to
a greater degree than other seasons. Warming trends are seen consistently across
Canada, but the regions showing the strongest warming trends are found in the far
north. Strong warming in high-latitude regions is a robust characteristic of
projections of future climate change as well. This indicates that the climate of
Canada, particularly in the North, to which Canadians have been accustomed and to
which we have adapted our activities, is expected to undergo substantial change in
the future. Future warming will be accompanied by other changes, including the
amount and distribution of rain, snow, and ice and the risk of extreme weather
events such as heat waves, heavy rainfalls and related flooding, dry spells and/or
droughts, and forest fires. In addition, Canada is a maritime nation with 8 of its 10
provinces and all three territories bordering on ocean waters (including Hudson
Bay). Thus many regions of Canada will also be affected by changing ocean
environments, including changes in average and extreme sea level, wave regimes,
and ice conditions. Dramatic reductions in Arctic sea ice cover, particularly during
the summer season, are already evident and well documented, and have been
attributed to human-induced global warming.
The Climate System
The physical climate system involves the earth's atmosphere, land surfaces, and
oceans, along with the snow and ice that is so prominent in much of Canada. These
components interact with one another and with aspects of the earth's biosphere to
determine not only the day-to-day weather, but also the long-term averages that we
refer to as 'climate'.
The climate system is driven by energy received from the sun (sunlight). Some of
this energy is reflected back into space, but the rest is absorbed by the land and
ocean and re-emitted as radiant heat. Some of this radiant heat is absorbed and re-

emitted by the lower atmosphere in a process known as the greenhouse effect. The
earth's average temperature is determined by the overall balance between the
amount of incoming energy from the sun and the amount of radiant heat that
makes it through the atmosphere and is emitted to space.
A crucial feature of the climate system is that the sun's energy is not distributed
uniformly, but rather is most intense at the equator and weakest at the poles. This
non-uniform energy distribution leads to temperature differences, which the
atmosphere and ocean act to reduce by transporting heat from the warm tropics to
the cold Polar Regions. This non-uniform heating and the resulting heat transport
give rise to ocean currents, atmospheric circulation, evaporation, and precipitation
that we ultimately experience as weather.
When the balance between incoming and outgoing energy is perturbed, this
changes the amount of heat within the climate system and affects all those
processes described above that transport heat around the globe. We experience this
as changing weather patterns, the consequences of which can be far-reaching since
so many human activities have adapted to conditions that have prevailed for long
periods of time.
The Greenhouse Effect
In a greenhouse, energy from the sun passes through the glass as rays of light. This
energy is absorbed by the plants, soil, and other objects in the greenhouse. Much of
this absorbed energy is converted to heat, which warms the greenhouse. The glass
helps keep the greenhouse warm by trapping this heat.
The earth's atmosphere acts somewhat like the glass of a greenhouse. About 31 %
of the incoming radiation from the sun is reflected directly back to space by the
earth's atmosphere and surface (particularly by snow and ice), and another 20 % is
absorbed by the atmosphere. The rest of the incoming radiation is absorbed by the
earth's oceans and land, where it is converted into heat, warming the surface of the
earth and the air above it. Particular gases in the atmosphere act like the glass of a
greenhouse, preventing the heat from escaping.
These greenhouse gases absorb heat and radiate some of it back to the earth's
surface, causing surface temperatures to be higher than they would otherwise be.
The most important naturally occurring greenhouse gas is water vapour and it is the
largest contributor to the natural greenhouse effect. However, other gases,
although they occur in much smaller quantities, also play a substantial and growing
role in the greenhouse effect. These include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous
Without this natural greenhouse effect, the earth would be much colder than it is
now about 33 C colder making the average temperature on the planet a
freezing -18 C rather than the balmy 15 C it is now. The warmth of our climate is
crucial because on earth and in the atmosphere, water can exist in all three of its
phases - frozen as snow or ice, liquid as water, and gaseous as water vapour. The
cycling of water from one phase to another is critical to sustaining life since it is this

cycling of water through the land-ocean-atmosphere system that replenishes the

water available to life on earth. The water cycle is also an important part of what
drives our weather and the climate system generally.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
All countries emit greenhouse gases through natural and human activities. Because
they have gone through the process of industrialization over the past 150 years,
and depend on energy to operate vehicles, heat homes, and operate industries,
developed countries tend to produce more emissions than developing countries.
Current international rules do not require developing countries to regularly report
their greenhouse gas emissions. However, some developing country emissions are
now believed to have surpassed developed country emissions.
China is now estimated to be the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Other major
emitters include the United States, the European Union, Russia, Japan, and India.
Canada accounts for about two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
10 Things You Should Know About Climate Change
1. Climate change refers to a long-term shift in weather conditions. It is
measured by changes in a variety of climate indicators (e.g. temperature,
precipitation, wind) including both changes in average and extreme conditions.
Climate change can be the result of natural processes and/or human activity.
2. Over most of Earths history, natural processes have been responsible
for periods of climate change. The Earth's climate has changed throughout its
history long before human activity could have played a role. For example, the planet
has swung between cold glacial periods or "ice ages", and warm interglacial periods
over the last few million years. Changes in the past can be explained by natural
factors such as changes in the Earth's orbit, in the sun's intensity, in the amount of
explosive volcanic activity, by changes to the surface of the Earth, and farther back
in time, to the position of the continents. Of these, only changes in the suns
intensity and volcanic activity are relevant on century timescales.
3. Human activity has now become the main cause of recent climate
change. The strong global warming observed since the mid-20 th century has been
largely attributed to human influences on the climate. Global warming refers to the
observed long-term rise in global average surface temperature and is one
manifestation of climate change. The rate of global warming over the last half of the
20th century was about twice that for the whole century. This human influence
results primarily from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
Burning these fuels generates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Land use changes,
such as deforestation and conversion of land to agriculture, have also contributed
carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
4. Global warming is primarily attributed to the enhancement of the
natural greenhouse gas effect. Greenhouse gases are so-named because they

reduce heat loss from Earth to outer space. In this respect they act in a way that is
similar to a greenhouse, creating warmer conditions than there would otherwise be,
were these gases not present. Atmospheric concentrations of key greenhouse gases
such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone have risen substantially
as a result of human activity. This has enhanced or intensified the natural
greenhouse effect.
5. The ozone hole is not the main cause of global warming. Global warming
and ozone depletion (in the stratosphere) are issues with fundamentally different
primary causes but they are interlinked in a number of ways. However, ozone
depletion itself is not a principal cause of climate change. Changes in ozone and
climate are directly linked because ozone absorbs solar radiation and is also a
greenhouse gas. Stratospheric ozone depletion and increases in global tropospheric
ozone that have occurred in recent decades have opposing contributions to climate
change. The ozone-depletion contribution, while leading to surface cooling, is small
compared with the contribution from all other greenhouse gas increases, which
leads to surface warming. The total forcing from these other greenhouse gases is
the principal cause of observed and projected climate change. Ozone depletion and
climate change areindirectly linked because both ozone-depleting substances and
their substitutes are greenhouse gases.
6. Climate change is a warming trend, not just a warming cycle. Global
temperature naturally varies up and down from year to year and decade to decade.
Natural climate variability will continue to have an influence on the state of the
climate over short time periods, but superimposed on these natural fluctuations is a
long term trend towards global warming. In order to detect climate change a long
term trend above the noise of natural climate variability, it is important to look to
long term data records. When the record of global average surface temperature
over the past 100 years or so is examined, a long term global warming of about 0.8
C is observed.
7. Climate change will affect communities all over the world. Climate change
is projected to lead to both changes in average conditions and in extreme weather
events. Increases in droughts, heavy rains, floods, and severe storms, where these
occur, can be very disruptive for society and are among the potential impacts of
most concern. As well, rising sea levels will affect coastal areas, along which, in
many regions, human communities are concentrated. Changes in temperature and
precipitation will affect natural habitats and managed ones, with impacts on
agriculture and food supplies of particular concern to a growing human population.
There will be opportunities as well as risks associated with climate change, but in
balance, impacts are expected to become increasingly negative as global average
surface temperature becomes increasingly warmer.
8. Individuals, organizations and the international community can make a
difference in dealing with climate change.We must act. Measures to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions are essential to slowing the rate of climate change.
Raising awareness of the issues surrounding climate change can make a significant

9. As a result of collective action to reduce GHGs since 2005, Canadas

2020 GHG emissions are projected to be 130 megatonnes (Mt) lower than
if no action was taken, an amount roughly equivalent to one year's worth
of GHG emissions from all of Canada's road transportation. See the Canadas
Emissions Trends report for more information.
10. Canada has committed $1.2 billion in fast-start financing to help the
worlds developing nations reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.
Top 10 Things You Can Do to Help
1. Reduce energy use
Adopt energy-saving habits. Make it a habit to turn off the lights as you leave
a room. Also, replace standard light bulbs with energy-efficient compact
fluorescent bulbs. Turn off your computer and unplug electronics when they
are not in use.
2. Change the way you think about transportation
Walk or bike whenever possible. Not only will you reduce your carbon
footprint, but your overall level of health will improve and you will save
money on parking and gasoline.
Take public transit or carpool whenever possible.
When purchasing a vehicle look for one with better mileage. Increase your
fuel economy when driving by sticking to posted speed limits and avoiding
rapid acceleration and excessive braking. Plan and combine trips and
errands. This will save you both time and money as well as reduce wear and
tear on your vehicle. When travelling long distances, try to take a train or bus
rather than flying or driving.
3. Insulate your home
Insulate yourself and your home. By properly insulating your home, you can
ensure that heat stays in or out depending on the season. You can do this by
purchasing windows and window coverings that will block out or keep in
warmth, and by sealing any existing cracks. In winter, reduce your thermostat
by 2 C to enjoy energy savings and a cozy sweater. In summer, use fans to
circulate air, and set air conditioners to make your home a comfortable
temperature. Lowering the temperature on your water heater to between 55
and 60 C and insulating your pipes also makes a difference. Federal
government programs such as the ecoENERGY initiative provide incentives
for energy-saving home upgrades.
Information about the ecoENERGY initiative can be found
4. Make every drop count
Conserve water by fixing drips and leaks, and by installing low-flow shower
heads and toilets. Challenge yourself to a speed shower. Turn off water while
brushing teeth or shaving. Treating and transporting water requires energy,
while water conservation results in reduced energy requirements and carbon

5. Cool wash and hang to dry

These are not just washing instructions on a label anymore, but an equation
for energy savings. Wash clothing in cold water and hang clothing to dry
outside, or indoors on a drying rack. Taking these steps will reduce your
electricity bill and also prolong the life of clothing by reducing wear on the
fabric caused by dryers.
6. High efficiency appliances
When replacing appliances, look for high efficiency units. Appliances with
ENERGY STAR ratings, an international standard for energy-efficient consumer
products, typically utilize a minimum of 20 % less energy. This means savings
for you and the environment.
7. Switch to "green power"
Research where your power is coming from - wind, water, coal, or solar - and
talk to your power provider to determine if a greater percentage could be
coming from renewable resources. Encourage power providers to switch to
green power and, if possible and/or economically viable, switch to a company
offering power from renewable resources.
8. Recycle
Make recycling part of your daily routine. Recycle all packaging and consumer
goods that you can. Aim to purchase items with minimal and recyclable
packaging. For certain items with large amounts of packaging, ask retailers if
they can recycle or re-use it. For electronics, facilities now exist that can
dispose of electronics in an environmentally responsible manner. Encorp
Pacific Return-It programs recycle "broken" end-of-life electronics. For location
information, go
9. Repurpose
Rather than discarding or recycling clothing and household goods, give them
a chance at a second life. Gently used clothing can be donated to charity or
exchanged with friends and family. Old T-shirts can be repurposed into rags
for cleaning. Household goods can be donated to charity or sold at a garage
sale. Through repurposing, the amount of waste being sent to landfill sites is
reduced, there is no need to use energy for recycling, and others can benefit
from your used items.
10.Plants, our new best friend
When gardening, select plants that are well suited to your climate and require
minimal watering and attention. Better yet, plant a tree, and it will provide
shade and soak up carbon from the atmosphere.