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Frequently Asked Questions about Climate Change

Climate change can be complex. Many different components are involved, and the effects reach every part of our planet. Sometimes the questions surrounding climate change are not always so easy to answer. The Marine Mammal Center has answered some of the most common questions about climate change below. Learn some of the basics and easy ways that you can make a difference. Even though it’s a tough topic, change is on the horizon!

What exactly is climate, and how is it different from weather?
Weather refers to short-term atmospheric conditions and what we see on a day-to-day basis. Saying “It’s currently raining outside,” refers to the weather. Climate refers to conditions over a longer period of time, typically a 30-year average. Different variables make up our climate, including precipitation and temperature. Climate describes what conditions we can usually expect in a certain region. Saying “It usually rains in Seattle,” describes climate.

What is the difference between climate change and global warming?
The two terms mean pretty similar things, and they are sometimes used interchangeably. Climate change is a broader term though. It refers to any change we will see in climate over an extended period of time, including changes in precipitation or even the intensity of storms. Climate change can also be used to describe changes on a regional or global scale. Global warming describes a more specific aspect of climate change, an overall increase in the Earth’s average temperature.

What is making the Earth warmer?
Throughout history, different gases have kept the Earth at a temperature where life as we know it can survive.  These gases, such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane, act as a big heat-trapping blanket over Earth's atmosphere.  Similar to a way a blanket works, these gases let in light and heat and keep this heat at the Earth's surface.  As radiation from the sun reaches Earth, these gases keep in some heat, while the rest goes back out to space.  However, as we've burned fossil fuels like coal and oil for daily human activities, even more of these heat-trapping gases are being released into the atmosphere.  This rampant carbon dioxide has added to the heat trapping blanket, keeping more heat at Earth's surface.  Since 1950, we have seen the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase by 30%! This extra heat and carbon in the atmosphere has many effects on the planet, including higher temperatures, melting sea ice, and changes in the chemistry of the ocean.  These changes are happening quicker than any time in recorded history, making it much harder for animals and ecosystems to adapt. 

Why is carbon dioxide so important?
Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas released by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. It stays in the atmosphere for a long time, and it has the ability to trap in a lot of heat. Before we used fossil fuels for most of our daily activities, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was relatively low. Today, carbon dioxide concentrations have reached unsafe levels that we haven’t seen before in the past 800,000 years!

How does the ocean affect climate?
The ocean is the base for all life on the planet! The ocean absorbs most of the heat coming from the sun. The ocean also acts like the climate’s heart, circulating warm water in the tropics to colder regions, and cold water from the poles to warmer regions. This distributes heat and corrects the uneven distribution of radiation reaching Earth. Without currents, temperatures in the poles would be even colder, and temperatures in the tropics would be even warmer!

Is there a connection between human activity and climate change?
While natural processes can change Earth’s climate, human activities are changing climate more rapidly than ever seen before. Industrial activities have raised carbon dioxide concentrations higher than ever seen before in 800,000 years, and increases in carbon dioxide closely coincide with increases in temperature. The rapid changes we are seeing today also closely coincide with the start of the Industrial Revolution when we first began burning fossil fuels like coal in large amounts for daily activities, like driving cars and using electricity.

Is there a lot of scientific debate about climate change?
Over 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, faster than ever before, and that humans are causing many of the changes due to things like burning fossil fuels. The only question remaining is what communities and countries will do in the coming years to cut carbon emissions.

How has climate changed in the past? How may it change in the future?
The Earth’s climate has changed throughout history from natural processes. Atmospheric samples from hundreds of thousands of years ago trapped in ice cores have indicated that the planet has undergone many periods of freezing and warming. Typically, these changes occur over long periods of time stretching thousands of years. Today, we are seeing rapid changes though at a faster rate than ever before, whether it is sea level rise of 17 centimeters over the last century, or record-setting global temperatures the last few years (see: Effects of Climate Change for more information). Future change will depend on many factors, but most importantly by how much fossil fuels are burned by communities around the World. Depending on our emissions, temperatures could increase by about 2 to 11° C by 2100, dramatically altering the environment as we know it.

Is it too late to do anything about climate change? Can we stop it?
The Earth is nearing a tipping point, but it has not passed that point yet! Certain sensitive ecosystems, like some coral reefs, that have already been damaged by climate change may not recover or may take a long time to recover. It’s important that we make a commitment to act quickly to give ecosystems a fighting chance. Greenhouse gases linger in the atmosphere for extended periods of time, so we must take action now to prevent future changes.

How might I be affected by climate change? How can I help?
Global climate change will affect every aspect of our own lives! Events like drought, severe storms, and heat waves will have a direct impact on human health, water and food supply. Other things that we value, such as unique biodiversity and spots for recreation, will also be at risk. There are many things each one of us can do to help reduce the effects of climate change! Visit our How You Can Help page for some of our suggestions.

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