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Frequently Asked Questions on climate change

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Stop Climate Chaos Scotland has put together this website resource in order to provide easy-to-understand information in answer to some of the most common questions asked on the topic of climate change. 

We have done our utmost to ensure the information in this FAQ is correct and as up-to-date as possible (as at March 2013).  If however, you note any factual errors, please get in touch with us.

The FAQ is split into four main sections.  Click on the links below or scroll further down this page to get started:

Climate change science - see further down this web page

Impacts of climate change now and in the future
Governmental and global action to tackle climate change
Reducing our emissions

 

Climate change science


Is climate change happening?

Yes. The scientific evidence that the world is getting warmer is overwhelming. Tree rings, glaciers and other natural sources, as well as human records, show that climate has changed considerably over the past few centuries, but the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1998 [1].

These measurements are borne out by retreating snow cover and glaciers, rising sea levels (due to water expanding as it warms and loss of land-based ice), and increasing extremes of dry and wet weather, leading to ever more frequent droughts, heat waves and flooding across the world [2].

Is climate change definitely caused by human activity, not by natural phenomena?

Scientists have mapped everything from sun spot activity, planetary orbits, polar shift and volcanic activity to see if something else explains the change. They have also considered the effect of natural climate variations, such as El Niño and La Niña (which cause warming and cooling of the Pacific Ocean surface). Scientists conclude that only the increasing trend of atmospheric CO2 concentrations is big enough to match (almost perfectly) the global temperature trend.

CO2 and other gases such as methane in the earth’s atmosphere capture heat that would otherwise escape to space: the ‘greenhouse effect’. The dramatic growth of CO2 in the atmosphere has been caused by human activities such as deforestation and industrial burning of fossil fuels [3]. All of this is clear from the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the scientific body, made up of thousands of climate scientists across the world, that was set up to provide a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge of climate change and its potential environmental, social and economic impacts [4].

If the planet’s warming, why have we had more snow during recent winters?

The particularly cold winters of 2009–10 and 2010–11 have been interpreted by some as evidence against global warming. However, local weather in one part of the world is not an indicator of global climatic trends.  Scientists record the increase in global climate by averaging measurements from all over the world. So the global climate is not the same as weather in individual places.

What global temperature is safe?

Scientists predict that, if global temperatures rise more than 2°C over pre-industrial levels, extreme droughts, floods and heat waves will become more frequent and 20-30% of species face a high risk of extinction [5].  Loss of water resources, disruption to agriculture, forest fires, flooding by rising sea levels, and wider damage to ecosystems could reach catastrophic levels.

Currently, global temperatures have risen by 0.75°C since the start of the twentieth century [6]. And as these are global averages, temperatures in some regions, particularly the Arctic, have increased considerably more. The problem is that the hotter it gets, the more likely we are to experience ‘feedbacks’ (see below) in natural systems, in which huge stores of CO2 or methane are released because of warming temperatures, resulting in even greater temperature change.  So what sound like small global average temperature changes could have huge impacts.

What are these feedbacks?

There are many potential feedbacks which can cause accelerated global warming. For instance: 

  • Polar ice and snow reflects sunlight, whereas sea water, which increases as polar ice and snow melts, absorbs sunlight;
  • Forests and soils dry out and burn, releasing CO2 and absorbing less;
  • Permafrost heats up, releasing methane;
  • Seas warm up and become more acidic, releasing stored CO2.

What was the ‘Climategate’ email hacking in 2009 all about?

In November 2009, 1,000 private emails and documents were stolen or leaked from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. Select contents were used by some to suggest that scientists had been manipulating or hiding data. As a result of the various official investigations that took place, the scientists were absolved of fiddling their results and trying to silence their critics, but they were criticised for not working in a more open, accessible manner.

However, all the unit’s scientific findings which supported the view that global warming is human-induced were found to be correct and reliable [7].

How credible are the challenges to the science from climate ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’?

Every academy of science in the world agrees that human activities are the primary cause of global warming [8].

Challenges from climate deniers look even less credible when they refuse to reveal how their activities are funded. For instance the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a particularly prominent climate change sceptic think tank headed by Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, has refused several Freedom of Information requests for more openness about its operations, including the identity of its financial backers [9].

More information on this topic is available at www.skepticalscience.com.

Aren’t we in Scotland only 0.2% of global CO2?

The UK Government claims that Scotland is responsible for 0.2% of global CO2, but this doesn’t take our global impact into full account. Whilst Scotland’s overall contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is small, as a developed nation we have a disproportionately high carbon footprint per head of population. Our footprint also goes well beyond our national borders, both in terms of the goods we import from elsewhere, and Scottish business operations based abroad.

As a developed nation which has benefited from the industrial revolution, we have a responsibility to reduce our carbon emissions. We have a world-leading climate change law and  expertise in, for example, renewable energy technologies to export, and natural resources to utilise, that enable us to deliver our world-leading ambitions on climate change.

Where are most emissions coming from?

Scottish emissions increased in 2010 (latest figures available as at March 2013) compared to the previous year, but overall are 24% lower now than in 1990 (the baseline year for calculating reductions) [10].  The transport and home energy and power sectors are the only areas where emissions are higher now than they were in 1990.  

In terms of worldwide emissions, highest emissions levels per capita are small, rich, energy-intensive countries like Qatar, which in 2009 emitted nearly 80 tonnes of CO2 per person, compared to the UK’s 8 tonnes, Australia’s 20 tonnes, Canada’s 19 and the United States’ 18 tonnes per person [11].

 

References:
 

[2] For a more detailed overview, see Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), Climate Factsheets (PIRC, 2010), pp. 10-13, 16-19.

[3] The Royal Society, Climate Change: A Summary of the Science (The Royal Society, 2010), royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2010/4294972962.pdf

[4] IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf

[5] IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg2/ar4-wg2-spm.pdf

[6] Met Office, How has our climate changed?, www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate-change/guide/how

[7] For a good introduction, see The Guardian, 7.7.10, www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/07/climate-emails-question-answer

[8] Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, Haydn Washington and John Cook

[10] UK Committee on Climate Change, March 2013, Second Scottish Progress Report, P13,  www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/1674_CCC_Scots-Report_bookmarked_2.pdf

[11] The Guardian, World carbon dioxide emissions data by country, January 2011, www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jan/31/world-carbon-dioxide-emissions-country-data-co2

 

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