Climate Change FAQs

Climate Change FAQs #

1. How does climate change work? #

Carbon and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere (especially from burning fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal). Some emissions are then safely removed again (e.g. absorbed by trees), but some hang around in the atmosphere. This traps the sun’s energy in our planetary climate, causing average planetary temperatures to rise (called global warming or global heating). The consequences already include wildfires, droughts, loss of soil moisture, famines, disease, heatwaves, loss of arctic ice and rising sea levels, ocean acidification, storms, floods, wildlife extinction, and more.

2. What are we doing about climate change? #

Climate action is usually divided into adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation means doing things to prepare for a hotter climate, such as investing in resilient agriculture, relocating coastal communities, hardening infrastructure, building flood defences, etc. Reducing poverty and inequality has been shown to improve resilience to climate impacts. Mitigation is about doing things to slow and eventually halt global warming. Mitigation includes reducing emissions (by switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind) and also increasing the planet’s absorptive capacity (reforestation, wetland preservation, restorative agriculture, carbon removal technologies, etc.). Climate justice is also important to mention here. Climate action is seldom uniform in its impacts: one group’s adaptation may be another group’s maladaptation. Climate transition finance is currently severely skewed to the Global North, even though countries in the Global South tend to be on the frontlines of climate impacts, and the least responsible for climate change, in terms of historic emissions levels.

3. How much time is left? #

It depends. Not long ago, the conversation around climate change revolved around the question, “When will we start to take serious action?” That has changed.

Now the questions are about implementation (“How are we taking action?”) and justice (“Which ‘we’ is taking action?”). At the Paris Agreement in 2015, world leaders agreed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. To have a decent shot at this means the world needs to peak net global carbon emissions immediately (2025 by the very latest), approximately halve net emissions by 2030, and get to net zero by 2050.

This 2022 article by Anjana Ahuja contains some interesting perspectives on climate messaging, and how precise deadline framing can be counterproductive.

Climate action is already happening; it’s not happening fast enough; there are tangible benefits to doing things sooner rather than later, and doing them decisively rather than half-heartedly. It seems extremely likely that the 1.5 degree target will be missed, but every fraction of a degree matters.

4. How does ICT contribute to climate change? #

Information technology requires energy, and much of this energy is currently being generated by burning fossil fuels. Globally, Information Communication Technology (ICT) contributes 1.8% to 3.9% of greenhouse gas emissions (Freitag et al. 2021).

Digital technology has other impacts on the environment. For example, rare minerals are required in the manufacture of hardware. Mining resources such as coltan (for tantalum) and gold is bound up with exploitation and conflict. Disposal of devices and components is also a huge issue. E-waste volumes are vast and growing, and can contribute to climate change (directly, e.g. through greenhouse gas refrigerants, and indirectly, e.g. through missed opportunities for low carbon manufacturing based on reclaimed materials), and can release toxins and other hazardous substances.

5. What is net zero? #

Net zero refers to a situation in which carbon emissions are balanced by carbon removals. The closer we get to net zero, the more global warming slows. Once the world as a whole achieves net zero, the latest science suggests that average global temperature will no longer rise. At the country level, for example, currently Sweden has a pledge to achieve net zero by 2045; France, Germany, and the UK by 2050; China by 2060 and India by 2070. Net zero is also a target at other scales, e.g. city, institution, individual, event, product. There are worthwhile criticisms of the net zero paradigm (and other terms including real zero, absolute zero, and net negative have been suggested as complementary / alternative rallying points); however, net zero is by far the dominant paradigm of current policymaking and strategy.

6. But environmental sustainability is about more than just climate change, right? #

That’s right. For example, biodiversity loss, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen), and other planetary boundaries. This toolkit emphasises climate change, but these issues are all interconnected.

7. How should we talk to students, colleagues and other people about climate change? #

Climate change communication is a huge field. Three insights are worth bearing in mind.

  • Mix in positivity and hope. Getting bombarded with the scale and complexity of the challenges can be disempowering and counterproductive.
  • Try to find models for action. In other words (even setting aside optimism vs. pessimism), effective communication identifies actual ways of being, thinking, talking and (especially!) doing. Don’t just focus on the constraints that climate action creates, also explore the possibilities it opens up.
  • It’s OK not to know everything. Climate change is a huge topic. We often need to make changes on the basis of knowledge that feels very fragmentary.

The “Advocating Within Your Institution” section of this Toolkit contains further suggestions.

8. What are the major contributors to global warming? #

This can be answered in different ways.

(a) You can break it down in terms of gases. A variety of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others) contribute to global warming. Carbon is a big contributor (methane in second place), and so other gases are often translated into their carbon equivalents. In this toolkit, we use carbon footprint as shorthand for all greenhouse gas emissions, direct and indirect.

(b) Carbon footprint can also often broken down by country, and this is important for climate negotiations (the UN COPs etc.). Whenever looking at breakdowns by country, check three things. First, emissions are usually calculated on a production basis, i.e. how much carbon is emitted within national borders. So, countries like China appear to be heavy polluters, whereas countries like the UK seem to be doing well. This is because the UK produces lots of goods produced overseas, whose carbon emissions go on other countries’ balance sheets. However, country emissions can be accounted in other ways to include imports: on this calculation, the UK does a little worse, but perhaps not as badly as you might expect. Secondly, these rankings typically don’t reflect historic emissions — some countries (like the UK) may appear like they are leading the charge on climate change, but are very much the ones who got us into this fix to begin with. Including historic emissions alters the list of worst polluters significantly. Thirdly, don’t forget about population sizes, and check on both absolute and per capita figures. About 1.4 billion people live in China, and about 1.4 billion in India.

(c) It can also be illuminating to break down carbon emissions by sector. Energy use for transport, within buildings, and for industrial processes accounts for a large proportion of emissions. Agriculture, forestry and other land use is also substantial. There is a fuller breakdown here. Keep in mind that some of these may be easier to abate than others.

(d) Finally, it can be useful to break down emissions according to wealth. Sometimes climate change has been misleadingly blamed on overpopulation. According to Kartha et al. (2020), nearly half of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015 was attributable to the richest 10%, and the impact of the poorest half was ‘practically negligible’.

9. Where can I find out more about the science of climate change? #

Major journals include Nature and Journal of Climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reviews and synthesises climate science and produces giant thousand-page reports. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) is the United Nations entity tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change. Some key terms to explore include: anthropogenic climate change, radiative forcing, tipping points, nature based solutions, Carbon Dioxide Removal, land use, adaptation and maladaptation, Integrative Assessment Modelling, model uncertainty, AMOC, and risk cascades.

10. Where can I find out more about climate justice? #

Newell et al. (2021) provide a useful overview of the term ‘climate justice.’ Other good resources: Climate in Colour, Climate Justice Syllabus, Climate Action Network, UN Sustainable Development Goals, Greenpeace, ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, Friends of the Earth, Panafrican Climate Justice Alliance.

Some key terms to explore include: transformative climate justice, fossil capital, capitalocene, climate reparations, damage and loss, system change, degrowth / postgrowth, post-development, slow violence, climate and intersectionality, eco-feminism,and ecosocialism.

11. Where can I find out more about climate policy and climate economics? #

Some good resources include the Doughnut Economics Action Lab, Wellbeing Economy Alliance, Carbon Brief, Carbon Tracker, UK Climate Risk, Global Justice Now, Stir to Action, New Economics Foundation, The Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, WIREs Climate Change.

Some key terms to explore include: stranded assets, climate risk, Beyond GDP, degrowth / postgrowth, ecosystem services, social cost of carbon, carbon price, carbon tax, carbon leakage, carbon market, damage and loss, cap-and-trade, development banks, blended finance, Kyoto Protocol, Paris Agreement, Glasgow Compact, ESG, ISSB.

12. Where can I find out more about climate change and the humanities? #

Some good resources include Energy Humanities, SOS-UK, Environmental Humanities @TORCH, The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, and the Media Arts and Humanities Sustainability Educator Toolkit.

Some key terms to explore include: anthropocene, capitalocene, degrowth / postgrowth, animal studies, ecomodernism, ecocriticism, ecofeminism, ecosocialism, transcorporeality, interspecies entanglement, natureculture, and dark ecology.

13. Where can I find out more about critical technology studies? #

Some good resources include the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition, Critical Algorithm Studies: A Reading List, Hack Education, Catalyst, Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society, Global Forest Coalition, Geoengineering Monitor, Biofuelwatch.

Some key terms to explore include: tools for conviviality, epistemological luddism, techno-solutionism, techno-optimism, techno-utopianism, critical algorithm studies, critical data studies, critical metric studies, biomimetic, Carbon Dioxide Removal, geoengineering.

14. Where can I find out more about climate change and the digital? #

This toolkit, the Climate Change and the Digital Humanities Zotero Library, the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition, Low Carbon Research Methods, Digital Humanities Quarterly, The Green Software Foundation.

15. What should I know about offsetting and Negative Emissions Technologies? #

For an institution to achieve net zero, it needs to decarbonise its emissions as much as possible (divided across Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 emissions), and then offset its unavoidable emissions. Offsetting should mean taking as much carbon out of the atmosphere as you are putting in. However, in practice, it is possible to purchase carbon credits which allow you to fudge your own carbon accounting, without genuinely removing the stated amount of carbon.

What is an unavoidable emission? This is an extremely subjective judgment. Arguably there is no such thing, although for some people emitting carbon may be a matter of immediate life or death. The key thing to recognise about offsetting is that it is very seductive, because it suggests we might buy our way out of making more fundamental changes.

How much carbon can we remove? Nature restoration and Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) are a necessary part of a successful climate transition, but there are huge uncertainties around them too. Technologies which were recently touted as climate saviours have fallen out of favour as they attracted more scientific scrutiny, especially around their capacity to scale. Currently, the long-term institutional continuity of players in the offsetting industry is not assured. Using land to store carbon can have implications for social justice. There are also limits on how many trees we can plant and how much peatland we can restore (for example). If this stored carbon is tied to the carbon emissions of the latest AI and VR extravaganza in the Global North, then it cannot offset the carbon emissions of developing vital infrastructure in the Global South.

From a net zero perspective, institutions should not be offsetting unavoided emissions. Instead they should be avoiding these emissions through temporary suspension of activities, until better offsetting capacity is developed. However, this is complicated by the fact that commercial offsetting is counting on investment in order to develop. In short, it is a complex and evolving area, and arts and humanities researchers can play our part by scrutinising our institutional strategy.

Further Reading #

Baillot, Anne. 2023. Text and Heritage in the Age of Climate Crisis. Cambridge: OpenBook Publishers.

Freitag, Charlotte, Mike Berners-Lee, Kelly Widdicks, Bran Knowles, Gordon S. Blair, and Adrian Friday. 2021. ‘The Real Climate and Transformative Impact of ICT: A Critique of Estimates, Trends, and Regulations’. Patterns 2 (9): 100340.

Newell, Peter, Shilpi Srivastava, Lars Otto Naess, Gerardo A. Torres Contreras, and Roz Price. 2021. ‘Toward Transformative Climate Justice: An Emerging Research Agenda’. WIREs Climate Change 12 (6): e733.