The Earth’s atmosphere is getting warmer – almost 1° C warmer than in the 1880’s and still rising. Some people say that this is a natural phenomenon as the atmosphere’s temperature has changed in the past, with ice ages and periods of intense heat. But the overwhelming consensus among scientists who study climate is that this heating is caused by human activities. After all, our world has developed at an enormous rate over the last 150 years, cities have grown and populations exploded, but making the goods and power to run our lives is adding to the climate crisis. Much of the power that drove new industrial processes came from burning fossil fuels. These are made from the remains of plants or tiny animals that lived millions of years ago. As they died the carbon from which they were made was locked up in deposits which over time became coal, oil or natural gas.
Factories and power stations around the world use a variety of fossil fuels to run machinery or make electricity to power homes. Lorries and cars use petrol or diesel from oil to power their engines. When these fuels are burned the carbon inside them is released into the atmosphere where it contributes to the greenhouse effect. The so-called greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, create an invisible blanket around the Earth which traps the sun’s heat and just like a greenhouse the atmosphere becomes warmer. The atmosphere is very sensitive to even small increases in greenhouse gases. There is vastly more carbon in the ground than in the air, so releasing just a small portion of it has a big effect on temperature.
So what are the effects of our atmosphere getting warmer? Satellite images can already show us that the polar icecaps are shrinking, glaciers are receding, and some have melted completely. The influx of cold melt-water has caused the migration of some sea mammals. Sea levels are rising risking the disruption of low lying or coastal communities. Increasing temperatures in already warm areas is resulting in rivers and lakes becoming dry, leading to crop failures, food shortages and the migration of animals and people.
In Scotland water from rivers and waterfalls has been harnessed for many years to generate power and recently wind turbines have become familiar features of our landscape. New homes are being built with solar panels and some use the heat from inside the earth to keep them warm. These are all renewable forms of energy and using these to power our homes and factories releases far less harmful gas into the atmosphere. Electric cars do not burn fossil fuels and therefore make no harmful emissions and when powered by renewable energy then they become a really green form of transport.
Green and sustainable technologies for supplying energy technologies are developing every day so that the energy supply will not be disrupted when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Many people have already become smarter in their use of power, realising the cost of wasting fuel. Can you become smarter too? We can all play a role in reducing our consumption of energy. This will help slow climate heating and avoid an uncertain and hazardous future for all of us and our children.