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What even is climate change and what can we do about it??

10 commonly asked questions about climate change to help you sort fact from fiction.

This is Part 2 of our series: How to talk about climate change. See Part 1 here.

1. What is climate change?

Unlike weather, which refers to day to day changes, climate change is any change in average temperature, rainfall or wind patterns, over several decades or longer.

According to scientists, human activities that cause things like pollution and environmental degradation are causing our climate to become hotter - over 1 degree since the pre-industrial period (the mid-1700s).

2. What causes climate change?

Greenhouse gases, which trap heat close to the earth’s surface (like a blanket), are the cause of climate change. The primary source of these gases is the mining and burning of coal, oil and gas (fossil fuels), but other contributors include agriculture, deforestation and waste.

The most significant greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which has increased by more than 45% since the Industrial Revolution. Changes in the climate can be measured in ice cores, which provide records stretching back 800,000 years, and show that carbon dioxide is now at the highest level it’s been during that time.

3. How much does Australia contribute to climate change?

Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter. Burning coal is the primary cause of climate change. If we account for all the fossil fuels that we export, Australia is the fifth biggest polluter in the world. If all of Australia’s plans to dig up coal, oil and gas went ahead, we would be responsible for 17% - almost one fifth - of the world’s emissions by 2030. Contrary to what our Government says, this means the actions we take matter a great deal.

4. What are the impacts of climate change in Australia?

Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change, which we are already experiencing in the form of increasingly dangerous floods, drought, fires and heatwaves. These impacts include:

  • Increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as floods, bushfires and droughts – putting lives at risk, destroying people’s livelihoods, disrupting agriculture and food production and putting huge strain on emergency services.

  • More frequent, longer lasting and deadly heatwaves, which kill more people than all other extreme weather events combined.

  • Sea level rise, causing coastal flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion

  • Health risks, e.g. from extreme heat, air pollution from bushfire smoke.

  • Hotter water temperatures, leading to coral bleaching — 50% of the Great Barrier Reef is now dead due to climate change.

5. What can Australia do to tackle climate change?

We urgently need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike many other major countries, Australia’s emissions are continuing to rise. The fastest way to turn this around is to transition away from coal, oil and gas which, when burned, are our biggest contribution to global emissions. That means not approving any new coal, oil or gas projects and properly supporting fossil fuel communities and workers to transition out of these industries into good, secure new forms of work. It's vital that we look out for people and don't leave communities behind in the transition.

6. What can I do to help tackle climate change?

There are so many ways in which we can contribute, including:

1. Talking with others in your networks - having conversations with our friends, family and colleagues about the things above. Check out part 1 of this blog: How to talk about climate change and not lose friends.

2. Joining/forming a local group that is taking action on the climate crisis - some suggestions to help you get started -- are you:

3. Here are some individual actions you could take. But remember: the biggest impact we can have is from joining movements and encouraging collective action, given the size and complexity of this crisis.

7. What will happen if we don’t change what we’re doing?

Just over 1 degree of warming has already occurred, and we are feeling the impacts of this in the form of crippling drought, dangerous bushfires, increasingly severe storms and extreme heatwaves. In 2015 at the Paris climate talks, the world committed to limit warming to below 2 degrees, but scientists agree that even 2 degrees would cause great harm, and Australia is not even on track to meet our Paris targets.

Warming of 1.5 and 2 degrees will cause the disappearance of more plant and animal species, massively increase the number of extremely hot days, reduce rainfall and exacerbate drought in some places, whilst increasing extreme floods in others. It will cause melting of sea ice and rising sea levels which put coastal communities and cities at risk of flooding; mass die off of coral reefs, and mass species extinction. We could go on, but you get the point. The difference between impacts at 1.5 and 2 degrees is significant, with much more damage happening at 2 degrees.

The communities that are facing the impacts first and worst of the climate crisis are often those that have done the least to cause it, including Indigenous communities, Pacific Island nations, and communities in developing countries.

8. How much do Australians care about tackling climate change?

Climate change is the number 1 concern for Australians and higher than the global average. This concern is rising. Over 80% of Australian voters want more Government action on climate change.

9. The impacts will be tough - no matter what right?

Even if immediate action is taken and the transitions required put in place we are still facing significant changes to the climate which will set us up for more extreme weather events and impact on our food, energy and transport systems.

There is a lot we need our governments to do, but we are also going to have to be realistic about our need to look after each other as the impacts unfold. Get out and meet your neighbours, share your fire/flood/storm plans, consider collectively growing & sharing food, mapping local water supplies and building local resilience together.

10. Can we still make a difference?

Absolutely, but we need to act now. We have all the knowledge and technology we need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees (the upper limit of what’s considered safe), but the longer we delay, the more expensive and painful the change becomes, and the harder the impacts are to reverse. Limiting warming to below 1.5°C would significantly reduce both the frequency and severity of climate change impacts compared to a 2°C, or higher, temperature rise. Here in Australia, we can get going by demanding our Government takes serious action on the School Strike demands:

  1. No new coal, oil and gas projects, including the Adani mega coal mine

  2. 100% renewable energy and exports by 2030

  3. Funding for a just transition and jobs for fossil fuel workers and their communities.

Acknowledgement: some of the content for this blog was drawn from The Climate Council’s excellent work.

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