Sustainability Theme of the Month: September is for Climate Change

Tuesday, September 7, 2021
by Jenna Phillips

Welcome back, Warriors! And welcome home to all of our new staff or students. The focus for September at the Sustainability Office is climate change, because we believe it is one of the most important topics to educate all of our new (and returning) community members on!

What is climate change?

At the most basic level, climate change is the gradual, long-term change in average weather patterns on earth that define characteristic climates of certain regions. For instance, you may associate the Amazon Rainforest with a “tropical” climate, or the Arctic with a “polar” climate. These characteristic climates naturally change over very long periods of time (we’re talking tens of thousands of years or more) and in cycles. Climate change is often associated with global warming, which means an increase in global temperatures, but it also encompasses other environmental factors such as sea level rise, melting glaciers, droughts and so on.

While climate does occur naturally over long periods of time, over the last few centuries there have been growing concerns about anthropogenic climate change – that is, human-induced climate change. The main difference between natural and anthropogenic climate change is that anthropogenic climate change happens at a rate much faster than what naturally occurs, as in a few decades or less. According to the Royal Society (2020), the temperature of the earth’s surface has increased approximately 1.0°C since 1900, more than 0.5°C of which occurred since the mid-1970s, and now warms at a rate of approximately 0.15 to 0.20°C per decade. They also estimate that 1989 to 2019 was the warmest 30-year period in more than 800 years! Previously, this amount of warming took tens to hundreds of thousands of years to occur.

What is causing anthropogenic climate change?

The main contributor to anthropogenic climate change is greenhouse gas production by industrial activities. Since the Industrial Revolution (1750s to around 1840), we saw a massive shift in how human societies operate. From the mass production of cars to new manufacturing technologies and more, life quickly became designed around the use of fossil fuels, which were more accessible and provided large amounts of energy. When fossil fuels such as coal and oil are burned to extract their energy, they release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. These gases contribute to the greenhouse effect in our atmosphere, which traps energy that radiates down from the sun and heats the surface of the earth. The greenhouse effect is also a natural phenomenon, but at the rapid rate of fossil fuel burning and resulting production of greenhouse gases, the earth is warming much quicker than what it would do without this anthropogenic influence.

Why climate change matters

Bench sitting in flooding water
Aside from the planet getting warmer, climate change has major implications for how we live. A one-degree change may not sound like a lot, yet a one-degree change on a global scale is huge. The last time there was a one-degree global shift was during the Little Ice Age, where temperatures dropped one degree. When global temperatures increase (as they are doing right now) we see many effects: melting glaciers and permafrost, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, severe droughts, intense storms, biodiversity loss...these are just a few of the countless side-effects that will be experienced as the climate changes. Importantly, these impacts are not just in the future – they are happening right now around the world at varying degrees. Some communities are more vulnerable to these impacts, which has resulted in many “climate change deniers” who tend to be those not facing the harsh reality of climate change. For instance, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are some of the most vulnerable to sea level rise. Currently, over 95% of the land mass of many SIDS are less than 5 metres above sea level. Their dependency on resource economies means that many of them do not have the means to leave their islands literally disappear before their eyes, nor do they want to if they are their home. Because of climate change, nearly 70 million people on SIDS could lose their homes within the next few decades. More broadly, around 230 million people around the world live less than one metre above sea level, and one billion are less than 10 metres above sea level, putting a large portion of the global population at risk.

Sea level rise on top of all the other side effects mentioned will profoundly impact the way we live. Closest to home right now, the past few months of wildlifes happening across the country are yet another example of how no one is immune to the present and future impacts of climate change. That’s why it’s essential to take action on climate change.

How are we taking climate action?

In 2020, the University of Waterloo released its first Climate Action Plan called Shift: Neutral, which establishes the University’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. There are interim goals of reducing emissions 17.5% by 2025 and 35% by 2030. The institution's goals support broader, national goals of reducing emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, which is a target made under the international treaty, the Paris Agreement. This treaty aims to limit global warming below 2°C, or more ambitiously 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this, we need the support of all individuals, businesses, organizations and nations. These efforts also support other international initiatives, like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action.

Take climate action

We all have a role to play in climate action. Learn what you can do to support the University of Waterloo’s Climate Action Plan, and broader efforts, by exploring the resources below.

In addition, actions you take in your small, everyday life can promote climate action, such as:

  • Calculate your carbon footprint to understand where you can reduce emissions the most in your life
  • Use active or public transportation instead of driving
  • Reduce your food waste
  • Shop local
  • Conserve energy from home heating/AC by closing windows and doors
  • Unplug electronics when fully charged
  • Turn off lights when exiting a room
  • Join a campus or community club that promotes climate action
  • Follow climate advocacy accounts on social media and amplify their messages
  • Try to find a co-op job with organizations promoting climate action and research in their own practices

Our challenge to you: find ways to take climate action in your everyday life. From the foods you eat to the way you move around the city, every action you take can make a difference.