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Home » How did we get here? The roots and impacts of the climate crisis

How did we get here? The roots and impacts of the climate crisis

How did we get here? The roots and impacts of the climate crisis

People’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels and the cutting down of carbon-storing forests have transformed global climate.

Even in a world increasingly battered by weather extremes, the summer 2021 heat wave in the Pacific Northwest stood out. For several days in late June, cities such as Vancouver, Portland and Seattle baked in record temperatures that killed hundreds of people. On June 29, Lytton, a village in British Columbia, set an all-time heat record for Canada, at 121° Fahrenheit (49.6° Celsius); the next day, the village was incinerated by a wildfire.

Within a week, an international group of scientists had analyzed this extreme heat and concluded it would have been virtually impossible without climate change caused by humans. The planet’s average surface temperature has risen by at least 1.1 degrees Celsius since preindustrial levels of 1850–1900. The reason: People are loading the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases produced during the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, and from cutting down forests.

A little over 1 degree of warming may not sound like a lot. But it has already been enough to fundamentally transform how energy flows around the planet. The pace of change is accelerating, and the consequences are everywhere. Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting, raising sea levels and flooding low-lying island nations and coastal cities. Drought is parching farmlands and the rivers that feed them. Wildfires are raging. Rains are becoming more intense, and weather patterns are shifting.

The roots of understanding this climate emergency trace back more than a century and a half. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists began the detailed measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide that would prove how much carbon is pouring from human activities.

Over the last century and a half, scientists have built a strong case for the roots and impacts of human-caused climate change.