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Understanding The Lesser-Known Human Causes of Climate Change

May 14, 2020

The evidence for climate change worldwide is plentiful. Records show an average global temperature rise of over 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century, contributing to warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, retreating glacier cover, decreased snowfall, and more.

For years, people have argued over the root cause of these troubling changes, but that debate has lost its steam. Although it’s true the Earth has experienced warming events in the past without humanity’s help, the rate of change over the past 100 years is roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming. And the rate of change over the next century is projected to be up to 20 times faster.

At least 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are the result of human activities. But hidden within that indictment is some good news: Because we created the problem, we know how to fix it, even if it won’t be easy. In order to address the issue, it’s necessary to have a full understanding of our role in climate change and the way each step in the wrong direction triggers a ripple effect of its own.

The primary reason for the rapid spike in average global temperature we’re seeing is the increase of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. These gases are responsible for the greenhouse effect that keeps heat from escaping into space. Humans and other creatures count on these gases to make the planet inhabitable, but it’s all about balance—an overload of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will trap too much heat and cause glaciers to melt, triggering sea level rise, warming oceans, species extinction, and other tragic side effects. 

Top Three Causes of Rising Emissions

Burning Fossil Fuels

Burning coal, oil, and gas is the number one human cause of climate change. Emissions from industrial activities and the burning of fossil fuels was on track to pump an estimated 36.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2019, according to a report titled “Persistent fossil fuel growth threatens the Paris Agreement and planetary health.


Forests are essentially carbon dioxide banks—they absorb it from the atmosphere and help regulate the climate. Unfortunately, forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Between 1990 and 2016, we lost 502,000 square miles of forest, according to the World Bank. Deforestation directly contributes to climate change, with 20% of the world’s emissions resulting from the clearing of tropical forests. In 2017 alone, deforestation added about 7.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Saving the world’s forests would go a long way toward healing the environment. According to one estimate, we can work toward meeting the goals set in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement by safeguarding tropical tree cover. Over the next decade, this step alone could provide 23% of necessary climate mitigation

Livestock Farming

Livestock farming is a big contributor to human-caused climate change when you consider the combined impact of methane released by animals, deforestation for agricultural expansion, and fossil fuels burned to produce mineral fertilizers for feed production.  

According to a UN report titled “Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock,” an estimated 14.5% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock industry. To put this number in perspective, all the transport vehicles in the world—cars, trucks, trains, boats, and airplanes—create roughly the same level of fuel emissions, and climate change, each year.  

Ripple Effects of Climate Change

If emissions continue to increase unchecked, a number of side effects will ripple around the world. Here are just a few:

More Droughts and Heat Waves

Heat waves around the world and droughts, especially in the American Southwest, are expected to become more frequent and intense in coming years. The National Climate Assessment estimates 20-30 more days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit in most areas of the US by mid-century. Droughts and heat waves, in turn, will contribute to larger wildfires and longer fire seasons, a reality many around the world have experienced first-hand over the past few years. 

Stronger and More Intense Natural Disasters

Natural disasters, especially hurricanes and typhoons, are expected to increase in frequency and severity as the world warms. Warmer air holds more water vapor, which leads to more rain, like the historic rainfall we’ve seen in recent hurricanes. This also means more intense storm surges, which will compound already rising sea levels.

Natural disasters come with their own negative consequences, of course, including lost lives, damaged infrastructure, reduced ecosystem resilience, and contaminated groundwater due to increased sediment and pollutants following heavy downpours.

Sea Level Rise

Global sea levels have risen between 4-8 inches over the past hundred years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Increased emissions have contributed to the fact that 390 billion tons of ice and snow melt every year, which in turn has caused global sea levels to rise.

Depending on how much we’re able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years, sea levels could rise anywhere from 12 inches to 8.2 feet by 2100. This is extremely alarming information, especially for the more than 100 million people around the world who live within three feet of mean sea level.

How Population Growth Relates to Climate Change

If humans have caused climate change, it follows that rapid population growth is going to exacerbate the problem. The world’s average population is increasing by an estimated 81 million people per year, according to the World Population Clock. A study published in 2017 by the Universities of Lund and British Columbia suggested that having one fewer child is the single most effective measure an individual in the developed world can take to cut their carbon emissions over the long term. They calculated that having one fewer child a year could result in an average reduction of 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per year for developed countries.

See You How Can Make an Impact

Because of the link between population growth and climate change, it’s important that people around the world are equipped with the knowledge and resources to make informed decisions about how they choose to grow their families.

At Population Media Center (PMC), our goal is to offer people that information in the form of engaging educational entertainment. We meld entertainment-industry insight with behavior theory to create entertaining hit shows that are uniquely designed to address deeply embedded personal and social issues, including environmental concerns like deforestation and endangered species preservation. 

When done well, educational entertainment has the power to motivate entire societies to create long-lasting, meaningful change in their behaviors and in their relationship with the natural world. With the power of mass media, we are able to reach large audiences for relatively little cost, which means even small donations can go a long way toward solving some of today’s most pressing challenges. See how you can make an impact today.