Change & Sustainability

Climate & Sustainability

Module Introduction

By Shannon Haines


Industrialization and

Transformation of the World. 

There are natural fluctuations in the Earth’s warming and cooling. Since the Industrial Revolution however, warming has been occurring at a faster rate than ever before. The Industrial Revolution was characterized by a shift from production and transportation accomplished by manual and animal labor to the use of machines in larger-scale factories and mechanical transportation. This led to rapid population growth and huge increases in fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gas emissions. The advancements made during this time and after led to a shift in the prevalence of disease types: mortality in the past had been due primarily to infectious diseases; after the Industrial Revolution, mortality became primarily attributable to chronic illnesses, such as heart and lung disease. People began living longer, consuming more, and causing higher emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  

Understanding Climate Change

Under normal circumstances, climate refers to the long-term local ground surface and atmospheric patterns observed around the globe – these may be measured in spans of decades or centuries. Climate change, however, refers to the long-term adjustments in global weather patterns due to anthropogenic, or human-caused, factors. These anthropogenic factors include combustion of fossil fuels, which leads to increased gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The increased carbon dioxide leads to a warming planet because of the greenhouse effect, in which more heat from the sun gets trapped in the atmosphere because of the increase in carbon dioxide particles. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are critical to the sustainment of life on earth, but are now too highly concentrated. Their concentration causes global warming of the earth’s surface, leading to changes in weather patterns, acidification of the ocean, and rising sea levels.

Changes in climate have already impacted plant and animal ecosystems around the globe. Because of the changing temperature, some environments are becoming unsuitable for species that had previously thrived in them, due to changes in precipitation, water availability, ambient temperature, and/or weather impacts on habitat. Other ways species are affected by climate include range shifts (changes in habitats of species throughout their lifetime), changes in resource abundance within their historical ranges, and changes in the timing of their activity and use of habitat. Physiological and behavioral responses to climate change in species can lag behind the rapidly changing surroundings, increasing risk of species harm from the increase in global temperature. Typically, the first response to changes in climate for a species is migration, as it seeks to maintain preferred environmental conditions. These changes in species distribution impact multiples systems, with both small and large scale consequences around the globe.

Climate Crisis: A New Normal

Human welfare is threatened by the abrupt changes caused by temperature increases. Humans that rely on local sources of animal products can experience food insecurity because of the animal species’ response to a warming climate. Crops can also experience lower, or higher, yields due to precipitation and temperature changes, as well as additional extreme weather events. Threats to food security are a huge burden on human health, especially in developing nations. People in developing nations typically depend on the surrounding ecosystem to make a living and feed themselves; changes in their environment can produce catastrophic consequences to the economy and health of many communities.

Climate change also poses threats to human health because it leads to more hazardous weather events, expansion of territory for insects that spread infectious disease, rising sea levels, and reduced water security. Extreme weather events that are exacerbated by changes in climate include more frequent and rapid flooding, more intense hurricanes and storms, shifts in the polar vortex, increased wildfire risk, and drought. 

Mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as West Nile Virus and Zika are expanding into new areas where they could not previously survive as climates warm. In the past, these insects were confined to tropical areas of the world but are now expanding their territory north and south as average yearly temperatures increase.

Rising sea levels threaten coastal residents around the world. The damages and destructionfrequent and intense flooding events now bring to homes in coastal areas have led to increasing numbers of climate migrants. These human migrations cause economic disruptions, increase the risk of disease transmission, threaten food and water security for people, deteriorate mental health, and can tear apart family and community bonds. 

Adaptation and Mitigation

Actions that reduce and manage risks due to climate change involve two distinct approaches: mitigation and adaptation. Adaptation includes adjustments in how we anticipate and react to changes brought about by climate change. Mitigation includes actions which are aimed at reducing and stabilizing levels of greenhouse gases. 

Climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies raise issues of equity and justice, however, as many of the nations that are most vulnerable to climate change have contributed very little to greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, adaptation is motivated by a number of factors, including protection of assets and improving personal safety. The goal of adaptation is to reduce vulnerability to things like sea-level encroachment, increasing extreme weather events, and food insecurity.

Approaches to adaptation include early warning systems for extreme weather events, improvements to the design of social care facilities, increasing green infrastructure, increasing infrastructure for flood prevention, and ecosystem-based management for improving food security.

Mitigation efforts often employ policy implementation, environmental management, and technological approaches in order to curb the intensity climate change. Policy approaches include carbon pricing and policies that encourage active travel (zero emission transportation such as walking and cycling). Environmental management can include maintaining or building up tree cover. Technology can reduce greenhouse emissions and the consumption of nonrenewable materials. Health co-benefits of adaptation and mitigation are improvements to public health that are in addition to the direct health benefits of adapting to and mitigating climate change. Examples of a health co-benefits are the physical health improvements from increased active travel and educed rates of desease from toxins in our environment. 



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