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What is climate change and why does it matter?

Updated: Aug 31

Climate change has been called the ‘great moral challenge of our generation’, between 500 and 700-billion US dollars are spent yearly on “climate finance” and recently millions took part in a global movement demanding action to address the issue. Despite all of this, it’s not very often that we’re actually given the opportunity to take a step back and consider how climate change is formally defined and what it really is. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the world’s peak climate change body, climate change:


 ‘means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods’. 


But what does this mean in layman's terms? 


That requires some unpacking. 


Firstly, it’s important to note that climate is different from the weather. While weather relates to the periodic changes of temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind and other factors, the climate is the combination of all of these factors over a prolonged period of time in a particular geographic location. A change in climate is equivalent to a long term trend in changing weather events. For example, if in one region it rains one week and is dry the next, this is a change in the weather; if over a period of five years average seasonal rainfall continually declines, this is a change in climate. The combination of climates across the world is referred to as the “climate system”, and when we refer to climate change, generally this is what we refer to.


Source: Australian Climate Roundtable 2020: Exploring the Risks and Impacts of Climate Change on Australia by Dr Karl Braganza, Bureau of Meteorology; and Prof Andy Pitman, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes


Secondly, human activity has always impacted our environment to some extent. Dating back to the beginning of agriculture we have manipulated nature and changed our surroundings for our use, however only relatively recently in terms of the history of our species has this activity begun to affect our atmosphere. Since the industrial revolution we have burned fossil fuels such as coal and oil in order to fuel development and growth, invariably changing the makeup of our atmosphere in harmful ways. 


Thirdly, the global climate system has always changed and will always continue to. Human-caused or anthropogenic climate change intensifies or compounds these changes. We have now reached a point where man made human activity is causing climate change to occur far more rapidly than any previous natural change in our planet’s climate, and this threatens the way all humans live. 


With these points clarified, we can define climate change as long-term changes in the Earth’s atmosphere caused by intensive human activity which will bring about extreme changes in weather patterns and climate, threatening the livelihood of the whole of humanity.



How exactly will this affect us?


The exact effects of climate change experienced on an individual level will vary from person to person depending on factors such as geographic location, socio-economic status, culture, gender and more. Some impacts will be felt in certain places and not in others. Some places will experience all of these. The expected consequences include but aren’t limited to:


  • Higher average temperatures.

  • Arctic ice-melt and rising sea levels.

  • More unpredictable extreme weather events such as cyclones, floods and droughts. 

  • Increased acidification of oceans.

  • Loss of biodiversity.


Source: Australian Climate Roundtable 2020: Exploring the Risks and Impacts of Climate Change on Australia by Dr Karl Braganza, Bureau of Meteorology; and Prof Andy Pitman, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes


These consequences are expected to affect everyday life for people across the world as it becomes harder to meet food demands, land is made unproductive and unlivable, infrastructure is strained, water shortages occur, human displacement increases and the global economy suffers across the board. 


In Australia specifically, hotter summers and longer droughts are already here. Other near-term consequences include lower farming yields, more regular and intense bushfires and the decline of The Great Barrier Reef. Longer-term changes are as serious as destructive rising sea levels in Australia’s coastal regions, where over 85% of the population lives within 50km of the ocean.


Source: Australian Climate Roundtable 2020: Exploring the Risks and Impacts of Climate Change on Australia by Dr Karl Braganza, Bureau of Meteorology; and Prof Andy Pitman, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes


Even for those who aren’t farmers, aren’t dependent on tourism generated by The Great Barrier Reef or don’t live near coastal regions, the ripple effect of these changes will be felt across all of Australia as we collectively seek to address these issues. We can minimise how much this is felt by acting now.




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