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  • Writer's pictureHeidi Harting-Rex

What causes climate change?

Drawdown is a book/website ( that is an exceptional resource about climate change. The authors are a team of scientists who document causes and - even better - mitigation techniques. They explain the global contributors to climate change well, which we reference for this explanation. You’ll quickly notice that each cause represents common elements of life in the USA.

Climate causes, energy usage

All images copyright John Moore (

Electricity: Global electricity production accounts for around 25% of total emissions released into the atmosphere. Which fuels we choose to create our electricity from drastically influences how much we emit. Often, electricity comes from a mix of several energy sources, like coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables (solar, wind and hydropower). We don’t normally think of turning on a light switch as equating to fossil fuels or pollution, yet we need to trace the electricity that light bulb uses back to its source. It is the production that matters, with coal and natural gas being the most harmful for climate change. Plus, we use substantially more electricity now, per person, than in the past.

Climate causes, agriculture

Agriculture is the second largest wedge, at 24% of the total. We have fantastic farmers and ranchers in our area, so this is on a global scale with big, commercial operations. Industrial agriculture involves many practices, from producing food for human consumption to growing feed crops for animals, often resulting in deforestation and land use changes with big impacts. Beef from factory farms, soy and palm oil are the highest emitting products. Palm oil is heavily used in many processed foods; it shows up in about 50% of items at the grocery store. Soy is for health and processed foods, plus livestock feed. Both require clearing rainforest lands, which is why they are problematic (we really need rainforests as carbon sinks, or natural places that absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and store it in the ground). Methane from rice and livestock, notably beef, are also contributors, as is fertilizer use.

We burn a lot of fossil fuels to produce and transport food, then we waste about 33% of it globally. Food waste contributes 4.4 gigatons of pollutants into the atmosphere yearly. If food waste were a country, it would be third in the world for pollution, after the USA and China. Most people don’t think about food waste, so it goes unnoticed. It’s a huge deal though, given the scale.

Climate causes, industrial

Industry is 21% of total emissions. It’s about making things: metals, steel, concrete, plastics. They all require massive amounts of energy to produce, then transport. Many of these products are not actively recycled (like plastic!) which means that we expend a lot of energy to make them, only to throw them away.

Climate causes, transportation

Transportation is 14% - cars, trucks, planes, etc. Much of the total world usage is coming from the USA; we have big spaces and limited public transport. While electric cars are gaining popularity, the vast majority of transportation still relies solely on fossil fuels.

Climate causes, buildings

Buildings produce 6% of all emissions. Most of this comes from heating and cooling commercial and residential spaces. Many buildings are inefficient and waste energy. As global temperatures increase, air conditioning (which is energy intensive) has become more necessary than ever before.

Climate causes, miscellaneous, including trash

The last wedge, which amounts to 10%, is the sum of everything else. It includes processes such as flaring (burning natural gas “waste” during oil extraction) and crude oil production. Put together, all these wedges create a pie chart of contributors.

Climate causes, everything

So if you use electricity, drive to the store to get groceries, heat/ cool your home, etc. - you’re involved. We all are, and that’s important to remember. The current global system is built nearly entirely on fossil fuels. Climate change touches everything.

Climate Change Q/A is produced by Heidi Harting-Rex, an avid climate change reader, and Rosie Ferguson, a graduate of the University of Montana Journalism School with a minor in Climate Change Studies.

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