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  • Writer's pictureHeidi Harting-Rex

What is climate change?

Climate change is defined as the collection of evidence pointing to an accelerated warming trend for our planet. It is distinguishable from weather, which is local to a geographic region and changes on a day-to-day basis. Climate change is not a political issue and certainly not a conspiracy theory. It is a topic over 100 years old and heavily studied by global professionals - biologists, geologists, ornithologists, marine biologists, botanists, etc. Ninety-nine percent of all scientists agree climate change is happening. 

Global warming (another name for climate change) is something that will impact all of us and most especially our kids and grandkids. 

Climate change is complicated for a number of reasons: It involves our entire planet, a global financial system, and cultures around the world. It seems impossible, both to happen and to mitigate. Because of that, we all want to deny it, to have it not be real. 

Octopus portrayed as the complexity of climate change

All images copyright John Moore (

Chances are, however, you know our climate is changing. Our winters are shorter and less severe, and our summers longer and hotter. Maybe you see fewer birds and insects than you remember as a child.  

Serious study of climate change began around 1950. Climate change data reveals that  recent human activity traps certain gases in our atmosphere. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s climate was stable for 10,000 years, until the introduction of industrialized coal usage in the late 1800s. Since then, the excess pollution in the atmosphere increasingly disrupts our climate as it destabilizes those established weather patterns with more frequent and severe weather events such as flooding, drought, hurricanes, heat waves and resulting fires. 

Planted climate instability after 10K years

Climate change is real and is frightening. Educating ourselves is key to knowing how to respond. Two good places to start are understanding the atmosphere and how temperature is measured. 

While the sky seems endless, the atmosphere - or layer of gases that surround and protect our planet, allowing us to breathe - is actually only nine miles high. If the planet is a soccer ball, the atmosphere is a thin piece of paper wrapped around it. And we, as humans, are disrupting the natural balance of gases within it. The atmosphere has absorbed it well for millennia, yet is now taxed. We cannot continue to expect to add more emissions without adverse impacts. 

The next important element is measuring temperature. Most of the scientific world uses Celsius, so conversion is required. At 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average temperature, the Earth will reach a “tipping point,” or the cut-off where we can no longer fix the damage we’ve caused. We are hovering around 1.2 degrees Celsius now, globally. 1.5 degrees Celsius seems miniscule. A good comparison, offered by climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, is having a fever: Most people feel terrible with one, despite the fact that their body heat rises by a small number of degrees. 1.5 degrees Celsius translates to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is like running a fever of 101.3, 2.7 degrees above normal. It is a similar reaction for the planet.

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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