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What is Climate Change and Why Should I Care About It?

Posted in NEWS on Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

Posted 3/18/2009

What is climate change and why should I care about it?

Several weeks ago, Vanderbilt announced its plans to calculate the university’s carbon footprint. The inventory will determine the amount of the six greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere that make up Vanderbilt’s carbon footprint in an average year. This article is the third in a series discussing Vanderbilt’s carbon footprint. But how exactly do greenhouse gas emissions impact the environment?

Greenhouse gases
are emitted through both natural and human activities, and once released, trap heat in the atmosphere, acting like a gas blanket. As the concentrations of these gases increase, the earth’s temperature could potentially climb higher than previous levels, and wind and precipitation patterns could be modified. This phenomenon, termed “climate change,” can be identified by shifts in climate properties or a location’s characteristics that last for an extended period of time. As a result, the earth, its systems and inhabitants have to adapt to altered climate conditions.

The terms “climate change” and “global warming” are often used interchangeably; however, “climate change” has become the preferred phrase that more accurately communicates that there are variations in addition to rising temperatures.(1)

Slight temperature changes in one location can cause more extreme conditions all over the world that impact not only humans, but plants and animals as well. Consider the following:

  • The frequency of catastrophic natural disasters, such as hurricanes, droughts, floods and wildfires, has increased in recent years.(2)
  • Spring events, such as germination, flowering, migration and reproduction, have occurred an average of 10 days earlier than they did about 30 years ago, and plants and animals requiring colder climates for survival are traveling north.(3)
  • It has been estimated that at least 279 plant and animal species have responded to climate change by altering their migration and/or reproduction patterns.(4)

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of more than 700 scientists from various disciplines around the world, much of the observed increase in average temperatures since the 1950s is likely attributable to an increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities increased 70 percent from 1970-2004, leading the IPCC to conclude with 95 percent certainty that human activities have largely contributed to global climate change.

Recognized technological, social and behavioral changes that positively affect climate change, such as energy conservation, are sensible choices for the Vanderbilt community and beyond, regardless of the ultimate impact of climate change. Conserving energy, implementing renewable fuel sources and reducing consumption are all actions with substantial benefits such as cost reductions, energy independence, human health improvement and preservation of natural resources.

“According to research conducted at Vanderbilt, individuals and households account for 30 percent to 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions,” said Michael Vandenbergh, professor of law and director of the Climate Change Research Network. “Many small behavior changes, when aggregated across even just a portion of the U.S. population, could save hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of tons of carbon dioxide – more than the total from many large industrial sectors.”

You can do your part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at Vanderbilt.

  • If you have control of a thermostat, adjust it to a reasonable temperature (68-70°F in the winter and 75°F in the summer).
  • Turn-off lights, computer equipment and electronics when you leave a room.
  • Waste less by reducing consumption and recycling.
  • Consider walking, biking, carpooling or taking mass transit to and from work.
  • Reduce unnecessary vehicle idling (e.g., go inside instead of using a drive-thru window or turn off your car while waiting to pick up other passengers).

Vanderbilt’s energy consumption is the largest contributing factor in our greenhouse gas emissions. If you would like more information on how to conserve energy at Vanderbilt, visit the ThinkOne Web site at www.vanderbilt.edu/SustainVU/ThinkOne.

To read more about Vanderbilt’s greenhouse gas emissions and to follow progress of the development of the carbon footprint, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/SustainVU.

Read other articles in the series:

VU to calculate carbon footprint

So what is a carbon footprint and why is Vanderbilt calculating one?

Contact: SustainVU, sustainvu@vanderbilt.edu

(1) Feb. 18 2009. “Climate Change.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

(2) Van Aalst, M.K. (2006). The impacts of climate change on the risk of natural disasters. Disasters 30(1), 5-18.

(3) Walther, G.R., Post, E., Convey, P., Menzel, A., Parmesan, C., Beebee, T., Fromentin, J.M., Hoegh-Guldber, O., & Bairlein, F. (2002). Ecological responses to recent climate change. Nature 416, 389-395.

(4) Parmesan, C. & Yohe, G. (2003). A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature 421, 37-42.