Is climate change something we really need to worry about?

How can a degree or two make much difference to the weather? 

We’re all sensitive to changes in temperature. Too hot or too cold and we’re just not comfortable. It’s the same with the natural world. Global heating is causing big changes to the weather.

Climate scientists (at least 97% of them) know the Earth is warming because of the coal, oil and gas we burn to power our homes and businesses, move us around, and make the products we all use. Cutting trees for farming, forestry, and to build our towns and cities also contribute. 

The world has warmed just over 1 degree Celsius over the last 70 years. Canada has warmed at twice that rate.  Sounds like a small increase. It takes a vast amount of heat to warm the oceans, land and air by one degree. When scientists add up the heat warming the Earth, they find our climate is accumulating four Hiroshima atomic bombs worth of heat every second.

What happens when human activity heats the Earth?

Weather patterns change. Weather becomes extreme. Hotter air absorbs more water, fueling more intense storms that release more rainfall or snow. Flooding disrupts our lives and contaminates soil. Heat waves harm our health. Drought makes it harder to get a good crop and lowers the nutrient value of our food. Hotter temperatures increase risk of disease from ticks and mosquitoes.

We stand at a crossroads. Which future will we choose?

The climate crisis is already harming the most vulnerable in our society: the working poor, seniors, and single mothers to name a few who have fewer social and financial resources to protect themselves from extreme events. We all know someone affected by spring and winter flooding on the St. John River, or storm surges and erosion on our coasts. Heatwaves from Bathurst to Saint Andrews are harming our health and crops. Power outages in winter and summer put our safety and food at risk. 

Below, find some helpful resources to get you more familiar and comfortable with the science of climate change, and what it means for New Brunswickers. Want to learn about climate change solutions? Click here.

Did you know?

Climate change is affecting the food we eat. Wetter springs, drier summers, and more intense rainfall can make growing food unpredictable.

Climate change basics (click for dropdown)

The overwhelming consensus of the world’s leading climate scientists is that human activities are raising the heat of the Earth’s surface and that there is only a one-in-a-million chance that the signal would appear in the absence of human activity. This is because greenhouse gases that humans generate primarily from burning coal, oil, natural gas and gasoline have a special talent: they form a blanket around the Earth that traps heat. As the Earth gets hotter, we go from cozy to overheating. Unfortunately, when the thicker greenhouse gas blanket makes the Earth too hot, we cannot take it off.

The Government of New Brunswick reports that temperatures in our province have increased by 1.5°C relative to historical norms and seasonal temperatures have increased in all parts of the province. Most of this warming has occurred since the late 1970s. The level of warming in our province is similar to the average for the rest of Canada (1.7 degrees Celsius between 1948 and 2016) and it is a rate twice that of the global average.

Warmer air holds more moisture, meaning there can be more rain or snow when there is precipitation. All that heat is already increasing precipitation because 71 per cent of the Earth is ocean. Scientists calculate that for every one degree Celsius increase in temperature, the atmosphere can hold seven per cent  more water. That extra water increases the volume of precipitation by one to two per cent per degree of warming.

From 2000 to 2010, there were more extreme rainfall events (50 millimetres or more of rain over a 24-hour period) in Fredericton and Moncton than any other decade on record. Climate models project that New Brunswick will experience less frequent, but more intense, precipitation events, increasing the annual total precipitation throughout the province.

The increase in annual precipitation can take the form of more snow, increasing snow depth and adding to spring freshet worries and flood risk. It can take the form of more winter rain-ice events causing winter flooding and ice jams and ice-on-snow cover making walking dangerous, especially for seniors.

New Brunswick experienced record-breaking floods in 2018 and 2019, partly caused by an above average snowpack and rain partly due to a changing climate, but also by other factors such as land-use, and housing development in flood plains. It is getting hotter, wetter, extreme, and less safe because  greenhouse gas levels are not where they need to be and we are not changing the way we do things.

A recent special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that if the world is to keep global average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels that globally human-caused carbon dioxide emissions must be cut by at least 45 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030 and we need to be at net-zero emissions by 2050. At this level of average global warming, Canada can expect to warm by at least twice that rate on average and more in the North. To slow warming to manageable levels, the IPCC says that we have about 10 years to get climate change under control if we are to have a chance to minimize its worst effects. Why is this so?

Each year, natural processes absorb about half the greenhouse gases humans emit; the other half stays in the air, adding to the total already there. Because greenhouse gases stay in the air for hundreds to thousands of years even if total emissions drop slightly, the total concentration in the air keeps growing. The only way to stop the total concentration of greenhouse gases in the air from  growing is to shrink global emissions to less than half of today’s levels, and then get to zero to bring the Earth’s energy system back into balance.

Think of a bathtub with the taps fully turned on and water nearly overflowing. If you only turn the taps slightly to slow the water flow, the tub will still  overflow. To stop the bathtub from overflowing, you have to turn the taps off, and to get the water level down, you will need to pull the plug. If you think of  the atmosphere like a bathtub, we have to lower greenhouse gas pollution enough to slow or stop the flow (turning the taps off) and we have to increase the capacity of the Earth to absorb carbon, particularly through increasing green cover with forests and perennial plants (pulling the plug).

The bathtub is like a household budget but for the atmosphere. We call it a  global carbon budget. Canada’s total contribution may look small, but when very tonne counts, we have an ethical duty to think about every tonne we emit, whether it is fair, and whether it is essential. The next decade will decide our fate.

New Brunswick needs a climate action plan with science-based emissions  reduction targets, and actions that keep citizens safe and healthy. Keeping New  Brunswickers healthy requires that we understand how climate change affects health and how solutions protect health.

Want to learn more about climate change in New Brunswick, including who it will affect the most, what people are already doing to address it, and what you can do in your life to make a difference? Click here for climate solutions.