Is climate change something to worry about?

What difference does a degree or two make? 

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. In New Brunswick, and Canada, we have warmed at more than double the global rate over the last 70 years: almost two degrees of warming compared to about 1 degree Celsius globally. Sounds like a small increase, doesn’t it? What most of us don’t realize is that it takes a vast amount of heat to warm the oceans, land and air by one degree. 

What happens when we heat the Earth?

A flooded home in the Kingston Peninsula during the record-breaking 2018 flood. Photo: Liane Thibodeau.

Global heating is causing big changes to the weather. Weather patterns are changing. Weather is becoming 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 the risk of disease from ticks and mosquitoes. In New Brunswick, since 1970, the climate (long-term average of weather) has gotten (click on text below for more):

Hotter: Double the level of average warming globally

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.

Wetter: We are getting more rain and snow per precipitation event

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.

More unpredictable: More floods, heatwaves, dry periods between extreme rain or snow events

  • 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.

Think of global heating like a blanket:

Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO?), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N?O) from burning coal, oil, natural gas, gasoline (fossil fuels), and from cutting or burning forests and industrial agriculture (land use), have a special talent: they form a blanket around the Earth that traps heat for hundreds or thousands of years. Under historic conditions, when Earth was in energy balance, these gases maintained a comfortable global average temperature of 15 degrees Celsius.

Today, with rampant greenhouse gas emissions, we are adding more greenhouse gas blankets to the surface of the Earth, and it is getting hotter. We go from cozy to overheating. That is because we are upsetting the Earth’s energy balance and that is supercharging the weather.

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 like heat waves or floods. 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 St. Andrews are harming our health and crops. Power outages in winter and summer put our safety and food at risk. 

Think of the air like a bathtub: It’s getting full and that’s risky

We have a lot of work to do to prevent adding more greenhouse gas blankets of heat to the Earth’s surface. That is because Earth’s natural systems – the oceans and our forests, plants and soils — absorb about half the greenhouse gas emissions the world puts into the air every year. Our oceans, trees and plants can only do so much. To help bring the Earth back into balance, we need to drastically cut the use of fossil fuels and do more to protect natural systems. 

To understand how much work we have to do, think of a bathtub with the taps fully turned on and water nearly overflowing. If we only turn the taps slightly to slow the water flow, the stock of water in the tub will still overflow. To stop the bathtub from overflowing, we have to turn the taps off, and to get the water level down, we have to open the drain.

[Click the image to make it bigger, or click here to view it as a PDF]

In other words, solving climate change requires we stop burning fossil fuels and disturbing land to cut the flow (turning the taps off), and we have to increase the capacity of the Earth to absorb carbon by growing and protecting forests and changing industrial forestry and agricultural practices (widening the drain to reduce the stock). We may also need technologies that capture CO? from the air or industrial operations. 

If we lower global greenhouse gas emissions by at least half over the next 10 years we can stop the amount of greenhouse gases increasing in the atmosphere. To prevent future warming from the gases already in the atmosphere, or to come through the Earth reacting to unavoidable warming (positive feedback), we have to do even more. In other words, we have to draw down what is already in the air (lower the level in the bathtub) and keep future levels below what Earth can naturally absorb.

Did you know?

Air pollution and climate change are not the same

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have noticed the air looks cleaner and people living in polluted cities are breathing easier. That is because using fossil fuels, in addition to generating long-lived greenhouse gases, also generate short-lived acid and particle emissions, as well as volatile gases that cause acid rain and smog. These short-lived pollutants fall out of the air when it rains, or through air transport, in just a few weeks. 

We also reduce short-lived pollution by adding scrubber technology to power plants and factories, or by adding caps that prevent volatile gases from escaping at gas pumps. During an economic slowdown, as we have seen in the recent pandemic, we drive less and use less gasoline, or burn less coal to make electricity or other fuels to run factories. The result is we enjoy cleaner air. Cleaner air is a good thing because smog and acid emissions affect our health as well as the environment. 

We would prefer, of course, to enjoy the benefits of clean air and a safe climate through in positive ways. The best way to do that, and solve climate change too, is to change our energy sources and the way we manage land.

Greenhouses gases are long-lived and exceed the Earth’s ability to absorb them by at least half, which means we increase the amount in the air each year like filling a bathtub. These greenhouse gases last hundreds to thousands of years, not weeks, and trap heat at the Earth’s surface. To solve climate change, we need to cut emissions from energy and land drastically, not just a small amount, to see improvement.  

The good news is that solving climate change also solves air pollution. Click here to learn more.

Together we can make a difference

The only way to stop the total concentration of greenhouse gases in the air from growing (the stock in the atmospheric bathtub) is for all of us to work together to shrink global emissions to less than half today’s levels in the next 10 years, and then get to near zero emissions within the next 30 years. If Canada and the rest of the world does its part to reach those goals, and we can, the Earth’s energy system will eventually come back into balance and we will avoid dangerous global heating.

According to the world’s leading climate scientists, even global average warming of another half a degree or so puts the world at grave risk of even more extreme changes to our weather. Unfortunately, if we don’t get a handle on our energy and land use, humans and natural system could face additional warming of 3 degrees or more. That’s just too many blankets! 

Kathryn Hayhoe, a world-leading climate scientist, explains the situation in this video:

Talk to friends and family about climate change

The first step in solving climate change is to talk about it with friends and family.  Let people know you care or are concerned. Comment on social media to show people like you that you worry about climate change. Knowing others share our concerns, helps all of us feel connected to each other and feel more confident we can solve problems together. Start today, share these resources on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Find out tips on talking about climate change here: