In May 2021, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit 420 parts per million, about a 50 per cent increase since the Industrial Revolution.
“That amount of carbon dioxide has been about 280 ppm since the last ice age and now it’s gone up in this really sharp exponential increase over the past 150 years,” said Stephen Hill, associate professor with the school of the environment at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It’s found in nature, but humans produce more of it by burning fossil fuels. And human activities like deforestation impact ways to reduce it in the atmosphere. Once in the atmosphere it absorbs and releases heat.
Hill said that CO2 is essentially insulating the planet.
“When you have that gas in the atmosphere, it is like having a blanket around the Earth and so it just kind of warms the Earth up,” Hill said. “Just like you would have a duvet on your bed warming you up, carbon dioxide is heating the Earth up.”
That, he said, is causing climate change. He said we are already seeing a rise in the global average temperature, more frequent and severe weather events, and a change in ocean chemistry. All are connected and impacting the global climate, he said.
“We are kind of running an experiment on the global climate and we aren’t exactly sure how it is going to play out over the next 200 or 300 years, but we know it is going to alter it significantly,” Hill said.
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The Global Carbon Project reported a seven per cent drop in emissions during the pandemic, attributed to less travel and reduced industrial activity, but Hill said that isn’t likely to have a significant impact long-term.
“The problem is that our emissions went back up again and so we didn’t really see a noticeable change in the total amount of greenhouse gases and the concentration in the atmosphere,” Hill said.
“We have to get to net zero to balance the amounts that we are putting in with the amounts the forests and other technologies are taking the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
To do that, Hill said we will have to drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and curb deforestation. He also said we need to ask politicians to include environmental policy and action.
Beth McKinlay, a member of the environmental advocacy group For Our Grandchildren, said we need to let our politicians know that climate action is a priority.
“Politicians have a lot of heavy lifting to do on this and they are more likely to do that when they realize how much we care,” she said. “Studies suggest that the public wants more to be done (to protect the environment), but we have to show the people that make those decisions.”
McKinlay said we also need to spread awareness and continue to have conversations about climate. She said it is important to make green choices ourselves and create a ripple effect for environmental action.
“Maybe I get an electric car or put solar panels on my roof and someone sees that and says, ‘Hey, maybe that is something I could do, too,'” she said.
Climate activist Malaika Collette said she has seen an increase in interest in the green movement, especially after Greta Thunburg began protesting for climate action in 2018.
“These past few years, once Greta started striking, the youth movement just accelerated all across the world,” Collette said. “That is what gives me hope, seeing the masses of people in the streets fighting for change.”
She said while they haven’t been able to hold public protests during the pandemic, they are still advocating for the environment.
“I can assure you those people are still there. They are still organizing so the youth have definitely stepped up and there are all generations working for this, but there has definitely been an increase in youth involvement, for sure,” Collette said.
“It is like COVID-19 data in some regards. I know if I stay home, wear my mask and do my part, then the overall risk goes down,” Hill said. “Well, we all have to do our part for the climate; every amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere increases our risk for overall change.”