Around the world, climate change already has (or will soon have) impacts on every aspect of human life. Wildfires and extreme temperatures are already impacting people’s health. Drought and less fresh water mean it’s harder to grow food.
Climate change is a consequence of rising average global temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Small changes in temperatures, from only 1ºC above what they were before the industrial era, are already affecting the environment and people worldwide.
World leaders agreed at the 2015 Paris climate summit to limit temperatures to well below 2ºC, and 1.5ºC if at all possible. This is because there really is no safe level of warming. It’s also because at 2ºC, a number of island nations in the Pacific Ocean are under threat of being swallowed up almost entirely by sea level rises. At Paris, the governments of these countries lobbied hard for a target of 1.5ºC to ensure their survival.
Hasn’t the climate always changed?
Some people say the climate has always changed, and that’s true. But what human activity is doing to the planet’s atmosphere is different to anything that’s happened before – which were mostly smaller, natural changes taking place over millions of years.
The average global temperature on Earth has already increased by a little over 1ºC since 1880, and most of that since 1975.
Because of this rapid climate change, wildfires are more likely to rage out of control, reducing forests to ash. The oceans are warming and the water is becoming more acidic, causing mass coral die-offs and the loss of breeding grounds for sea creatures.
Delicate ecosystems that are home to insects, plants and animals struggle to adapt quickly enough to the changing climate, putting one million species at risk of extinction.
All of this means that our food security, health and quality of life are all under threat.
What are the impacts of climate change on people?
The impacts of heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, storms, floods and sea-level rise is already devastating for many communities around the world.
Impacts are predicted to become catastrophic if governments cannot bring greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature rises under control.
Storms, floods and sea-level rise destroy homes and lives
In the UK, climate change is causing more extreme weather such as heatwaves and storms. Increased heat in the atmosphere leads to more heavy rainfall and more frequent flooding, often impacting the same areas over and over again.
Flooding has turned lives upside-down in Yorkshire, Somerset and Cumbria. And a coastal village in Wales, Fairbourne, is being evacuated because of the growing threat of sea level rise.
In the Pacific island nations, Central America, the Caribbean and southern US states such as Louisiana and Florida, hurricanes are increasingly severe and far more frequent, leading to loss of life, homes, harvests or entire farms.
In South and Southeast Asia, countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Philippines face more and stronger cyclones or typhoons – which can destroy entire regions. It take years to rebuild.
Extreme weather events are devastating to any community. But those in poorer nations, and people living in underprivileged communities in rich nations, also struggle to recover. In the US, government neglect, inequality and racism have led to inadequate emergency responses and very slow recovery. This was seen most starkly after Hurricane Katrina in 2010 and Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Sea level rises are already affecting Pacific island nations like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands.
Native Americans in Alaska and Louisiana are facing not only a rapid reshaping of their ancestral coastlines, but also the effects of polluting oil and gas drilling.
Indigenous Peoples worldwide suffer disproportionately from both the causes and effects of climate change. This is despite often having a deep understanding of how to look after nature and use natural resources sustainably.
Heat, drought and fires increase health risks
Heatwaves, droughts and wildfires have serious effects on people and communities. As well as the damage caused by fire itself to wildlife and human settlements, smoke inhalation and air pollution from fire is a major health risk.
Heat and drought are also bad for human health. There is a limit to how much heat a human body can cope with. And lack of clean water to drink or grow food can cause illness, malnourishment, famine, migration and war.
Extreme heat, particularly in cities, can be deadly – particularly for older people. In Europe summer heatwaves have already caused tens of thousands of deaths in some recent years.
Heatwaves also worsen droughts around the world. These extended periods without water threaten not only human health, but also how much food can be grown. According to the UN, this has led to alarming rises in global hunger.
Heatwaves and drought can lead to wildfires. Wildfires are already affecting many countries around the world on a regular basis. The Amazon, Australia, the Western US and Siberia have all seen alarming wildfires in recent years.
What are the effects of climate change on nature?
A key effect of climate change is extreme weather.
Rising temperatures cause heatwaves droughts, and wildfires. They also warm the atmosphere, increasing moisture – which means more rainfall, storms and flooding.
Storms and flooding are affecting many parts of the world, including the UK. Even extreme cold weather is also thought to be another effect of climate change.
Fire is particularly merciless when it tears through any landscape, killing or harming thousands of species of plants and those animals unable to escape. It is estimated that the Australia fires of early 2020 killed or harmed nearly three billion animals. Some of the fires were so enormous they even created their own weather events.
Polar and glacier ice melt and sea-level rise
Higher average global temperatures are also melting ice at the polar regions and in glaciers in mountainous regions.
In the Arctic, which now experiences heatwaves, the sea ice disappears almost entirely in summer – and the region is predicted to be completely ice-free by the mid-2030s.
Antarctic ice shelves have lost nearly 4 trillion metric tons of ice since the mid-1990s, with warming ocean waters melting them faster than they can refreeze.
Melting polar ice leads to sea-level rise around the world, which (along with increased storm surges) is starting to permanently re-shape coastal regions. This is already happening in the Arctic, the South Pacific and parts of the southern US.