Would climate change happen without humans?
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Would Climate Change Happen Without Humans?

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Jun. 3 2021, Published 5:05 p.m. ET

The Earth is getting warmer, the seas are rising steadily, and yet despite incontrovertible evidence of climate change’s destructive effects, many people remain inexplicably convinced that humans are not to blame. These naysayers believe that scientists are erroneously attributing naturally occurring variations in Earth’s atmosphere. As ridiculous as that might sound to some folks, others have begun to delve more deeply to investigate if climate change would have happened without humans.

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Would climate change happen without humans?

The simple answer is, no. Climate change, at least on the scale and rate that we are now seeing it, would not be as it is without the intervention of humans. That isn’t to say that there wouldn’t be natural changes in global temperatures or weather patterns over time, it just wouldn’t be happening as quickly.

According to a Time article published in 2015, 13 of the 15 warmest years on record previously occurred between 1998 and 2014. Those numbers were supplanted in 2016 and then surpassed again in 2020. Essentially, according to NASA, Earth’s average temperature has risen a total of 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s.

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Studies to investigate this rapid heating eventually determined that humans have been driving global warming through fossil fuel emissions since the onset of the Industrial Age. As a result, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that humans are 94 percent responsible for climate change by our actions alone. 

Climate change protest sign
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Has the earth undergone climate change before?

There are several myths that bolster this erroneous belief that climate change is nothing more than a “natural” process. The first myth, at least according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is that the Earth’s climate has always changed. Warming and cooling have occurred before, prior to, and during the ice ages, but those changes took place over hundreds of thousands of years, not within the span of two decades. 

To be fair, the planet has changed a great deal in its 4.5 billion year history. According to author Pete Brannen in his book, The Ends of the World, most of those changes were due to great cataclysms like volcanic activity, variations in solar output, or immense asteroids. 

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Events such as these would cloud the world in dust or increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby warming the world for the next several centuries. In either case, the world would remain changed until such conditions abated. 

Power plant smokestacks
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Humanity is doing this same thing, only we’re doing it to the planet ourselves. Our technological advancement and consumption of resources are causing real alterations to the way the planet’s climate works, but we don’t really know how this might come to affect us in the long run. Scientists make assumptions and predictions, of course, and frankly, all of the outcomes are bad.

As the population continues to grow, efforts to minimize humanity’s impact on climate change via international cooperative efforts like the Paris Agreement, seem to become less and less effective. We have the technology and systems in place to move to renewable, non-polluting sources of energy, but getting 7.6 billion people on board is going to be a tall order. 

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Smog at sunset
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Either way, the clock is ticking and our window of opportunity for salvation is rapidly decreasing. If something isn’t done, we will see catastrophic climate change within our lifetime and may well end up on the business end of a new mass extinction. The only difference this time around will be that we feel it in real time.

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