Special thanks to C-Change Conversations for sharing brief answers to the 5 most common questions many Americans have about climate change and ideas for taking action.
QUESTION 1: How Do We Know It Is Real?
The basic physics of how climate change works has been well understood for over a century, is noncontroversial, and straightforward to explain. Let’s go over it quickly.
The Sun’s energy comes through the atmosphere and hits the Earth’s surface. Some solar energy is absorbed, but much of it bounces back off towards space. On its way back to space, some of this energy is partially captured and reradiated back towards Earth by a very small portion of our atmosphere made up of greenhouse gases. These greenhouse gases are primarily carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor. In their small numbers, these gases are not bad. Without them, we would have a frozen planet. However, when fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas are burned, they release additional greenhouses gases into the atmosphere. Therefore, due to burnt fossil fuels, the atmosphere holds more greenhouse gases and is now able to capture more energy and reradiate it back to Earth. This results in planetary warming of our climate systems.
QUESTION 2: How Do We Know It Is Us?
We know that humans are putting carbon into the air by burning fossil fuels. In fact, we have 43% more CO₂ in the air than in pre-industrial times. We know that adding greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere warms the planet; but, then, how much is nature contributing to this vs. man?
Scientists have a discipline called atmospheric chemistry, which allows them to analyze the different carbon molecules to see which ones were put into the atmosphere by man’s activities and which ones were put there through natural occurrences. Molecules produced by burning fossil fuels have a different atomic fingerprint, and they can be measured. Scientists have found that these man-made carbon molecules are increasing more rapidly than the carbon molecules released naturally.
The other way we know humans are to blame for a warming planet is that scientists cannot explain what they are observing without factoring in man’s influence. When they create climate models using all the things that naturally influence the climate, such as our orbit, the Earth’s tilt, its wobble, and solar and volcanic activity, they see this trend (blue line, see graph) which shows that we should be in a slight cooling period right now. But, when they add in human activity on top of all these natural influences, they see a much different trend (green line, see graph). Importantly, that green trend line closely mirrors what has actually happened and has been measured, which is reflected in the orange line (see graph). So, the green line mirrors the orange, and given that we should be in a cooling period (blue line), this suggests that 100% of the warming is due to human activity.
QUESTION 3: What Do Scientists Think?
The scientific consensus for human-caused climate change is as strong as the consensus that cigarette smoking can lead to increased incidence of lung cancer.
Facts and sources are constantly thrown around when discussing climate change, so it is helpful to look at a trusted source: NASA. NASA’s website says 97% or more of climate scientists contend climate change is happening, and that man is influencing it. Scientists love to disagree and challenge each other. You don’t normally get this type of consensus in science; but, this time, science is clearly shouting back at us: climate change is real and happening now.
Scientists are not the only ones in agreement regarding climate change. The CEOs of the world’s top oil and gas companies agree that there is urgency to address climate change and founded the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which endorses the Paris Agreement and its goals. In fact, Shell’s website directly states that in order for society to prosper while tackling climate change, we must be focused on “finding ways to emit much less CO₂.”
If the scientists and fossil fuel executives agree that climate change is a threat, then what are the rest of us arguing about?
QUESTION 4: Is It Dangerous?
Yes, climate change is very dangerous. This graph puts everything into perspective.
Start back at 20,000 years ago. Then, we were still in the Ice Age. The planet looked very different. There was a mile of ice on top of Manhattan and the southernmost glacier ended just north of Princeton.
Clearly, our climate at that time was very different. Much of the earth was uninhabitable, and we certainly weren’t growing Jersey corn and tomatoes. But, nature had almost 10,000 years to moderate as the global temperature slowly rose to what has been the average global temperature more or less for the last 10,000 years: 60° Fahrenheit. This was a very good temperature for our species and the environmental stability encouraged human civilization to flourish.
Even during this period of stability, human civilization was impacted by slight fluctuations in global temperature. For example, global temperatures increased a little bit during the Medieval Warming Period, allowing Vikings to farm and grow vegetables in Greenland. Later, temperatures dropped maybe 1 to 1.5 degrees colder, representing the Little Ice Age: a time when the glaciers began to advance and caused hardship such as food shortages and social upheaval. So, small changes in average temperature meant a big difference in life on our planet back then.
Look back at the graph. After the Little Ice Age, the temperature line goes up, up, up and away. Experts project that global temperatures will increase somewhere between 3.6° to almost 11°F by 2100 depending on what we choose to do. Think about it, nature had almost 10,000 years to moderate. 10,000 years to march trees from Mexico to Montana. 10,000 years to create the biodiversity and ecosystems we depend on. Years of remarkable stability. And now, we are asking nature to continue to provide those services to us as humans trigger potentially the same temperature change in 100 years!
That’s scary, right?
This is why we talk about climate change. This is why almost all the countries of the world came together at the Paris Agreement and said we cannot continue like this. We need to keep below the 3.6°F change (this is the same as the 2° Celsius warning we hear in the press). Better yet, we must aim below these temperature targets because at the lower levels we can probably mitigate, adapt, and be resilient enough to handle what’s coming.
Above that, we aren’t so sure.
QUESTION 5: Is There Hope?
Yes, there is hope. Of course, there is.
Humans have explored the continents and navigated the vast open oceans. We have broken free from disease and unlocked the secrets of modern medicine. We have persevered through world wars and pandemics. We have split the atom and gone to the moon.
Humanity has proven time and time again that we are resilient. That resilience comes from action. That action comes from knowledge and honesty.
With close adherence to scientific consensus and guidance, hope has emerged in our fight against the climate crisis. We now have revolutionary and quickly developing renewable sources of energy to turn to. Wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal energies are replacing fossil fuels and breaking our CO₂ emissions addiction. Renewable energies are countering past arguments about the astronomical costs of dealing with climate change. We now recognize that the cost of inaction is drastically more expensive than action. New “clean” technologies, like renewables, are bringing down the price tag of action.
Additionally, people around the world are waking up to this crisis in massive numbers. We are waking up and demanding action from our political, businesses, and community leaders. This global action must start at the grassroots level. We residents of Mercer County have a responsibility for action that begins within our community.
NEW JERSEY TAKES ACTION
The NJ Department of Environmental Protection released their 2020 New Jersey Scientific Report on Climate Change on June 30, 2020. This first scientific report summarizes the current state of knowledge regarding the effects of climate change on New Jersey’s environment. It will better help inform state and local decision-makers as they seek to understand and respond to the impacts of climate change. It identifies and presents the best available science and existing data regarding the current and anticipated environmental effects of climate change globally, nationally, and regionally.
The overview on climate science is relevant to New Jersey specifically, and geared to show non-specialist readers how the changing climate will impact their lives. It predicts the higher temperatures, rising seas, bigger storms and disruptions to human health and wildlife that we have been led to expect of how climate change will affect New Jersey and in some areas, disproportionately so.
A number of communities in Mercer County have taken action on this issue in recent years. Links to their plans and actions follow. If other communities in Mercer have done the same and are not listed here please feel free to supply the pertinent information.
- West Windsor – Climate Action Plan documentation
- Princeton – Climate Action Plan documentation – Completed and adopted by Princeton Council on July 22, 2019.
The Princeton CAP articulates strategies to reduce carbon emissions and to help the community become more climate-resilient. The plan provides an ambitious, community-based path to reduce emissions 50% (from 2010 levels) by 2030, 65% by 2040, and 80% by 2050. While achieving these goals, the plan strives to promote social equity, foster economic stability, improve the local environmental quality, and enhance public health and safety. More than 4,600 community members engaged with the plan throughout the process.
- We recommend the following books, all available through the Mercer County Library System. They’re perfect for your next book club!
- A Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change by Robert Henson
- Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope
- Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken
- Subscribe to climate change newsletters, such as: Climate Fwd:, Bloomberg Green, or E&E News.
- Explore Climate Central’s website. Climate Central is an excellent, independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting up-to-date facts on our changing climate.
- Host a C-Change Conversations Primer with your association, business, club, church, or other groups you associate with. This non-partisan presentation delves more deeply into the 5 questions addressed above through the lens of how climate change impacts our health, economy, and national security.
- Take this quiz to test your knowledge about what can be done to fight climate change.
- Still have questions? When in doubt, ask a scientist through C-Change Conversations’ website. While you’re there, check out topical, useful blogs and the monthly curated climate change news.
Talk about it
Seriously! Recent research shows that conversations about climate change are critical to building consensus. We can’t act if we don’t talk about it, right?
- Start by talking about your climate change concerns with family and friends. These conversations can sometimes be scary and uncomfortable. The Nature Conservancy offers a really helpful how-to-guide with 4 simple steps to get the conversation started.
- If COVID-19 restrictions or other personal circumstances make in-person conversation more difficult, then check out and share The Nature Conservancy’s funny (and informative!) video, too!
- Speak up at meetings of business and civic leaders, clubs you participate in, and wherever people gather. Every (seemingly) small action is necessary.
Reduce your carbon footprint.
- Use this interactive calculator to understand your personal carbon footprint. Once you know, it’s easier to create actionable and realistic goals to reduce your personal carbon footprint.
- Decarbonize your home. Get that energy audit for your house. Change your light bulbs out for LEDs and get energy smart appliances. Investigate solar energy and geothermal. Look to buy renewable energy through your public utility.
- Change your diet. Eat leftovers; 40% of our food is thrown away and, given the energy that goes into making and transporting it, we really should be paying more attention to this. Eat locally-grown and sourced food, and eat less meat.
- If possible, compost your organic waste instead of throwing it out and contributing to landfills. Here’s a helpful composting guide from the New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station.
- Travel smart. Consider buying one of those very-fun-to-drive electric vehicles – it’s one of the biggest ways to reduce your footprint. Why not offset the carbon you release while flying or driving?
- Contact your elected officials here. Let them know that you think climate change is a threat to our health, economy, and national security.
- Vote, Vote, Vote: we need both parties engaged on this, coming up with fresh ideas. Register to vote here!
- Donate to organizations making a difference. They are working for our future, on all sides of the aisle.
- Spend your money with carbon-friendly companies. Climate Neutral certifies consumer brands that have proven track records of environmental sustainability.
 Earth day Statement, by John Rockstrom http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/global-warming-experts-say-temperatures-could-rise-by-6c-by-2100-with-cataclysmic-results-10193506.html