Climate Change Subject Content Knowledge for Life Orientation

To teach Life Orientation for sustainability in a situation of climate change one must investigate the following questions:
• What is climate change?
• How did our past activities cause climate change?
• What are the consequences of our actions and how will climate change affect us on a global, community and self-scale?
• What can we do to ensure a sustainable future on earth by decreasing climate change’s effects and challenges?

What is Climate Change?

Climate change refers to the long-term shifts in the planet’s weather patterns or average temperatures caused by global warming, the process of our planet heating up. Climate change is happening and it is mostly caused by human activities that leads to serious and damaging effects. The primary human activities that causes climate change includes driving cars, creating electricity from non-renewable resources, and cutting down trees. These activities release gases into the atmosphere called greenhouse gases, which slowly warms the planet, creating climate change.

The main gases that causes climate change includes carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapour and fluorinated gases (which are synthetic (Denchak, 2019 ). The sunlight, solar energy, makes the earth habitable and 30 percent of the solar energy that reaches planet earth is reflected back into the space by the atmosphere. However, 70 percent passes through the atmosphere to the earth’s surface. The sunlight (solar energy) is then absorbed by the land, oceans and atmosphere, and thus heats the planet.

This heat is then radiated back to space in the form of invisible infrared light. However, of this infrared light 90 percent is then absorbed by atmospheric gases, the greenhouse gases, that redirects the heat back towards the earth, causing additional warming of the planet. Figure 1 explains how in the last century human activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation have caused a jump in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and how these gases trap heat and thus increases global temperatures (NRDC, 2022).

Figure 1: An illustration of the Greenhouse effect (Denchak, 2019 )

How did our past activities cause our planet to become warmer?

For most of the last 800 000 years the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was between 200 to 280 molecules of greenhouse gases per million molecules of air. However, in the last century, this concentration has jumped to 400 parts per million. These higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide causes extra heat to be trapped and global temperatures to rise (Denchak, 2019 ).

Even though plants, soils and the ocean can absorb carbon dioxide, they can’t keep up with all the extra greenhouse gases that human activities are releasing. We need to stop producing these greenhouse gasses that are making the planet hotter in order to reverse climate change. But where do these greenhouse gases come from? According to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) 2019 report population size, economic activity, lifestyle, energy use, land use patterns, technology, and climate policy are the broad forces that drive nearly all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2019).

The human activities that relate to the production of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases have been identified as the following:

  1. Electricity and Heat Production
    The burning of coal, oil, and natural gas to produce electricity and heat accounts for one- quarter of worldwide human-driven emissions, making it the largest single source.
  2. Agriculture and Land Use Changes
    About another quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from agriculture and other land-use activities (such as deforestation).
  3. Industry
    About one-fifth of global human-driven emissions come from the industrial sector, which includes the manufacturing of goods and raw materials (like cement and steel), food processing, and construction.
  4. Transportation
    The burning of petroleum-based fuels, namely gasoline and diesel, to power the world’s transportation systems accounts for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary gas emitted, though fuel combustion also releases small amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, and vehicle air conditioning and refrigerated transport release fluorinated gases too.
  5. Buildings
    Operating buildings around the world generates 6.4 percent of global greenhouse gases. These emissions, made up mostly of carbon dioxide and methane, stem primarily from burning natural gas and oil for heating and cooking, though other sources include managing waste and wastewater and leaking refrigerants from air-conditioning and refrigeration systems.

The consequences of our past actions and the effect of climate change on a global scale.

Global warming is altering the earth’s climate systems in many ways

  • Causing more frequent and/or intense extreme weather events, including heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, and floods.

  • Exacerbating precipitation extremes, making wet regions wetter and dry regions drier.

  • Raising sea levels due to melting glaciers and sea ice and an increase in ocean temperatures (warmer water expands, which can contribute to sea level rise).

  • Altering ecosystems and natural habitat, shifting the geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, and abundance of land, freshwater, and marine species.

Impacts described by Brendell

Most of these impacts are already upon us and their severity have an impact on our ecosystems, soils, seas and our societies over time. It is difficult to predict future impacts. The models today suggest an increase in storm number and strength (Herring et al, 2018). They predict a decline of normal agriculture, including the compromising of mass production of grains in the northern hemisphere and intermittent disruption to rice production in the tropics. (Zhang et al, 2016). The loss of coral and the acidification of the seas is predicted to reduce fisheries productivity by over half (Rogers et al, 2017). The rates of sea level rise suggest they may soon become exponential (Malmquist, 2018), which will pose significant problems for hundreds of millions of people living in coastal zones (Neumann et al, 2015). About half of all plants and animal species in the world’s most biodiverse places are at risk of extinction due to climate change (WWF, 2018). The World Bank reported in 2018 that countries needed to prepare for over 100 million internally displaced people due to the effects of climate change (Rigaud et al, 2018), in addition to millions of international refugees.

The consequences of our past actions and the affect of climate change on a southern African community scale.

There is no scientific doubt that the climate of southern Africa is becoming warmer, the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is increasing and the sea level surrounding the continent is rising. Human activities are by far the largest cause of these changes. The principle causes are the global burning of fossil fuels and the transformation of the global land surface from natural vegetation to croplands, pastures and human settlements.

2. The climate will continue to change throughout the 21st century, to a degree mostly determined by human actions and the policies that guide them..

3. Southern Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its geographical location and socioeconomic development state. It is an already warm and dry region, projected to become warmer and drier, and has many demands on its institutions and finances in addition to climate change. Warming in the interior of southern Africa is occurring at about twice the global average rate.

4. There is a high likelihood that agricultural production in southern Africa, including staple crops and livestock, will be reduced relative to the no climate change case. This is because the region is already beyond the temperature optimum for most crop and livestock production, and crop and forage production in an already dry country decreases if soil moisture decreases further. These impacts increase as the level of global warming increases, and at 3 °C of global warming the collapse of key crops and the livestock sector are likely.

5. Freshwater availability, already critically limited in southern Africa, will be reduced in future as a result of decreasing rainfall and increasing evaporation. These impacts will amplify as the level of global warming increases. Water quality also decreases in a warmer, drier southern Africa, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases.

6. The likelihood of long-duration droughts increases in the future because of two fundamental mechanisms resulting from global warming: the strengthening of subsidence over southern Africa, and the poleward movement of frontal systems. When droughts exceed the historically-experienced frequency and intensity, the coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. These risks increase from 1.5 to 2 °C of global warming, with further increases under higher levels of global warming.