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The climate crisis is easily the greatest global challenge of the current century. President Biden rightly called it an “existential threat.” Even so, it remains a deeply misunderstood issue.

Climate change refers to the shift in average weather conditions, specifically the warming of the Earth’s weather over time. Scientists have found that climate change is caused primarily by the use of fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide as they burn. These greenhouse gases then remain in the Earth’s atmosphere where they trap the Sun’s heat, ultimately increasing temperatures on the planet. This threatens the livelihood of both humans and the ecosystems we live in, as rising temperatures could lead to a higher incidence of natural disasters and droughts, famines, or even wars. 

Human activity is the most important cause of climate change. Higher levels of carbon dioxide began to be released into the atmosphere during the Industrial Revolution. Factories, the conversion of forests into farmland, trains, cars, and other forms of energy consumption have all contributed to producing carbon dioxide that has been released into the atmosphere. For over 150 years, the expansion of human economic activity meant growth in fossil fuel consumption. Scientists have determined that this can’t continue without bringing about a climate catastrophe. 

The only known solution to climate change is the dramatic reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, making the threat of warming even more dangerous over time. The challenge for developed economies will be transitioning from fossil fuels to more renewable forms of energy such as wind, geothermal, solar, and nuclear power. That means reorienting society around different types of technologies and phasing out jobs built on coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. 

Developing nations looking to modernize their economy and infrastructure may need greater financial and technical assistance if they are to fully embrace renewable energy.

As difficult as this will be for developed economies, it will be even harder for developing nations. Fossil fuel energy has generally been “cheap” compared to more expensive renewable energy. Developing nations looking to modernize their economy and infrastructure may need greater financial and technical assistance if they are to fully embrace renewable energy over fossil fuels. It is an open question if developed nations will provide the resources necessary for poor nations to make use of renewable energy, especially as those developed nations deal with their own internal energy transitions—or fail to do so

It is also important to recognize common misconceptions around climate change. Opponents to renewable energy often claim that the Earth “warms naturally” or that human activity has no impact on the Earth’s climate. Climate scientists have already shown that these narratives are false. Human activity is the primary driver of the climate crisis, and it is up to governments to change the incentives around fossil fuels in order to ensure a future for the next generation.

Without decisive action on climate, a large percentage of the global population is likely to face unlivable conditions within the next century. The resulting migration, political instability, and conflicts will have been a preventable tragedy. That is why it is imperative for governments to act today.

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.