Relentless Cycle: The Basics of Climate Change Explained


Here is a brief summary of the way climate change works. You can use this as a starting point for understanding climate science and discussing it with people in your household and community.

The sun warms the planet every day.

Most of that heat is reflected back into space.

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere block some of the reflection. The result is that more heat stays here on Earth.

As greenhouse gases increase, because of our use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, so too does the heat of the planet overall.

The added heat in the atmosphere is causing areas of ice worldwide to melt more often and sooner, sometimes making them disappear entirely. This means less heat is reflected back into space — dark surface instead of a brighter surface. As ice decreases, the planet absorbs more heat. When the ice that melts is on land (glaciers, Antarctica), the increased amount of liquid water also leads to sea-level rise.

This warmth also melts parts of the soil or the ocean floor that have been frozen, releasing even more greenhouse gases trapped there for thousands of years. These gases enter the atmosphere and trap more heat.

The warming of the planet leads to more moisture evaporating into the air, which in turn means stronger rain events than in the past in some places, and more drought in others.

Even if we stop all fossil-fuel use tomorrow, the planet will continue to warm up because of the greenhouse gases that are already holding in heat. Stopping fossil-fuel use in the next 15 years — the goal of the Livable Rhode Island manual — may help us avoid temperature and weather extremes that will make human survival difficult or impossible.

Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island is a group of scientists, academics and residents who want to accelerate climate action in the Ocean State. The group’s website, Livable Rhode Island, offers ways to take action.