Climate change deniers are always quick to point at blizzards and say “so much for global warming,” but they’ve been incredibly tight-lipped during the strange northeastern heatwave we’ve been experiencing lately.

Some will argue that the heatwave is the result of El Nino, not climate change, not realizing that El Nino is dramatically intensified by climate change. That argument highlights how very little Americans understand about the science behind climate change, which led me to write this article.

Climate Change For Dummies

With so few Americans understanding what climate change is, how it’s man-made, and why we should all take it seriously, I figured I would take a crack at explaining it in a way a young child, a Neanderthal, or even a radical conservative could understand. And that’s what we’re about to try here.

This article won’t be bogged down with complicated charts, overburdened by foreign-sounding scientific lingo, or flooded with links to articles most of you probably wouldn’t read anyway. Think of this as a sort of “beginner’s guide” or “idiot’s guide” to climate change; we’ll explain what it is and why it’s happening, all without giving you a headache.

Before we begin, please note that I’m extremely dumbing all of this down and intentionally over-simplifying things so that literally anyone can understand it. You may want to Google all of this later and learn more… consider this a really simple crash-course, and nothing else.

Weather vs. Climate

Before we can begin, we need to understand two words that people often confuse to mean the same thing: weather and climate.

You already know what WEATHER is; it’s what is happening outside on any given day. Look out your window right now. Is the sky clear or cloudy? Is it hot, warm, cool, or cold? Is it raining or snowing? That’s weather.

Think of CLIMATE as “weather over time.” climate is the trend of weather in a given period. For instance, the climate in the northern regions of America tends to be a cool-to-warm Spring, a hot Summer, a warm-to-cool Fall, and then a cold Winter.

Now we can talk about what CLIMATE CHANGE is. The climate is changed in such a way that the weather associated with said climates is more intense. Hurricanes, blizzards, droughts, and thunderstorms are bigger and worse than they would be otherwise, because we’ve changed the climate.

Okay… So What The Heck Is Climate Change?

Here’s where things start to get science-heavy. Don’t worry, though… I promised I would keep this as simple as I could!

Humans are creating a whole lot of gasses, which come from cars, factories, and cow farts (no, I’m not kidding… we have lots and lots of cows for food, and they fart a whole bunch, and that gas is contributing to climate change… seriously!). Those gasses go into the sky, where they’re trapped by the atmosphere, sort of like how water doesn’t escape from a water balloon when you’re filling it up.

Meanwhile, the sun is constantly radiating heat down on the Earth. A bunch of that heat is reflected from Earth’s surface, and goes back into the sky. Unlike the gas, the heat is able to vent back into space without a problem… or at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

Instead, those gasses block that heat from escaping back into space. They work like insulation — the pink stuff in the walls of your house or up in your attic — and the heat sticks around here on Earth. We call them greenhouse gasses because they have the same effect as a gardening greenhouse, trapping heat from the sun and keeping it from getting back out again, so the greenhouse stays warm year-round.

What Does That Have To Do With Climate Change?

All of that heat that should’ve been “vented” is stuck here on Earth with us, which makes the oceans warmer and has all sorts of funky effects on climate, which in turn has lots of crazy, unpredictable effects on weather.

That air warms just a little bit, but that tiny amount of warming has huge impacts around the globe. at 1° Celsius warmer, we started seeing the word “record” appearing in weather-related and climate-related news headlines: “record-breaking snow storm,” or “record-setting hurricane.” At 2° Celsius warmer, which is what we’re closing in on right now, heat waves and snow storms can get bigger and uglier than they’ve ever been before. And at 3° Celsius, which we’ll reach in our lifetimes, things will get a whole lot scarier.

You’ve probably heard that global warming is causing the ice caps to “melt.” Hearing that, you most likely imagine some massive, biblical, global flood that sinks all of our cities into the sea; it’s bad, but not like that.

The rising temperatures aren’t really “melting” the ice caps; it’s more like they’re breaking them apart. In Antarctica, large “shelves” of ice and snow are breaking off because they’re by the warmer temperatures. When those slip into the ocean, sea levels rise slightly. If you put a bowl filled with water in your sink, then drop some ice cubes into that bowl, the water level is going to rise and the bowl will overflow. It’s the same principal here.

You don’t have to worry about a huge tidal wave swallowing your town tomorrow, as this process is really slow. The bad news is that rising sea levels are already displacing people and forcing them to leave their homes, and this is especially problematic in poor regions around the world. And if you just bought a new home by the ocean, well, it might prove to have been a bad investment in twenty or thirty years.

How Do We Fix It?

The only way we can change course and stop climate change from destroying the planet (more than it already is) is if we stop creating those greenhouse gasses. Electric cars and cars that run on “flex fuels” (meaning they can run on gasoline, ethanol, methanol, etc.), converting those cow farts into fuel, and no longer using coal for electricity, instead moving toward cleaner, “green” sources of energy, like wind, solar, hydroelectric, or geothermal energy… all of that will help us reduce how much greenhouse gas we’re pumping into the sky.

At the end of the day, “going green” not only saves our planet, but saves all of us money, so there really isn’t a logical excuse to not go green, apart from oil companies losing money that is. So the question you need to ask yourself is this: Would you rather (A) help oil tycoons get richer, or (B) save the planet while using cheaper, cleaner, safer alternative fuels? I’m guessing you want to go with “B,” right? I thought so.

Photo by John Englart (Takver)