Climate Science 101

Dr. Kate Marvel
I’m sick of the apocalypse. We need you, storytellers, to show us the way to something better.
Dr. Kate Marvel, climate scientist

All our energy comes from the sun. Winds are driven by solar heating. Plants turn the sun’s energy into food for themselves. This provides calories for the animals that eat them and the animals that eat those animals. Today, the corpses of plants and animals that died millions of years ago are dug up and set on fire to power buildings and move vehicles. Burning these fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels are solar energy too. They’re just a stupid version of it.

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Without naturally occurring greenhouse gases, Earth’s average temperature would be around -18ºC (0ºF)—unable to sustain life as we know it. Greenhouse gases are the reason we can live on this planet at all.

But since 1850, we’ve burned so many fossil fuels and cut down so many carbon-storing forests that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has increased by 50 percent! The Earth has warmed by more than 1.2ºC (2ºF) since the start of the Industrial Revolution. We’re living in the consequences: extreme events like heat waves, floods, droughts, storms, sea-level rise, and fires happen more often or become more severe. The climate is getting weird, people are suffering, and it’s going to get worse.

The science says we can still avoid the worst-case scenarios. There is uncertainty in a warming world: we don’t know when we will pass—or have already passed—tipping points that trigger irreversible changes to the climate. But the biggest uncertainty is us: we don’t know what the future looks like because we don’t know what humans will do. We have a choice now; the future is in our hands.

A climate model will show you the impacts of increasing greenhouse gases. But it can’t explain how we got here: slavery, colonialism, extraction, industrialization, the choices made by people in power. A world in which we limit global warming to 1.5ºC (2.7ºF) still doesn't look great in a climate model, though it looks a hell of a lot better than an even warmer world. Every fraction of a degree we prevent will save countless lives and places. We still have agency: we can still avoid a hellscape scenario for our children. And no matter what happens with global temperatures, we can—must—create a more compassionate society, a world in which we take care of each other. The science gives us permission to dream. Stories help us bring those dreams to life.

Image of Dr. Kate Marvel

✍🏻 Dr. Kate Marvel might as well be called Captain Marvel: she currently conducts climate modeling research at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and at Columbia University. She writes a column called “Hot Planet” for Scientific American, and has been profiled by Rolling Stone and others. Her talk on the TED main stage received over one million views. Dr. Marvel combines her expertise in climate science with powerful writing, which allows her research to be both accessible and compelling (very hard to do).