Climate change facts: the science and impacts

Our planet is warmer now than at any point in the past 650,000 years.
  Published:  04 Sep 2017    |      Last updated:  13 Mar 2024    |      2 minute read

What is climate change: why is the planet warming?

This warming is caused by a build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

The gases trap heat by forming a blanket around the Earth – like the glass of a greenhouse.

These gases stay in the atmosphere for many years. And as they build up, the planet’s temperature rises. A warmer world leads to a more extreme climate – with more severe droughts, floods and storms. And as the world warms up, feedback-loops can accelerate warming: melting polar ice means less of the sun’s heat is reflected back into space.

Greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – and by cutting down forests. Greenhouse-gas levels have rocketed in the last 100 years.

Graph plotting atmospheric CO2 concentration synthesizing ice core proxy data 650,000 years in the past capped by modern direct measurements.
Credit: Global Climate Change – Earth Science Communications Team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Fossil fuel companies are planning to launch 29 new projects in the UK

The latest climate change science

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases updates on the latest climate change science.

There is over 95% certainty that human influence is the dominant factor in warming since the mid 20th century.

To put this into perspective – scientists are as certain that humans are warming the planet as they are that smoking causes cancer.

There isn't a safe temperature rise. Each degree of warming will bring more extreme weather and sea level rises.

Climate change impacts are happening now and are increasing in severity and likelihood – from floods in Asia and Europe to droughts and hurricanes in the USA.

Climate change is already displacing millions of the world's poorest people. And it's affecting people here in the UK too – as flooding will continue to get worse.

Global action on climate change

The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C and keep temperature rises well below 2°C. 195 countries, including the UK, have officially signed and committed to meet these targets. But 2023 saw the planet breaching the 1.5°C limit for the first time. More than ever before, urgent international action is desperately needed.

There are masses of other bodies endorsing the need for urgent action – from the Ministry of Defence, the British Medical Association and the CBI (Confederation for British Industry) to the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and over 1,000 US companies and investors including Adidas, Tesla, Nike, Unilever, eBay, Virgin, Gap and Mars.

How do we stop dangerous climate change?

At least 80% of all proven global fossil fuel reserves – coal, oil, and gas – must stay in the ground to meet the Paris Agreement goals. That’s why we're calling for an end to new fossil fuel exploration – we cannot afford to burn more than a tiny fraction of existing coal, oil and gas.

The Paris Agreement calls for “global emissions peaking as soon as possible, and rapid reductions thereafter”.

Two of the biggest solutions are being far more efficient in how we use energy, and moving from coal, oil and gas to 100% renewable energy as fast as possible.

The good news is that this is starting to happen, and is accelerating fast. Renewable electricity costs have plummeted in the last few years, and the amount of wind and solar power is rocketing, all over the world.

What’s more, our research shows England has the potential to generate an incredible 13 times more renewable energy than we already do from onshore wind and solar.

The task is urgent, we need to keep within 1.5°C of warming and save as many lives and livelihoods as possible.

Change needs to happen quickly. But it has to be done in a fair way. Rich countries like the UK must lead the way. We are far more responsible for the global climate change we see today – our economy has been built on exploiting coal, oil and gas. Rich countries also have a responsibility to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and cope with impacts we can no longer avoid.

Fossil fuel companies are planning to launch 29 new projects in the UK