Climate Literacy

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The task of our generation is to solve the climate crisis and transform the fossil fuel based world economy into one that is fueled by renewable energies (and much more harmonious and just, and respectful of Mother Earth at the same time). In order to come up with the ideas and solutions for this transformation and then execute them, we need lots of people who really understand the climate crisis. And the ways to solve it. This is what is called "climate literacy". Here is a first attempt at defining the essential elements to grasp the problem and its solutions, a "climate alphabet".


Basics of Understanding Climate Change

Global Climate System

Greenhouse Effect

Temperatures on our planet Earth are kept in a certain range by so-called greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere which allow solar radiation to enter and heat the land or water, but will stop a certain proportion of heat waves from escaping back into space. The more of these gases we have in the atmosphere, the more heat gets "trapped". CO2 which has been released from fossil deposits and land use change is the chief contributor to the increased greenhouse effect. Other greenhouse gases include methane from cows, rice production and landfills, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, ozone and some gases used in refrigeration. These other gases are more potent in heating the planet, but there are less of them than CO2.


Carbon Cycle

Carbon is a naturally occurring substance and it moves from rocks to the atmosphere to living organisms to the ocean all the time. The human-caused imbalance which produces a warming of the planet is actually quite small in comparison with the amounts of carbon that cycle naturally. Yet they are enought to produce the visible and predicted effects.

PPM Levels

Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere, one of the determinants of the strength of the greenhouse effect (and in consequence of temperatures) are measured in parts per million (ppm). Pre-industrial CO2 levels were about 280 ppm and currently we are around 390 ppm. In 2008, an article by James Hansen et al. identified that in the past of the planet Earth, higher CO2 levels coincided with a lack of ice on the poles (and a 25 to 35 meters higher sea level). The safe limit for maintaining our planet in a state which resembles Earth as we know it is estimated to lie at around 350 ppm CO2, which we have already passed. This means that we need to reduce emissions to zero and capture excess carbon from the atmosphere, if we want to stabilize the global climate in the long term.

Climate Sensitivity

Is a key number for understanding the reaction of the planet's climate to emissions. It is defined as the increase in global mean temperature if atmospheric CO2 levels double. The IPCC's "best estimate" is that it lies at 3°C, but ranges from 1.5°C to 4.5°C are deemed possible. Depending on the true number of climate sensitivity, we will get more or less warming with the same amount of emissions. "Long-term sensitivity" includes the workings of slower feedbacks in the global climate system (such as thawing of ice shields or GHG releases from permafrost soil) and is usually higher than the normal (short term) sensitivity.

Global Climate System Inertia

Several things in the Global Climate System happen with a time lag. The most important is the thermal inertia of the oceans. We do not yet see the full temperature rise that we have caused, because the oceans take a long time to warm up. This "cooling ocean" maintains the global climate relatively stable, even when GHG levels are already very high. (On the other hand it will take a long time to get cooler again, even if we stopped emitting GHGs completely.) This is just one example. While some things, such as black carbon (soot) in the atmosphere has a half-life which is measured in days, other things, such as the possible collapse of the Greenland Ice Shield take several centuries, even after the "tipping point" has passed. This makes it very challenging for people other than climate scientists to get an accurate model of global climate change in their heads. Examples of timescales: Soot half-life in the atmosphere Methane half-life in the atmosphere CO2 half-life in the atmosphere Collapse of Greenland Ice Shield "Clathrate Gun" Episode

Tipping Points

For a long time, scientists believed that climate change would proceed linearly, with the planet heating at a steady rate. In recent years though, it has become clear that this is not the case. In fact, a steady linear increase can ultimately lead to a rapidly accelerating rate of change, as a steady pressure on a glass of water would ultimately push it from vertical to horizontal. A tipping point is a critical threshold at which the future state of a system can be qualitatively altered by a small change in forcing (Schellnhuber 2009). A tipping element is a part of the global climate system (at least sub-continental in scale) that has a tipping point (Lenton et al. 2008). *Tipping Points

The tipping elements of the climate system are numerous, including the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Amazon Rain Forest, methane hydrates (particles of methane frozen on the ocean floor), the Indian Monsoon, the West African Monsoon, the Chad Dustbowl, the Permafrost, the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation, the Southwestern United States Desert, and the Boreal Forests.

The ultimate challenge with tipping points is that it is almost impossible to know what a given tipping element's tipping point is. While different climate models can produce different estimates, in reality we may not know until the point has been passed. Moreover, scientists are unsure of whether tipping points are reversible, though it seems unlikely in the short or medium terms. The ultimate risk is that crossing one tipping point may result in the release of more greenhouse gasses and push the climate system past another tipping point and so on, ultimately leading to Runaway Global Warming.

Carbon Budget

It has been found that the extent of global warming (and many of its associated impacts) depend directly on the accumulated amount of CO2 released. CO2 stays in the atmosphere much longer than other greenhouse gases and once it is there, it will only partly be absorbed into forests or oceans (creating the problem of ocean acidification at the same time). Therefore we have a global "carbon budget" - if we like it or not - that will largely determine who much further global mean temperature will rise.

global, per capita

The "Budget Approach" (WBGU Fact Sheet) is to share that budget equitably (or inequitably) among all of us and is supported by Bolivia and Plant-for-the-Planet.

Carbon Sinks

Carbon sinks are natural systems which remove carbon from the atmosphere. They play an important role in the carbon cycle and ultimately in the health of the whole planet.

One example of a carbon sink is the ocean. Typically, the ocean absorbs vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. While this is still continuing today, the drastically increased prevalence of carbon in the atmosphere has led to more carbon than usual being absorbed by the ocean and ultimately to ocean acidification, which poses a serious threat to the continued survival of coral reefs and the marine food chain.

Other carbon sinks include permafrost and the world's forests, both of which are also tipping elements and may ultimately become carbon sources if their tipping points are crossed.

Unfortunately in a heating climate, forests such as the Amazon Rainforest can and will turn from a sink into a source of carbon. (Amazon Rainforest Carbon Sink Threatened By Drought - Article)

Human Activities

Fossil Carbon

The imbalance in the global carbon cycle which raises the CO2 levels in the atmosphere comes mainly from our burning of fossil fuels (mainly oil, "natural" gas and coal). Their carbon originally comes from living organisms. It was removed from the atmosphere millions of years ago and stored underground. By bringing it back up and burning it we alter the composition of the atmosphere and cause global warming.

Absolute Emissions

  • China has overtaken the USA as number one CO2 emitter. But these numbers account for in-country emissions only. If products are exported, the consumer country doesn't account for those emissions. (that's why China, as the workshop of the world has the highest emissions)

See the list of countries by CO2 emissions

  • Sectors: transport, building, energy generation, industry, agriculture, deforestation and land-use change
  • Different greenhouse gases are often compacted into CO2 equivalent. This is a bit misleading, because some of them have an effect of a few days others a few years and CO2 a few millennia. But setting aside that complication, the overall emissions produced by humanity are approximately X%CO2, X%CH4, X%N20, X%Rest ().
  • Via Campesina presented a calculation in Copenhagen, according to which 50% of global GHG emissions are linked to the industrialized food system (i.e. deforestation, N20 Emissions from fertilizers, CH4 from livestock, food transport, processing, refrigeration,...). Campesino agriculture on the contrary can cool the planet by capturing CO2 in plants and soils!

Historic Emissions

Carbon Footprints

Aerosol Screen

Temperatures on our planet are lower than what would be expected given the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is due to the cooling effect of sulfur aerosols.

Impacts of Climate Change

Ocean Acidification

About half the additional carbon that we humans put in the atmosphere "disappears" again from the atmosphere. Most of it goes into the ocean. This seems to be good for slowing the impacts of our emissions in terms of heating the planet. But in the ocean, this carbon causes an acidification of the ocean water which has the potential to kill corals and produce other impacts which we are not yet aware of.

Sea-Level Rise

Sea level rise is one of the very threatening impacts of climate change. It is mostly due to thermal expansion of the ocean water so far: when water gets warmer, it expands. The second element of sea level rise is melting of glaciers. This is a topic where climate science is still in its beginnings. Because science on glaciers is not yet "good" enough, the IPCC has explicitly excluded "rapid dynamic change" in glaciers from its projections for sea-level rise over this century. When excluding this, projections are about 20-60 cm until the end of the century. Including it, as said was not considered an option, because theories are not yet firmly established and events such as the collapse of Larsen B and the break-off of the big iceberg in Greenland in summer 2010 (name?) have taken glaciologists by surprise. Because the Greenland Iceshield may or may not have already passed its tipping point, a 6-8 m sea level rise over about 300 years may already be inevitable. The other candidate for tipping is the West-Antarctic Iceshield, which would mean an additional 6-8 meters if it melts down completely. This is also believed to take at least 300 years. At "equilibrium", after several centuries, the current CO2 levels are not compatible with any icecover on the poles. This means that Antarctica will most likely loose its ice over the next several centuries, unless we reduce CO2 levels (not emissions!) to under 350ppm again by reducing humanity's emissions to zero and capturing some of the carbon which is in the atmosphere already. An ice-free Antarctica means about 25-35 meters of sea level rise, taking away the coastal lands where a significant proportion of today's world population lives.

The melting of arctic sea-ice does not produce sea level rise, because it was already floating in the first place.

Water Changes

More water in some areas, less in others is a very rough summary. The atmosphere contains more water, making stronger rains possible.

  • Floods
  • Droughts
  • Wildfires
  • Hurricanes

Agricultural Changes

Ecosystem Changes


Sociopolitical Instability

this is the real thing - the others are just the framework

  • Crime
  • Inequality
  • Climate Wars: What people will be killed for in the 21st century" This book describes how the holocaust and genocide are phenomena of modern societies that carry no guarantee of NOT being repeated. The author argues that they will very likely see themselves reloaded under the pressures of a changing climate. Sudan/Darfur is a climate war for him and serves as a model of what things will look like in more areas in the future. Economies of violence do their bit and turning Europe and the US into fortresses is another aspect of it. Really gets you thinking.

You'll adapt to hotter weather, more rain, living in a different place. But the changed social dynamics are the face of the climate crisis that we are going to look into every single day!


Common Misunderstandings

  • The destruction of the ozone layer is a problem which sounds similar but can be considered as "separate" from the climate crisis. It was due to ozone-depleting substances which are quite successfully being phased out through the Montreal Protocol, sometimes cited as an example that we can actually solve climate change through an effective international mechanism.
  • Industry produces more emissions than people. While this holds true if you try to split up all the emissions into sectors (e.g. households, industry, agriculture,...), all industry produces something that will eventually be used by people in some way. So the "consumer" at the end of the chain always has a responsibility for the emissions of industry as well. Part of climate literacy is knowing about where I am feeding highly emitting industries with my money and switching to alternative means of meeting my needs (or discovering that I actually don't need everything I used to buy).


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the body that summarizes climate science for politicians. Members are appointed by their governments. It was established in 1988 with this task and produced its first report in 1990 which left no doubt that climate change needs to be adressed. This is the main reason why 1990 is seen as the adequate baseline for reductions commitments by many. The IPCC's Assessment Reports, which take several years to prepare, tend to be very "conservative", i.e. they tend to underestimate the speed and dangers of climate change, because they have to pass government approval and any statement deemed "alarmist" will not make it through unless firmly established in the scientific literature. Criticisms of the IPCC's reports other than this "conservative bias" have mainly been exaggerations of minor errors that were reproduced in the media in order to confuse people into not taking climate change seriously and discredit those who work on it. Many journalists reproduced the "criticisms" without digging into the often complex debates and discovering the shallowness of the claims against the IPCC.

  • RealClimate Climate Science by Climate Scientists - a blog to give background information on things passing in the media.

Denier-Industry Links


Basics of Managing the Climate Crisis

Current Approach


The United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the main international convention to address climate change. It was signed in 1992 at the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro. Since 1995 (COP1 in Berlin), yearly Conferences of the Parties (COP) have been held.

Its basic principle is "common but differentiated responsibilities" which means that all countries share responsibility for addressing climate change, but those who have produced most of the problem (listed in Annex-I) have more responsibility.

The objective of the convention is to "avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".

The principle outcome of UNFCCC negotiations so far is the Kyoto Protocol. UNFCCC negotiations have not yet produced a post-Kyoto agreement which would replace the expiring first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol at the end of 2012.

Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol is the principal outcome of UNFCCC negotiations so far. It was signed in 1997 at COP3 in Kyoto, Japan. It aims to limit the collective emissions of Annex-I countries to 5% below 1990 emissions during the period 2008-2012. Under Kyoto, non-Annex-I countries do not have reduction targets. Through the so-called Clean Development Mechanism they can reduce their emissions on a project-by-project basis which will generate carbon credits which can be sold to Annex-I countries and increase the amount of emission allowances of the buying country.

The USA did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and Canada is not meeting its Kyoto targets. Overall, in the years of the first commitment period of Kyoto (2008-2012), Annex-I emissions decreased slightly (not as much as set out and mainly due to the world economic crisis) and global emissions increased significantly.

The negotiations for a second commitment period which should ideally start in January 2013 have not yet concluded as of January 2011.


False Solutions

  • Biofuels
  • Geoengineering

Should we geoengineer the climate? by Chris Vernon

  • GMO crops
  • Clean Coal

"Compensation" Mechanisms

Carbon Markets


Mitigation Cost


problems with it, Buen Vivir, Gross National Happiness, Happy Planet Index, "Development" concept

Framing the Issue

Zero Emissions

Per-capita Emissions

Mother Earth's Rights

Leaving it in the Ground

  • LINGO (Leave it in the Ground Initiative) calls for leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Concrete steps towards realizing that goal are resisting extraction and developing Zero Fossils Plans for each city and country.

Structural Change

Lobby Democracy

limits of the UN approach

Industrial Agriculture

Phasing out Fossil Fuels

Economic Crisis

Climate Relief

Circular Economy

100% Renewables

  • Renewable Potential
  • Efficiency Potential
  • Global Solar and Wind Atlas (IRENA)
  • Studies, see

Living with a Changing Climate


Basic Human Needs


Biosphere Potential/Carrying Capacity

Solidarity in the Human Family

How to contribute to this page

The simplest and most straightforward way of becominge climate-literate is to go through this page and read the short paragraphs on each of the elements and go into the materials where you feel you need to explore more.

If you think you should be climate literate, you can take our Climate Literacy Quiz

If you feel something is missing, you can do as follows:

  1. Name the Letter (=Issue)
  2. Write a 1-3 phrase outline of what it is and why it is important
  3. Add a basic material that gives a quick and good overview (brief, short video)
  4. Add more detailed material (scientific papers, reports, links to organizations or projects)

Please feel free to improve what is already there, add some more aspects, information, sources... Thanks for sharing!

Please note that you have to create a new user for yourself first. This is a protection against spam bots.

Other initiatives

Here we collect A) Attempts at defining the basics of climate change and solving the climate crisis. B) Courses/learning formats where parts (several topics, else you can link from the individual topic itself) or all of this climate alphabet are transmitted.

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