Climate Change: Drivers

Climate change is trending right now. A lot of people are aware of how greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, but how much do they actually know about the specific human activities that are emitting those gases? I myself did not know the extent to which we influence the environment around us. The information below was gleaned from my Global Change Ecology lecture (Dr. Mehring) as well as certain scientific papers that I will site below.

Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse gases are gases in the atmosphere that trap the heat reflected from the surface of the Earth. These gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), chlorofluorocarbon-12 (CFCs), and hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFCs), among other minor ones. This blanketing effect is actually a good thing – without these greenhouse gases life on Earth would not be possible, at least not how we know it. It keeps us warm. The problem is that now the blanket is too thick, and the overall average temperature of the Earth is increasing very fast. “The combined heating influence of all major greenhouse gases has increased by 43% since 1990”, illustrated by the figure below (NOAA). Yikes.

As you can clearly see, carbon dioxide and methane are the two most obvious contributors. However, there are two important factors to note for each greenhouse gas: atmospheric residence time and global warming potential. Atmospheric residence time is the amount of time after emission that a greenhouse gas will remain in the atmosphere. For example, if a bus traveling down a street let out a big puff of exhaust, the greenhouse gases in that exhaust will remain in the atmosphere for a set amount of time before it dissipates and is cycled back to Earth. Global warming potential is a term referring to the potency of these greenhouse gases. As you continue to read, you’ll come to realize how important these two conditions are.

I fully realize that this can be confusing and that it’s a lot of information. So I have given each greenhouse gas their own section so it’s somewhat easier to digest and a lot of visuals. And as always, if anyone has any questions feel free to comment below!

Carbon dioxide


Nitrous oxide



Greenhouse gasResidence timeGlobal Warming Potential Sources
Carbon dioxide100 years1fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, cement production
Methane12 years28-36x CO2fossil fuel production, agriculture, landfills
Nitrous oxide114 years298x CO2fertilizer application, fossil fuel and biomass combustion, industrial processes
CFCs100 years10,900x CO2refrigerants, compressed air (1930s)
HFCs270 years14,800x CO2refrigerants, compressed air (1930s)
a handy dandy summary chart