Physics and Climate Change

Physics and Climate Change

Climate can be described as the sum of the weather. Weather and climate are driven by the absorption of solar radiation and the subsequent re-distribution of that energy through radiative, advective, and hydrological processes. 

Did you know that scientists understood the physics of climate change in the 1800s? This was discovered by an American female scientist named Eunice Foote who documented the underlying cause of today’s climate change crisis in the year 1856. The world has known about the warming risk posed by excessive levels of carbon dioxide even before the invention of cars or coal-fired power stations.

In her brief scientific paper, she was the first to describe the immense power of carbon dioxide gas to absorb heat, which is a key driving force behind global warming today.

Carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. It is formed when we burn fuels like coal, gasoline, oil and wood. Other greenhouse gases consist of methane and atmospheric water vapour. These gases trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere and radiate it back to the planet’s surface.

In 1965, scientists warned the U.S. President Lyndon Johnson about the growing climate risk. Since then, our sea levels have risen due to the melting of ice caps with increased occurrence of extreme weather conditions globally.

Today, we can better understand and experience the real threat of climate change. Without steep cuts in greenhouse gases emissions, the world will warm by over 2 degrees Celsius this century, which will cause even more flooding, higher sea levels and heat waves.

With the recently held COP26 Conference in Glasgow, there is a collective recognition of the importance of combating climate change to build a more sustainable economy that also supports population growth. The main goal of this conference is to cut carbon emissions and other sources of harmful pollution into our atmosphere.

Physicists have a crucial role to play in combating climate change by developing innovations to create a low-carbon, environmentally friendly and socially inclusive economy. Examples include scientific and technological advances in energy generation (solar/wind/battery), decarbonisation and low-energy computing. Transformative research discoveries and technological innovations that are critical to achieve net-zero emissions targets include modelling, quantum, nuclear, fusion, batteries, space solar, hydro, geothermal, bioenergy and ocean energy.

By applying Physics into our daily lives, economies and even our climate, we are literally making the world a better place for the current and future generations to come.