How did humans contribute to climate change?

What about human activities caused climate change? Can human activities affect the climate in the future?

Houses and factories
Houses and factories, circa 1941-1942

Library of Congress photo

People affect their environments. Our National Park System includes sites telling of early North American people using fire to clear the land or altering landscapes through agriculture. In places like Chaco Canyon, archeological evidence tells of people abandoning large cities, most likely because the local environment could no longer support them. As our population and technological capabilities increase over time, so does our ability to impact the environment on a global scale. Our history is alive with examples of human impacts, from something as large-scale as damming mighty rivers to seemingly small actions like shooting the last passenger pigeon. In the past, we may not have always realized the consequences of our actions. Today, our science gives us a better understanding of our planet’s natural processes, allowing us to make choices about what we add to or take from a global system.

The climate change trends we are seeing today correlate with increasing levels of greenhouse gases starting in the 19th century. These changes were direct effects of human activities, attitudes, and behaviors. In the 19th century, cultural values for progress encouraged the rise of carbon-producing industries and fuel-burning vehicles. Over the next century, Americans and others across the globe grew to appreciate innovations such as  traveling by car (for reasons such as visiting national parks!), reliable heat from coal-burning energy plants, the comfort of air conditioning, the convenience of textiles and clothes produced in mills, and much more—all fueled by energy sources pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Culture—and the ways it manifests in humans’ everyday lives—changes all the time. Just as people in the 19th century expressed values for progress and innovation in their own way, so can we. Green energy, sustainable practices, fuel conservation, and rethinking consumption are all ways to keep pushing for progress and innovation. It’s just a new take on an old idea.

Our choices as societies and cultures can mean loss caused by our collective actions, or they can mean finding positive solutions by working together to build a sustainable future.

Last updated: February 3, 2015