Climate Change: Challenges to Combating Climate Change at the Individual, Regional and Global Level

• Human-caused climate change involves long-term shifts in the Earth’s climate patterns.

• There are various individual-level actions for reducing one’s carbon footprint.

• To effectively address climate change, collaborative efforts are required from the public and private sectors.

• There are many challenges, including the economic complexities of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, government’s prioritizing their own interests, and the trade-off between immediate and eventual benefits.

• The severe consequences of climate change will be felt across the globe.

Overview

Challenges to Combating Climate Change at the Individual and Collective Levels

Climate change entails lasting shifts in Earth's climate patterns, including temperature, precipitation, wind, and other phenomena. This stems from both natural factors and human activities. The observed alterations in the climate system arise from surplus heat, a result of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere. Most of these gases result from human actions, for example, burning fossil fuels, deforestation, agriculture, and urbanization. Greenhouse gases act as heat-trapping agents, causing a gradual global temperature increase, known as the 'greenhouse effect.' While 'climate change' and 'global warming' are used interchangeably, the latter refers to recent surface temperature rise, a facet of the broader 'climate change.' Beyond higher temperatures, climate change includes severe droughts, water shortages, wildfires, sea-level rise, floods, polar ice melting, storms, and biodiversity decline.

Challenges to Combating Climate Change at the Individual and Collective Levels

Challenges to Combating Climate Change at the Individual and Collective Levels

Climate change<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">refers</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>United Nations. What Is Climate Change?.</div></div></span>to the significant and long-term alterations in the Earth’s climate patterns, particularly those related to temperature, precipitation, wind, and other weather phenomena. These changes can result from both natural factors and human activities. The alterations we observe in the climate system arise from the surplus heat introduced into it. This heat results from the presence of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Most of these extra greenhouse gases are a direct result of human actions, including the burning of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, and natural gas), deforestation, agricultural practices, and changes in land use. These activities<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">increase</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>World Bank. What Is Climate Change?.</div></div></span>the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which act as ‘heat-trapping’ agents.

Put simply, the burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere. These gases act like a thermal blanket around the planet, trapping heat from the sun and causing a gradual increase in global temperatures. This phenomenon is often referred to as the ‘greenhouse effect’. It is important to understand that, while the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are frequently interchanged, ‘global warming’<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">refers</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>MacMillan, A. and Turrentine, J. Global Warming 101. Natural Resources Defense Council, 2021.</div></div></span>to the recent increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s surface, and it is just a single facet of the broader phenomenon known as ‘climate change’. While many solely associate climate change with higher temperatures, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Climate change involves a complex web of effects that extend beyond temperature shifts. 

Today, the outcomes of climate change include intense droughts, water shortages, devastating fires, rising sea levels, destructive floods, the melting of polar ice, powerful storms, and a decline in biodiversity, among other things.

OVERVIEW

Individual-Level Challenges to Combating Climate Change

As many individuals lack information about their daily environmental impact, scientists have attempted to provide additional evidence. In addition, economists advocate for market-driven solutions like carbon markets, but their immaturity in many countries has hampered their impact. Tackling climate change involves navigating complex interconnected systems, though collaborative efforts such as this often come to a standstill because of the diverse range of goals and values. Moreover, government prioritization of their own interests impedes collaboration. Addressing climate change at the individual level involves a trade-off between immediate and eventual benefits. The consequences for most are in the future, which makes the problem abstract and diminishes urgency. Adopting a plant-based diet, minimizing air travel, living car-free, and opting for smaller families are some of the most impactful actions that have been suggested by the scientific community.

Individual-Level Challenges to Combating Climate Change

Individual-Level Challenges to Combating Climate Change

Given that many individuals lack an understanding of how their daily actions influence the planet, scientists have strived to provide additional evidence. Meanwhile, economists believed in the viability of a market-driven solution that involved establishing carbon markets to assign value to the costs and advantages of carbon emissions. However, carbon markets remain in their infancy across the majority of countries, which greatly curtails their potential impact. After all, if individuals lack a clear comprehension of carbon trading, they are unlikely to engage in such transactions. Addressing climate change involves a shift in various complex systems due to their intricate interconnections and interdependencies. This complexity often gives rise to what are known as ‘collective action traps’. 

Collaborative efforts prove challenging as humans possess varying values, goals, and circumstances. This results in a scenario where each party expects the others to initiate action, potentially leading to a standstill if collective cooperation is lacking. Similar to a network of intricately linked individuals, a single vulnerability can jeopardize the entire network. Nevertheless, communities often demonstrate heightened cohesion when confronting the repercussions of climate change. For instance, regions grappling with natural issues like forest fires, floods, and others frequently discover a shared impetus to cooperate. This grassroots (bottom-up) strategy proves more effective, given that those directly affected by climate-related hazards share a collective fate, driving them to collaborate in addressing these challenges collectively. Conversely, governments generally adhere to top-down bureaucratic structures, causing their willingness to collaborate to wane as they prioritize outcomes that align with their specific interests. This lack of collaborative incentive can obstruct unified action, as each entity strives for incremental gains instead of pursuing comprehensive solutions.[4]

Indeed, combating climate change at the individual level comes with distinct challenges. Addressing climate change presents a trade-off between immediate and eventual advantages, a challenging choice for individuals. Opting to overlook climate concerns in the short term, when it is indeed an option, offers benefits to both individuals and organizations. For example, individuals are not required to alter their lifestyles when they disregard the impact their carbon footprint exerts on the global environment.

In addition to the above, climate change is a nonlinear issue, and it took a considerable duration before any discernible indications of climate change became apparent to the general population. Many consequences of climate change remain distant for the majority of individuals. Weather-related catastrophes that likely stem from climate change, such as wildfires, typically occur far from where most people reside. Consequently, the majority of individuals are not compelled to confront the direct implications of climate change. They instead view it as an abstract notion that lacks the capacity to stimulate people to take action with the same level of urgency that concrete events do. The future inherently carries more uncertainty than the present, serving as a key reason as to why individuals tend to place significantly greater value on the current moment.[5]

The consensus among the scientific community is that the current most impactful actions [6] for significantly reducing an individual's carbon footprint are adopting a plant-based diet, refraining from air travel, living without a car, and opting for smaller family sizes.

OVERVIEW

Regional-Level Challenges to Combating Climate Change

Effectively addressing climate change requires collaborative efforts from the public and private sectors to develop and distribute innovative environmentally friendly technologies (EFTs). However, the challenges include inadequate information on the long-term benefits of renewable energy sources, potentially resulting in market failures and hindering widespread adoption. Economists identify three main hurdles in the climate change battle: denial of its existence, economic complexities in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the regressive attributes of mitigation policies. For example, policies targeting GHG emissions often affect poorer communities globally and domestically. Some experts advocate a global carbon emissions tax, though implementing it could raise household expenses, affecting lower incomes more in high-income countries.

Regional-Level Challenges to Combating Climate Change

Regional-Level Challenges to Combating Climate Change

Addressing climate change effectively demands collaborative initiatives from both the public and private sectors to create and distribute innovative environmentally friendly technologies (EFTs) worldwide, while also customizing them to meet local requirements. However, various market failures and specific uncertainties pose obstacles to the optimal dissemination of green technologies, emphasizing the need for supplementary incentives [7]. These challenges encompass insufficient information and awareness regarding the long-term benefits of renewable energy sources, potentially resulting in market failures and impeding widespread adoption.

Economists identify three primary obstacles in the battle against climate change: the denial of its existence, the economic intricacies of curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the regressive attributes of mitigation policies. Climate change disregards national boundaries: greenhouse gases (GHGs) released from anywhere will eventually impact everyone. Given the present status of multilateral collaboration, envisioning a truly global undertaking for the collective welfare poses a substantial challenge. On the other hand, policies geared towards curbing GHG emissions often have a greater impact on poorer communities, both globally and within nations. According to certain experts, a uniform global carbon emissions tax could be the most effective solution to address the climate challenge, primarily from an environmental standpoint. Nonetheless, if such a tax were implemented, average household expenses for electricity and gasoline could be expected to rise in the coming decade. Consequently, managing the redistribution of the final costs, or what are known as the ‘distributional effects’, would pose challenges, even within affluent nations. [8] To mitigate climate change, some experts believe that a carbon tax should be applied to goods typically characterized as necessities — transport fuel, food, heating, and electricity. Thus, it is thought that carbon taxation will likely affect those with lower incomes to a greater extent in high-income countries, and this impact will increase with greater income inequality (Andersson and Atkinson, 2020). Moreover, it is predicted that the long-awaited advancement in developing and emerging economies would be accompanied by substantial rises in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.[8]

OVERVIEW

Global Challenges to Combating Climate Change

Climate change has emerged as the defining crisis of our time, unfolding more rapidly than anticipated. Secretary-General António Guterres stressed in September 2023 that the climate emergency is a race we are losing but can win. The severity implies no part of the world will escape consequences — rising temperatures lead to environmental decay, natural disasters, extreme weather, food and water insecurities, economic turmoil, conflicts, and terrorism. For the majority, decisive collective action is the only way to stem the incalculable costs. Climate change's cross-cutting impact requires a Nexus approach and interdisciplinary thinking for sustainable global solutions.

Global Challenges to Combating Climate Change

Global Challenges to Combating Climate Change

Climate change stands as the defining crisis of our era and it is unfolding more rapidly than anticipated. As Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized in September 2023: “the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.” The gravity of the situation indicates that no part of the world will remain untouched by the severe consequences of climate change. Escalating temperatures drive environmental deterioration, natural disasters, extreme weather events, food and water insecurities, economic upheaval, conflicts, and terrorism. Sea levels are rising, the Arctic is thawing, coral reefs are perishing, oceans are acidifying, and forests are ablaze.Thus, many believe that maintaining the status quo is insufficient. As the incalculable costs of climate change escalate to irreversible levels, the only way forward is through decisive collective action (UN75 2020 and beyond) [9].

The ethical dimensions of the climate challenge are closely intertwined with its spatial and temporal dimensions. This connection arises from the fact that the poorest people on Earth, despite contributing minimally to global emissions, are likely to experience the most severe impacts. Additionally, ethical questions stem from the long-term commitment to future warming and climate change effects that will be borne by subsequent generations. Fundamentally, the cumulative impact of past and future greenhouse gas emissions significantly influences a substantial portion of the continually growing global population. Consequently, it is widely accepted that humanity bears a moral duty to confront the climate challenge. Most experts agree that addressing this challenge requires a dual approach comprising successful negotiations for a binding and effective international climate agreement and grassroots initiatives originating from individuals or communities [10].

One distinctive aspect of climate change, setting it apart from previous environmental challenges, is its nature as a global pollutant as opposed to a local one [11]. This characteristic makes the management and regulation of CO2 significantly more complex. On the other side, the consequences of many climate change pollutants are projected to manifest in the future. This implies that a significant segment of the population may not directly encounter the firsthand effects of climate change. Instead, these effects are often presented through hypothetical scenarios. As a result, policymakers lack strong incentives to take immediate action to address these challenges. Developing and low-income countries play a substantial role in generating pollution, primarily because environmental concerns are not their primary focus. On the other hand, it is crucial to recognize that climate change is not an isolated challenge; rather, it is a cross-cutting issue with far-reaching impacts across various sectors and interconnections with other global challenges. Climate change has the capacity to influence global water supplies, agricultural production, human health, and the stability of our energy infrastructure. Given the societal and technical challenges in mitigation (IPCC 2014b [12]) and adaptation (IPCC 2014a [13]), adopting a Nexus approach, coupled with interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary thinking, is essential to developing sustainable solutions for global problems.

OVERVIEW

The UN System's Commitment to Climate Change Initiatives

The 2015 adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement was a pivotal moment in international climate policy, establishing a framework for global action and urging nations to design ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs). However, despite progress, concerns persist about the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's (UNFCCC) ability to effectively address urgent climate challenges. Experts argue that these commitments lack adequate support for crucial adaptation efforts, emphasizing the need for planning and funding to translate pledges into actions. The responsibility for converting Paris Agreement goals into practical steps rests largely on national governments. Critics highlight a missing universal agreement among governments on the necessary measures for a 60% to 80% emissions reduction.

The UN System's Commitment to Climate Change Initiatives

The UN System's Commitment to Climate Change Initiatives

The adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 marked a significant milestone in international climate policy. It established a framework for global climate action and prompted countries to formulate ambitious national climate plans, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Despite the progress witnessed under the Paris Agreement, concerns have been raised by commentators and scholars about the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's (UNFCCC) ability to effectively address the urgent challenges of climate change.

While there have been notable advancements, at the time of writing, the national climate commitments fall short of meeting the global objective of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Furthermore, many experts believe that these commitments lack the necessary support to address critical adaptation efforts. A 2022 article for the World Resources Institute expressed that, even with existing commitments, there is a need to ensure that adequate planning and funding are in place to translate these pledges into tangible actions. The responsibility for translating the goals of the Paris Agreement into practical action largely falls on national governments.

Critics contend that a key element missing from the overall strategy is a universal agreement among governments on the necessary measures to achieve the 60% to 80% reduction in emissions, as recommended by scientists to stabilize the atmosphere. The UN, acting as an impartial mediator, is constantly involved in helping to build trust between nations. This trust is grounded in mutual self-interest and a shared commitment to a common cause, even if progress occurs at varying speeds. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that rapidly developing economies had collectively reduced emissions by 500 million tonnes in the previous three decades, surpassing the reductions of Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol [14].

Overview

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Learn more

Videos & Documentaries

1. Frozen in Time: Climate Clues Hidden in Ice. Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, 2022.

2. Climate change in 60 seconds. The Royal Society, 2014.

3. Knittel, C. The 5 greatest challenges of fighting climate change. MIT Sloan School of Management, 2019.

Stats, Databases & Infographics

1. Climate Change Impacts Studies Database. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

2. Climate Databases. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

3. Monitoring and measuring progress towards climate ambitions. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

4. Climate Change Data. International Monetary Fund.

5. Climate Change. The World Bank.

6. National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

7. Infographic: Cutting emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Carbon Brief.

8. Climate Policy Database. New Climate Institute.

9. Climate change Database. Eurostat.

10. Carbon Pricing Dashboard. The World Bank.

Eductional Resources

Teaching ideas and recommendations

1. What is Climate Change?. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

2. Basics of Climate Change. Environmental Protection Agency.

3. Climate Change Knowledge Portal. World Bank.

4. Climate Change Resources for Educators and Students. Environmental Protection Agency.

5. Climate Change Concepts. Government of Canada.

6. Climate Change Resources. World Wide Fund for Nature.

7. For Educators. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

8. What is climate change? A really simple guide. BBC, 2023.

9. What Is Climate Change?. United Nations.

Lectures & Debates

1. Harrabin, R. 21st Century Challenges: Ready for Impact?. 21st Century Challenges, 2016.

2. Goodall, C. 21st Century Challenges: Ready For Impact?. 21st Century Challenges, 2016.

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