To understand climate change, it is important to appreciate the difference between climate and weather.
England’s climate is the general pattern of temperature, rainfall, snowfall, sunshine and wind that we can expect to experience in different parts of the country throughout the year. For example, we can compare the average rainfall in the southeast of England with the average rainfall in the South Pennines for the month of March.
Weather describes the temperatures, rainfall, sunshine and wind that we actually experience on a day-to-day basis. These can be far more extreme than the long-term averages for the climate where you are. For example, although Dorset is generally sunny and warm in August, it would not be impossible for it to be cold, wet and windy.
Climate change looks at the long term changes in average weather.
Climate change scientists talk about temperature increases as small as between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius. Why should we be concerned by such small changes?
If you look at a map of England average temperatures for the year, the difference in temperatures between, for example, Carlisle in the north and Bournemouth in the south will be something between 2 and 4 degrees.
A change in temperature of about 1 degree is equivalent to moving north by about 250 km (155 miles). So, changing our climate by a seemingly small amount like 2 degrees Celsius is equivalent to moving Carlisle down to Bournemouth – and Bournemouth down to the Dordogne region of South West France!
This might sound quite nice, but it will have huge implications, not only for us but also for our natural environment. As climate changes, we can expect large-scale extreme weather events, such as heat waves, flooding and sea-level rise that will threaten our coasts and cities.
Our favourite species and habitats will have to cope with changes that they might not be able to keep up with. For example, species living at the tops of mountains, such as dotterel, may find their habitat is overgrown by scrub that can increasingly survive higher up than before. Or important grazing marshes and reed beds on the coast of East Anglia may get flooded by sea water and be changed forever.
The speed of change will make it more difficult for some of our wildlife and countryside to adapt to a changing climate, especially when habitats are fragmented by blocks of intervening farmland, roads and towns.
Natural England is working hard to help our wild places adapt to the new climate challenges and advising land managers on how to reduce the unwanted changes that might happen.
Climate change is caused by changes in the heat stored in the earth’s atmosphere. In the past, such changes have been caused by factors such as major volcanic eruptions, which have reduced the amount of sunlight hitting the earth, or natural changes in the sun’s activity.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pulls together all the latest information on climate change and uses the expertise of thousands of scientists worldwide to come to an agreement on its implications.
It is impossible to predict with certainty what climate change might happen in the future. But it is possible to make projections of what might happen under different scenarios, on the basis of the best evidence available.