Seventh-generation Washingtonian Wesley Wiggins, 23, currently serves as a climate resilience trainer with the D.C. chapter of Black Millennials for Flint, an environmental justice nonprofit. Recently, he spent two years as a fellow with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working on climate change resiliency in the water sector. A 2021 Princeton University graduate with a geosciences degree, Wiggins is now preparing to enter a PhD program to study environmental health sciences.
Wiggins agreed to chat about some “Frequently Asked Questions” on the basics of climate change – what it is, how it works and why it matters.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
First of all, what is climate change? What does the term ‘climate’ mean?
So I think the best way I can explain it is by thinking about the difference between weather and climate. So today: the weather is 83 degrees right now, and it’s partly cloudy. But tomorrow, the weather will change—maybe tomorrow, it’ll be 90 degrees, and it will rain. So every day, we observe a certain type of weather.
Climate is the trends in the weather patterns that we see over time. And so climate change is when the trends that we see change. So let’s think about the summer—in the summer, we all know the summer to be relatively warm. In D.C., it’s hot and humid. So climate change is seeing over time, over the years, does it get hotter? Does it get more humid? Is there more precipitation? We see those trends changing.
What is causing climate change?
Climate change is caused by a group of gasses called ‘greenhouse gasses.’ And that includes carbon dioxide, methane, and some other gasses. Those gasses trap heat in our planet. They’re supposed to have a positive role in our planet’s atmosphere: it keeps the sun’s warmth inside the planet.
But what we’re seeing is that as we’re burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, natural gas, and causing emissions [of these gasses] from cars, emissions from factories, emissions from lots of other industries—that overwhelming amount of greenhouse gasses causes more and more heat to be trapped in our planet.
How sure are experts that climate change is happening?
Scientists are incredibly certain. There’s a lot of climate denial out there, but there’s not a lot of it in the scientific community. In fact, a lot of what science is trying to disprove the standing theories—and no one has yet been able to disprove climate change.
How do they know?
There are a lot of techniques to look back at Earth’s history. And in Earth’s history, the climate has changed a lot. There are a lot of labs throughout the globe that measure carbon dioxide, methane concentrations in the atmosphere, and that increase that we’re seeing is at an unparalleled rate to any other point in Earth’s history. So this is not a natural change that we’re seeing.
Scientists have [also] recorded that the Earth’s temperature is increasing. And I’ll say as well—I don’t think we have to rely on experts to know that the climate is changing, even just in my lifetime—and I’m only 23 years old—we’ve seen the earth get warmer.
We can see that there are things happening to the weather, to the planet, that we’ve never seen before. Even just [this summer], the wildfire smoke from the Canadian wildfires has never been that bad. Seeing all these changes, we can see that climate change is in fact happening. And we can directly relate that to all of the greenhouse gas emissions that humans are producing.
Are all crazy weather events caused by climate change?
You know, there’s been severe weather for all of human history and all before human history. So it’s not simple to say any single event was caused by climate change. What we can say is that we know there’s a direct connection between increasing Earth’s temperature and flooding or storms or rising sea levels or increased wildfires.
Think about the precipitation. So when the planet warms and temperatures increase, more water evaporates—and the more water in the atmosphere, the more rain we’re going to see come down. That doesn’t mean every time it rains, that’s climate change, or every time it floods, that’s climate change. But we know as the planet’s temperature continues to increase, we will see more severe and more intense rain.
Climate change is more throwing fuel onto the fire than setting the fire, or lighting the match.
How is climate change impacting the D.C. region right now?
If you asked me [this question] in May, my answer would have been very different, because I could not have expected wildfire smoke to ever have been an issue for D.C. And then extreme heat, extreme precipitation and flooding are probably the [other] main two concerns that we have to think about.
I would also say, though we don’t really see too many major direct hurricane hits in D.C., you know, we’ve been hit by hurricanes before, we’ve been hit by tropical storms before. And especially, thinking about [how it’s] hurricane season—hurricanes are also another threat to be aware of.
How will it affect our region in the future? In 10 years? In 50?
In 10 years, I think we’ll still see a lot of the same things, and even in 50 years, we’ll see a lot of the same things we’re seeing now, but worse. And I guess in 50 years, that really does depend on how much we have slowed the ramping up of climate change. If we fix things by then—if we’ve done all the things we can do to combat climate change—things will start getting better in 50 years. Which is a weird thing to think about, because I’ll be 70.
But kind of going back to the wildfire smoke thing, there’s always that element of uncertainty of what we could see next. Uncertainty has become much stronger of a factor: usually, you can predict the weather on a certain day, based on past trends. Thinking about just an average everyday person—you know what winter is going to look like, you know what summer is going to look like, because we’ve experienced these things throughout our lives. But I think we’re at a point now where we can’t rely on what we know about the weather.
What do we, societally, need to do to “fix things” when it comes to climate change?
The best way to combat climate change is to stop emitting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which is going to take a large scale effort, because we all rely on greenhouse gasses in some way or another.
You see that there’s a massive push for electric cars now, and getting rid of gas stoves in favor of electric stoves. So everything that we do in our day to day lives that already kind of produces gasses on its own, switching it to electricity—even though [our electricity] does come from fossil fuels right now, we do have other sources of energy that we can rely on that aren’t fossil fuels. So making sure that that’s a seamless transition means making sure that we have that electric appliances to rely on so we can make that easy switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies.
[And] I think one of the things that doesn’t get talked about as much is energy efficiency. How can we use less energy for more output, or even less energy for the same amount of output, making sure that energy isn’t going to waste?
Okay, let’s talk adaptation: what can individuals do to prepare for climate impacts?
This is my favorite thing to talk about. One of the things that I preach a lot about in terms of how to prepare is making sure that when it comes to severe weather, you know how to protect yourself, your family and your community.
I think about it in three steps. One, know what your risks are. And that doesn’t just mean knowing what the climate impacts are. It’s knowing yourself and knowing how the people around you will be affected by these things. How does it interrupt the things that you need to do every day? Will you have your medication if you have to evacuate your home? Will you have everything you need to be stable in the meantime, before you can get back into your home?
The second one is kind of taking the steps to get prepared. Talk to your family or individually make a plan: if I need to evacuate, where do I need to go? Or if I need to shelter at home, do I have everything I need? I have a ‘go bag,’ or some people call it a book out bag. It has food, water, and first aid. A simple kit like that can go a long way.
The last thing is, talk about climate change and climate impacts with friends, talk about it with family. We all need to look out for each other as we are getting ready to experience a lot of change and uncertainty in our lives.
What do you think is something that people need to know that might get overlooked or misunderstood when it comes to climate change?
The big thing is that climate change is happening right now. We talk a lot about the future with climate change, but I think the thing that most people, including politicians and scientists don’t always grasp, is that this stuff is happening right now. It’s affecting people’s lives all around the globe, all around the United States. And it’s not going to stop anytime soon.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about what the future will look like. And I think that scares a lot of people into inaction. You know, I’d be surprised if you read this and were not afraid of climate change, because it’s a very scary idea. But it’s not an impossible problem. This isn’t like an unclimbable wall. This is a challenge that we can overcome. And I think it’s about everybody playing their part.