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Glossary of Terms


The mixture of gases surrounding the Earth, consisting primarily of nitrogen and oxygen with trace amounts of water vapor, aerosols, and other gases [including greenhouse gases].  


Capable of being broken down into simpler substances by microorganisms.  


A liquid fuel made of plant material and used as a partial substitute for gasoline.  


1     (biology) The total weight of all living organisms in a particular area.  
2     (energy) Plant or animal material, often wood or grasses, that can be converted   
       into energy through burning or conversion into a gas or liquid fuel which is then 

carbon footprint 

A measure of greenhouse gas emissions associated with an activity; technically the area of land needed for carbon sequestration for a particular activity, but often used more loosely to mean the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted, measured in tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.  

renewable energy 

Energy, usually electricity, produced by energy sources that are continually replenished by natural processes including wind, solar energy, hydropower, geothermal energy, and biomass.  


Long-term trends in temperature, precipitation, and wind measured over decades, centuries, or longer. Compare weather.  

climate change 

A significant change in measures of climate such as temperature, precipitation, and wind lasting for an extended period of time; can result from natural processes or human activity. The impacts of climate change include increased heat, drought, famine, natural disasters, wildfires, and ecosystem collapse.  

coral bleaching 

A die-off that occurs when symbiotic algae disappear from coral reefs so that the corals [tiny marine animals who build reefs of calcium carbonate and derive energy from symbiotic algae] lose their food source and their color.  

carbon dioxide (CO2

A naturally occurring gas used by plants for photosynthesis and given off by respiration of animals; also a by-product of burning fossil fuels and biomass, land-use changes, and industrial processes. The principal anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas.  


The 24th Climate Change Conference, held in 2018 in Poland as a part of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Representatives of almost every country in the world met for two weeks to discuss how to implement the Paris Agreement (see below) just a few years earlier and define a rulebook for nations and governments across the world to limit CO2 emissions. 


The removal of all trees and conversion of forested land into non-forest. Compare reforestation.  


A system of living organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment.  


A form of energy characterized by the movement of electrical charge. [The problem is that electricity is often produced by burning fuel and releasing greenhouse gases in the environment unless you are using a renewable energy source.] 

El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO)  

An irregular climate oscillation in the Pacific Ocean involving large-scale changes in ocean surface temperatures and winds; gives rise to El Niño and La Niña conditions. Some Climate skeptics have erroneously argued that cool temperatures caused by a La Niña is evidence that climate change is not real. 
A philosophy and social movement focused on protecting the natural environment. [widely embraced by interested individuals and environmental activists alike.]  

Energy Star program 

Energy Star is an energy-efficiency program run by the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Energy. The program is a source of information on energy-efficiency standards, methods, and ratings for different products or devices.1   

fossil fuels 

Combustible geologic deposits formed from partially decomposed remains of organisms trapped in the Earth’s crust and converted to coal, oil, and natural gas by exposure to heat and pressure. Fossil fuels are the most common form of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and our biggest contributor to global warming. 


A mass of ice derived from compressed snow that shows evidence of movement from higher to lower ground.  
global warming (or global heating) 
An average (long-term) increase in the temperature of the atmosphere near Earth’s surface.  

greenhouse effect 

The warming of the planet’s surface as a result of certain atmospheric gases which absorb some of the infrared solar radiation that would otherwise escape into space and re-radiate this energy back to the surface. The greater the number of greenhouse gasses, the more serve the global warming/heating will be. This natural phenomenon has been enhanced by human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases—this is called the enhanced greenhouse effect.  

greenhouse gases (GHGs) 

These gases absorb infrared radiation in the atmosphere causing the greenhouse effect; greenhouse gases include water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), and others. Note: water vapor is an important greenhouse gas that is a normal part of Earth’s water cycle; it’s not related to human-caused global warming, which primarily involved carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane.  

Industrial Revolution 

The rapid transition from a rural agrarian economy with goods made by craftsmen to an urban, industrial economy, beginning with development of the steam engine powered by coal in the 18th–century Britain and spreading to the rest of the world. This is when humans started burning fossil fuels on a massive scale. Followed by industrialization and eventually globalization.   


LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized green building certification system. It verifies that a building was designed and built to save energy and water. 

natural gas 

A gaseous fossil fuel formed from fossilized marine plankton and composed mostly of methane. Most commonly used for heating, generating electricity and industrial uses. Commonly referred to as gas, but it should not be confused with gasoline. 


A gas composed of three oxygen atoms bonded together, found in the stratosphere (high atmosphere) and as ground-level ozone at the bottom of the troposphere. Stratospheric ozone is natural and “good” because it protects us from the sun’s harmful radiation. Ground-level ozone is unnatural and “bad” because it is a hazard to human health and the environment; it is a common air pollutant that comes from industrial plants, electric utilities, vehicle exhaust, wildfire smoke, and oil and gas extraction.2 

ozone layer 

The layer of ozone that shields the Earth from the sun’s harmful rays. 

Paris Agreement 

International and legally binding treaty between 191 countries to stop climate change and limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius (ideally 1.5 degrees) as compared with pre-industrial levels. Organized by UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Paris Agreement was adopted by 191 countries at Conference of the Parties (COP) 21 in 2015. The US formally withdrew from this agreement in November 2020.3  
arctic perennial sea ice 
The oldest and most stable of arctic ice that remains frozen even through the summer melt season. Important for the cooling of Earth’s climate; global warming is reducing the amount of perennial sea ice which will in turn exacerbate the severity and speed of global warming. 

rising sea levels 

Sea level is the global average elevation of the world’s ocean. Sea-level rise is resulting from the thermal expansion of warming ocean water or the melting of land-based ice sheets. Global warming and climate change are causing the ocean to warm and ice sheets all over the world to melt; this is occurring fastest in the polar regions. One in 10 people live in low-elevation coastal areas that are at risk of global-warming induced sea level rise.4  


The planting of forests on lands that have previously contained forests but that have been converted to some other use.  


The state in which the needs of all members of the biosphere are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.  

sustainable development 

Economic development that gives equal opportunities to all to prosper and does not harm the environment. 


The short-term variation in temperature, precipitation, and wind that occurs day to day.  

United Nations 

An intergovernmental non-profit organization with 193 member countries (almost the entire world) established after the end of the second world war with the purpose of maintaining peace, security and amicability between countries, promoting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, promoting sustainable development, and upholding international law.5  
All other definitions reproduced in large part from Margret Robertson’s Dictionary of Sustainability (2017, 1st ed.).  

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