A Primer: Global Warming & Climate Change
"What is motivating millions of Americans to think differently about solutions to the climate crisis is the growing realization that this change is bringing us unprecedented opportunity." – Al Gore
What's all the fuss about? Doesn't climate naturally change over time? Haven't there been natural cycles when Earth's temperature has risen and fallen? Yes, that's true; scientists who specialize in the study of Earth's climate in ancient times tell us that climate change in earlier periods was related to changes in the tilt of Earth in space and its path around the sun. Many thousands of years before the last ice age, the temperature on Earth increased by a few degrees, and the sea levels rose by some fifteen or twenty feet. Some well-meaning skeptics insist on contradicting the warnings of those of us who blame the activities of human beings for contributing to the crisis in global warming and climate change. They believe that we're simply entering another natural cycle of change.
Will those people who insist that human beings have nothing to do with climate change also argue that the citizens of Earth are thoughtful caretakers of the planet? Are those people, in the manner of ostriches burying their heads in the sand, unconcerned that rain forests are being depleted at an alarming rate? Do they understand that, by destroying more trees than we're planting, we humans are losing some of the most efficient air purifiers on the planet? Unfortunately, we have other ways of destroying trees. Forests around the world are being killed by airborne pollutants. However, the deforestation of our home plant isn't the only problem. Water everywhere is becoming contaminated by animal and industrial waste, so that the creatures, great and small, that live in the oceans, rivers, streams, and lakes of the earth are dying off. Isn't it common knowledge that the air above many of the major cities of the world is almost too polluted to sustain human life—that our food supplies and seed banks are in jeopardy—and that we are being overwhelmed by the mountains of daily garbage that we produce.
Add to those gloomy developments the fact that many species of plants and animals are in danger of becoming extinct. The survivability of some exotic species in a distant jungle may seem unimportant, but we stand to suffer if we disregard the fact that all life on Earth is connected. "It is fashionable in some quarters to wave aside the small and obscure, the bugs and weeds, forgetting that an obscure moth from Latin America saved Australia's pastureland from overgrowth by cactus, that the rosy periwinkle provided the cure for Hodgkin's disease and childhood lymphocytic leukemia, that the bark of the Pacific yew offers hope for victims of ovarian and breast cancer, that a chemical from the saliva of leeches dissolves blood clots during surgery…."
The list of examples of the self-destructive behavior of the human species is long and distressing, and reveals our short-sighted behavior and our reticence in attending to the maintenance of Earth's environment. So let those who argue that we humans aren't at least partially responsible for climate change and global warming believe what they will; but at least they surely must agree that many of our activities are harmful to Earth. One would think that they must also agree that we have the capability to undertake certain actions that will improve the state of the environment.
The skeptics are correct in pointing out that in the distant past the changes in Earth's temperature and ocean levels occurred over a very long period of time. However, in our time on Earth the rising temperatures are almost exclusively generated by the activities of the human population, and those rising temperatures are primarily driven by fossil fuel emissions related to those activities. Further, climate change and rising temperatures are occurring and accelerating at rates faster than even the scientists had expected and predicted.
A Primer: Global Warming & Climate Change
When scientists speak of a greenhouse effect, they mean precisely what they're saying. In the way that a greenhouse encloses the environment to benefit the growth and reproduction of certain plants, so that light, temperature, and the degree of moisture are regulated, we can think of ourselves as living in a vast greenhouse where those same factors must be maintained in a balanced degree to sustain life. Unfortunately, the combustion of fossil fuels and the related corruption of our atmosphere is trapping the sun's heat near the floor of our greenhouse. "This is what is meant by the greenhouse effect—and we are the ripening tomatoes."
Scientists are predicting that, if the increase in greenhouse gas emissions continues at the present rate, the temperature of Earth could rise as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the 21st century. As prudent citizens, we would be well advised to believe the scientists who argue that our activities have a direct and profound effect on Earth's climate.
So what's really going on here? How is it that the activities of human populations are having a direct and profound effect on the climate of our home planet? Well, surrounding our home on planet Earth is a delicate atmospheric bubble. There's a tricky balance and exchange of gases that must be maintained within that bubble. We hear a lot these days about ecology, about the relationship of organisms within their environment, and about ecological stability. Ecology depends on the interdependence of species and organisms within their environment. Something that happens to one organism or species tends to affect all of the organisms in the system. So it is with Earth's atmosphere and climate. Changes in climate will affect sea levels, weather patterns, and the ability of various organisms to survive those changes. The fundamental problem is that we, the collective human population, are releasing too much of one particular gas into our fragile atmosphere. Carbon dioxide.
Our industrial activity thrives by consuming hydrocarbons—oil, coal, and gas—and excreting carbon dioxide. Sounds like respiration, doesn't it? However, it can be a lethal form of respiration. Since the onset of the industrial revolution and the invention of the steam engine, we humans have triggered a dramatic and ever-rising proportion of carbon dioxide in our formerly benign atmosphere. We can thank our lucky stars that plants and trees behave in the opposite manner; they ingest carbon dioxide and excrete oxygen. To survive, we need those plants to continue that process, but we're behaving as if we don't appreciate the gift of the plants.
So—oops; what are we doing? First, by burning fossil fuels we're releasing the vast amount of carbon that was imprisoned millions of years ago in the decaying structures of plants and organisms. Second, as already mentioned, we're destroying at an astounding rate the most efficient air purifiers on Earth. With each passing day we're burning or cutting down hundreds of square miles of forest, most of which is not being replaced. "Forests worldwide have shrunk from about 75% of the land's surface just after the last Ice Age to about 25 percent today." What happens to much of the wood in the trees we've felled? We burn considerable amounts of it and thereby add to the carbon in our precious atmospheric bubble. How clever is that?
A Primer: Global Warming & Climate Change
We can't blame everything on the industries that produce our products and gadgets. The delicate bubble that surrounds and protects Earth is also corrupted by the mammoth generating stations that produce the electricity we human beings consume; those huge facilities spew vast amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels also provide the primary source of energy for transportation, whether the method of travel is by land, sea, or air. Over the past century transportation hasn't been as toxic as industrial pollution, but it's gaining. The industrial nations aren't building fewer cars, they're building more cars. Setting aside the issue of the fossil fuels required to power this ever-increasing fleet of automobiles, and setting aside the traffic-induced smog created by the emission of nitrogen oxides and other exhaust gases that shroud many of the planet's major cities, there is also the issue of the energy required to build the automobiles. "Making a car uses up enormous quantities of raw materials. In addition to consuming steel, today's cars also require large quantities of energy-expensive aluminum and increasing amounts of non-recyclable plastics."
What's the end result of all this pollution, of this contamination of the atmospheric bubble that sustains all life on the planet? The polar ice cap is melting, glaciers around the world are disappearing, sea levels are rising, and storms are intensifying. Sadly, the problem is more than the rising sea levels that threaten coastal populations. Again, the balance of global climatology is being disastrously altered. Higher temperatures affect winds, tides, and currents, and directly affect the magnitude of storms and weather patterns. What is the significance of rising sea levels and the increasing frequency and violence of storm systems? The people in New Orleans can likely appreciate the significance. What about the people in London? When the North Atlantic becomes particularly violent, the city of London would be underwater were it not for the massive steel barriers that have been constructed to hold back the raging waters of the Thames River. Engineers believe that owing to the predicted rise in sea levels, those barriers will only be effective for the next few decades. What then? Parliament underwater? One of the leading world economic centers underwater? The city of Venice has constructed similar massive breakwater devices, but in the very damp future will they be able to detour the anticipated rise in sea level? Not likely.
Let us also consider the issue of the melting glaciers. Scientists point to unprecedented warming in the Arctic, at a rate they thought impossible until now. The glaciers draining the southern portion of the Greenland ice sheet have accelerated, so that Greenland lost almost sixty cubic miles of ice in 2005. The "tongues" of ice that have retarded the movement of glaciers are melting, thereby allowing glacier movement. Many researchers who monitor the behavior of glaciers and ice sheets believe that sea level could rise three feet by 2100. Glaciers in Bolivia have shriveled, ninety percent of the ice volume has disappeared in Montana's Glacier National Park, and the Ganges River in India is threatened by the loss of water ordinarily provided by runoff from the Himalayan ice fields. "Greenland alone could push up sea level by three feet or so over the next century, if greenhouse warming doesn't let up."
The complete scenario of possible catastrophes linked to the effects of global warming and climate change is quite dismal to contemplate. How will the plant and animal species adapt to this shifting, more inhospitable climate? Rising sea levels will threaten coastal populations, including plant, animal, and human life. Droughts, floods, and heavy rainfall, snowfall, and hailstorms will become more common. Powerful storms—cyclones and hurricanes—will become equally common. The curtailing of agricultural production, the contamination and disappearance of water supplies, and the spread of disease are other likely consequences.
All of this isn't intended to cheer people up or provide a sense of hope and optimism. Optimism and hope will only come from collective human action to change our harmful activities and choose patterns of behavior that reflect an understanding of how to live as a harmonious species on Planet Earth. The health of the human species is at stake; indeed, the health of our living planet and all of its inhabiting species is at stake.
A Primer: Global Warming & Climate Change
In spite of all of the problems facing our lovely planet there is still a reason for optimism. Certainly the planet will survive whatever mischief we human beings inflict upon it, but the question is whether humankind will survive. There is good reason to believe that human beings, quite an adaptable and ingenious lot, will develop methods to indefinitely extend their occupancy on the planet. How is this to be done? We first need to develop a more benign philosophy regarding our stewardship of the planet. We need to realize that we sometimes tend to be undesirable tenants. Yet thinking of ourselves as mere tenants or as passengers on spaceship Earth might be part of the problem. "It [survival] all depends on you and me. If we see the world as a living organism of which we are a part—not the owner, nor the tenant; not even a passenger—we could have a long time ahead of us and our species might survive for its allotted span."
Now let us turn our attention to more practical means of ministering to the ailing environment. While we're waiting for the scientists and engineers to develop alternative fuels, efficient fuel cells, more efficient solar cells, and cleaner agricultural and forestry practices, there are things we can to as individuals to help the planet. Each action by an individual influences similar actions by other human beings, and the benefits of those actions are compounded over time.
The most important thing we can do is to make our demands known to elected representatives. We can write, call, or email senators and the members of the House of Representatives. "Although some politicians believe the task of developing the new energy technologies should be left to market forces, many experts disagree. That's not just because it's expensive to get new technology started, but also because government can often take risks that private enterprise won't…. Without a big push from government, he [NYU's Martin Hoffert] says we may be condemned to rely on increasingly dirty fossil fuels as cleaner ones like oil and gas run out. 'If we don't have a proactive energy policy,' he [Hoffert] says, 'we'll just wind up using coal, then shale, then tar sands, and it will be a continually diminishing return, and eventually our civilization will collapse. But it doesn't have to end that way. We have a choice.' "
Yes, we do have a choice, and there are now promising initiatives all over the world that suggest that techniques are being developed to extend the supply of fossil fuels by means of alternative energy sources. There is indeed hope that we can wean humanity from too great a dependence on fossil fuels.
The Sacred Heart Monastery in South Dakota dramatically reduced their electric bills by installing two wind turbines—a five megawatt giant turbine is being erected off the coast of Germany and will produce enough power for 5,000 homes—a solar park near Leipzig, Germany will use 33,500 panels equipped with photovoltaic cells will capture sunlight for energy—and in Barcelona, Spain, a law has been passed requiring all new buildings to be equipped with solar panels. Such examples abound around the world. Indeed, a recent National Geographic article indicates that "Panels covering less than a quarter of the roof and pavement space in cities and suburbs could supply the U.S. with all its electricity."
A Primer: Global Warming & Climate Change
I encourage you to review the EarhLabs tips and pledges and consider a few things that you, as a citizen might do to make a positive contribution in responding to the climate change crisis. We have all heard many of the other tips that have been widely disseminated by the media; e.g., the use of a permanent bags for groceries in preference to the plastic bags provided by stores—recycling glass, paper, cardboard, and plastics—and using carpools for trips to work. The important thing is to begin with these or other small changes that will point the way to more changes, that will in turn point the way to a more environmentally sensitive pattern of living. One last critical element will play a pivotal role in helping people to live more responsibly on the planet, and that is an understanding of the significance of the carbon footprint. The carbon footprint is a precise representation of the effect human activities have on the planet, this in the form of a measurement indicating the total production of greenhouse gases in carbon dioxide units. Nations, States, cities, and individuals all produce carbon footprints of varying magnitudes. Individuals can determine the extent of their carbon footprint by the use of a calculator (such as the ECP Carbon & Lifestyle Profile provided on the EarthLab). Armed with this information, individuals can then begin to make changes to lower the size of their footprints on the planet. The hope is that they shall tread with lighter feet on their previously much abused homeland, Planet Earth.
In his speech at New York University's School of Law, Al Gore explained that the Chinese have two symbols that are combined to express the concept of crisis. One symbol stands for danger, the other for opportunity. "In this case the opportunity presented by the climate crisis is not only the opportunity for new and better jobs, new technologies, new opportunities for profit, and a higher quality of life.... [It is also]...an opportunity to find our better selves, and, in rising to meet the challenge, create a better, brighter future—a future worthy of the generations who come after us and who have a right to be able to depend on us."
Just try to remember that living on our abundant planet is a privilege and a gift, and that we should be grateful and exercise care to conduct our lives in a way that acknowledges and honors that gift.
By Eli Wabash, for EarthLab.com
SUGGESTED READING LIST
Appenzeller, Tim. "The Big Thaw." National Geographic. June, 2007.
Kennedy, Robert F., Jr. "Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy." HarperCollins, 2004.
Kunstler, James Howard. "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century." New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.
Parfit, Michael. "Future Power: Where Will the World Get Its Next Energy Fix." National Geographic August, 2005.