Climate change. Climate change is a topic that seems to always remain at the forefront of our minds in America. So what does climate change really mean you might ask? In today’s context, Climate change means that the temperature of the globe is increasing. This can most easily be seen in the rising sea levels and the melting of massive, ancient ice caps. We see this in media constantly with images of struggling polar bears all over nature magazines and newspapers. Besides being majorly impactful to all of humankind and almost every species on the planet Earth, this is a hot topic because of the intense debate over whether or not Climate Change is driven by humans. While many, many countries, I think it is even safe to say most countries, will agree that climate change is a scary reality and that humans have some sort of impact and therefore should be working to almost clean up and diminish the change that is occurring, the United States has yet to really take strong action against climate change. In a country so divided politically, we have found a way to make climate change a topic for debate and a political debate at that.
Let us first address common misconceptions about the environment that have led to the “political debate” surrounding climate change. To list a few, many people think: scientists are conflicted whether it is happening and if it is happening it is probably too late to do anything.
To address the first misconception, the general global scientific consensus is that that climate is changing and that humans have made an impact on the acceleration of change. All of the major greenhouse gases given off by human activity act to trap heat and form a sort of “blanket”, as Nasa puts it, around the atmosphere causing the global temperature to rise. This rise in global temperature is climate change. The greenhouse gases given off by human activity include: Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide, Methane, and Chlorofluorocarbons. To the right is a pie chart that shows the percentages of all the greenhouse gas emissions by gas showing Carbon Dioxide as the largest by far. Carbon Dioxide, as we know, is released in many natural processes, even as basic as breathing, however with human actions like deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels we have drastically increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which has upset the delicate balance of regulating global temperature. Nitrous Oxide is given off from mostly human activities like in using of commercial and organic fertilizers, the burning of biomass, and like Carbon Dioxide, it is also given off by burning fossil fuels. Methane, commonly known for its production by cow flatulence, is clearly produced naturally but with some man-made things like waste decomposition in landfills and intensive agricultural processes a great amount is contributed in addition to the natural amounts. Although Methane may be less abundant in the atmosphere than Carbon Dioxide, it traps much more heat than Carbon Dioxide and therefore is much more harmful to the environment. Lastly, Chlorofluorocarbons are a compound made almost entirely by people are given off by several man-made products like aerosol sprays and solvents like refrigerants. These chlorofluorocarbons are very particularly harmful because of their ability to deteriorate the ozone and allow more heat and UV rays from the sun into the earth adding to the heat. So because of many human activities are giving off these greenhouse gases which are trapping heat and chlorofluorocarbons are allowing in more heat we have a a clear imbalance of heat being given off so global temperatures have to increase.
Now to address the point of “we have reached a point of no return”. We can limit the degree increase the earth may experience. We still maintain that power. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of the economy could allow us to get a grasp on how to manage a higher temperature, which there now is. Doing nothing will contribute more to the problem and require more work to cleanup or cope with ever-increasing temperatures. Increasing economic growth since the Industrial Revolution and population increases are largely the sources driving all these emissions, but when put to the right use we have the ability to manage and maintain a safe living environment for many of todays existing species. In an article put out by Smithsonian, a study done by Mark Urban of the University of Connecticut was outlined and the findings were that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated “16 percent of species will be threatened with extinction due to climate change by the end of the century” a trend which is shown in the relationship between extinction and global temperature increase. Mark Urban explained the relationship and its shocking reality that “extinction risk does not just increase with temperature rise, but accelerates, curving upward as the Earth warms”(7). The Graph to the right shows this upward acceleration as temperatures rise from the current temperature to the 2 degree increase temperature cap set by global leaders to the unabated increase that will come without capping emissions.
Proof of climate change is everywhere and human impact is largely agreed upon by scientists as we talked about above. Global Warming is very much happening. Shown in the Chart to the left, The United States Global Change Research Program recently published their findings on climate change showing that the average temperature of the earth has gone from about a deviation from the average of about -. 6 in the decade of the 1900s to about a +1.05 in the early 2000s. That is an aggressive change! As we know the earth is constantly changing and undergoes massive changes over time (think the Ice Age), but as we talked about, we humans have made natural changes much more aggressive. Although year-to-year sometimes would seem that the global temperature is not always increasing, scientists at NASA have come to agree that “weather patterns cause fluctuations in average temperatures from year to year” but the fact there has been a “continued increase in greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere assures that there will be a long-term rise in global temperatures“(1). Accompanying this massive deviation change in the average global temperature, we have seen a massive uptick in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (shown in the graph on the right showing the increase in both Carbon Dioxide and Global temperature), largely due to the increased burning of fossil fuels and other human activities outlined in the graph above to the right. The link between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global temperature is direct and clear. Recently, NASA has confirmed the link with a “new atmosphere-ocean climate modeling study” which showed “that the planet’s temperature ultimately depends on the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide”. The study examined the roles that water vapor and carbon dioxide play in the Earth’s greenhouse effect. The findings were that when carbon dioxide increases, water vapor increases in the atmosphere, but that water vapor in and of itself cannot uphold the greenhouse effect and that therefore carbon dioxide “acts as a thermostat in regulating the temperature of Earth.”(2)
So if this change is occurring, why is it occurring? The Earth must balance what energy enters and what energy leaves its system(3). Changes in this balance can be due to a number of things ranging from variations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth to changes in Earth’s greenhouse effect. Climate change may not be a new phenomenon, but this is the first major change in climate since the Industrial Revolution which shows the impact humans are now having. In past changes, we have seen volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and other major natural changes that alter the status quo of that time, however we now have entered an era where humans have the ability to impact some of earths natural processes. Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, humans have continuously contributed massive amount of carbon dioxide, and many of the other greenhouse gases described above, to the atmosphere in everything from factories to transportation emissions. As time goes on we continually find ways to make more in less time, creating more and more greenhouse emissions.
So if this temperature increase is occurring what does that mean for the Earth? Temperature increases are most visibly seen in the melting of the ice caps and rising water levels around the world, however they affect way more than just the frozen ecosystems. Rising global temperatures means adaptation or disappearance of whole ecosystems and all the species in them like Mark Urban found in his study. Another study done Seth Finnegan of the University of California, Berkeley developed a map showing which ocean areas, already the most vulnerable for specie extinction, are most at risk for specie extinction as temperature increases, which is shown below. Finnegan found that the most at risk species are oceanic species and then highlighted the most at risk for extinction as a gradient of yellow to red with red being the highest. Most species are greatly affected by the temperature of the environment they live in and especially in this case, species who need cooler climates may not have anywhere to go. Luckily for humans, we have air conditioning and heating so many of our environments can be regulated; however for polar bears and penguins where will they go? The top four animals at risk for extinction now are as follows: tigers, polar bears, pacific walrus, and the Magellanic Penguin(9). Aside from deforestation and poaching, rising sea levels threaten the mangrove habitats of Tigers, a consequence of global temperature rise. Polar bears are the most at the most obvious risk because of climate change because of the melting of ice and loss of habitats they are facing, something also causing extinction risk for pacific walrus’s. The Magellanic penguin is at risk because as fish are moved by warming currents they are forced to travel farther and farther for food. These animals represent and remind us that every single species plays a role in the ecosystem and the disappearance of one can greatly impact the ecosystem as a whole in ways we cannot even imagine.
Temperature increase due to greenhouse gas emissions drives many harmful processes that affect specie extinction like the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Increased acidity mixed with coral bleaching from higher water temperatures can kill off large amounts of coral, which is an essential part of the ecosystems of the oceans of the world. Without coral who know what will happen to the fish and other sea creatures we as humans need to survive! However, there is room for hope. Like I said earlier, adaptation is an option for species. Many species have already begun a process of adaptation. From chipmunks to spiders, animals are finding ways to survive in changing ecosystems. While many worry about impending extinction of many species, it is important to account for the fact that as Ary Hoffmann, a geneticist at the University of Melbourne puts it, “Organisms are not static”(4). Adaption however, does mean extinction for those who can not adapt in time or at all, so regardless of how you look at it, specie extinction is a bad thing.
So what can we do? Like I said earlier, hope is not lost. We can make an impact by cutting our emissions immediately. Cutting emissions means using less electricity, changing lightbulbs and cars to more energy efficient alternatives. Maybe next time instead of driving your own car to class, take a bus or bike or walk! Also invest in renewable energy! Solar, Wind, and other alternative fuel forms like biodiesel and E85 can help reduce your carbon footprint in a big way and think of what might happen if everyone could diminish their carbon footprints(8).
Now that we have the facts, what is the political debate even about? Scientists everywhere know that trapped excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is causing a rise in temperatures and therefore a change in climate, however for a number of political reasons some people deny that working to reduce emissions and investing in renewables is necessary. The Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty that was founded at a conference that took place in the late 1990’s where all the countries around the world met to commit their reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This Protocol was highly political because it gave “developing” countries much greater thresholds for carbon emissions because they are developing, while “developed” countries were given lower thresholds because they have already gone through the developing phase and therefore should be able to more easily reduce emissions. The splitting of countries into “developing” and “developed” led to great political debate and China, one of America’s largest competitors was placed in the “developing” category and America in the latter. Many Americans were angered about our having to reduce much greater emissions and that is one of the big reasons why some Americans refuse to admit that human impacted climate change is going on. The United States has still yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and therefore is not tied to this international treaty.
If you ask me, I think the argument that “its not fair” that we have to cut emissions and they don’t, is immature and selfish. Climate change is a Collective Action Problem, and by that I mean it effects all countries around the world and requires collective action by said countries to try to fix it. So although economic losses in the short-term may occur, why not look long-term and think about the growing mess that our generation is going to have to clean up more of if we don’t start cleaning now.