I’m sure by now that we have all heard of climate change. As a well established consensus in the scientific community, one would expect the conclusions on the subject to be uniform. However, there is a lot of incorrect information out there about climate change that misleads people to different perspectives. This misinformation is caused by either people misinterpreting the science behind the change, or by people, influenced by lobbies, who have claim an exaggeration of the climate change data. My goal of this blog is to convince you of the right perspective on climate change: that is that it is real, and that we are already seeing the effects it has on our world today.
The Legitimacy of Climate Change
The National Academy of Science in the United States has concluded after years of research that anthropogenic climate change is real and needs to be addressed. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has stated that they have a “very high confidence that the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming.” Their confidence that Global Warming is human caused is over 95%. Although Global Warming is agreed upon by most as a valid phenomenon caused by humans, it is still a group of scientific theories, therefore not absolutely certain. However, we can essentially say that recent warming due to human activity is a fact, although it is difficult to prove 100%. The IPCC comes out with a report every few years, stating the probability of human interaction. IPCC has presented increasingly higher percentages as the years have gone by, getting ever closer to the absolute fact that it is human caused.
Starting with the work of John Tyndall in 1859, we have known that water vapor and C02 in our atmosphere strongly determine the temperature of our earth. With the use of his spectrophotometer, Tyndall saw that gases like oxygen and hydrogen released very little radiant heat when warmed compared to CO2 and water vapor. He concluded that these latter gases must be the reason for the warmth of our atmosphere and oceans. The more water vapor and CO2 in the atmosphere, the higher the temperatures will be due to the heat absorbing and radiating properties of the gases. Also known as the Green House effect, as the sunlight enters our atmosphere, it has more trouble leaving due to our pollutants.
As we have industrialized our society into pumping out large amounts of CO2, we have increased the amount of gases that absorb the heat from the sun. Nowadays, we receive roughly 66% of our energy from CO2 producing processes, not to mention the carbon footprint stemming from transportation. In the United States, around 32% of green house gases comes from electricity and heating, while 27% comes from transportation. If we can somehow find a way to reduce the amount of CO2 created by electricity production and transportation, we can decrease the rate of our CO2 output.
The most hazardous form of human pollution includes the burning of coal and fossil fuels to create energy and heat. Through the combustion of these materials, the carbon within them is made into a product of CO2 which is released into the atmosphere. The heat increase due to these emissions is known as Global Warming and is the cause of the global heat increase we have seen over the years. There are those who doubt that this heat increase is human made although, suggesting that the world is naturally emitting more CO2. Luckily, we have sufficient evidence to prove that the CO2 increase is anthropogenic, due to the unique type of CO2 we produce. The burning of coal and fossil fuels, releases a light, less dense form of CO2 as compared to other sources (such as natural processes caused by the ocean or animal respiration). Below is a graph showing the increase in overall CO2 (red line) as compared to our output of lighter CO2 gas (grey line) from 1981 to 2002. The graph shows that as we have increased our output of CO2 gas, the overall CO2 emissions into the environment has increased as well. This shows a strong correlation between our output and the overall trend of CO2 increase.
Scientists have also shown that global warming is a trend that has happened for thousands of years through the recording of satellite data, ancient ice cores and fossilized trees. The trend shows that the earth goes through periods of warmth before getting cold again and starting an ice age. This is earth’s natural flux, as the CO2 levels rise and fall so does the temperature of the earth. People use this fact as an argument against human participation in the recent warming. What is most significant to note is that the rate of our warming is faster than anything ever seen before in history. Scientists conclude that even though earth is currently going through a warming period, we are speeding up the process too fast for nature to catch up. During the time of the dinosaurs, CO2 levels were high and temperatures were immensely hot. The reason these creatures and plants thrived at that time was due to the slow increase of CO2, which allowed evolution to adapt with the world. As humans quicken the process of global warming, we change the environment of animals and plants too fast for them to survive.
Below are the temperature and CO2 fluctuations that have been occurring since 450 thousand years ago. As you can see, the temperature correlates with the CO2 increases and goes through continuous waves of heating and cooling.
Here are the organizations that back Global Warming with their records of increasing temperature since 1880:
Some figures like Alabama representative Gary Palmer, have claimed that scientists manipulate the data of weather stations in order to achieve their own agendas. People have accused weather organizations like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) of increasing temperature measurements to prove global warming. Although it is true that scientists manipulate weather and temperature data, it is only to create more accurate data through a process called homogenization. Basically, any outlying data that doesn’t stem from climatic change is removed in order to accurately portray the climate temperature. The NOAA has thousands of weather stations around the world on land and water. When the NOAA changes their data, they do so by removing non-environmental factors that can skew data. These include the types of temperature monitors that stations use (liquid in glass or resistance thermometers) and/or human interference such as the construction of buildings near stations (casting shadows or changing wind patterns). The NOAA also does large changes to temperature for stations over the oceans; however, these changes actually decrease the amount of global warming that was previously thought. When scientists reported on their actions, they stated that if anything, “it is likely that maximum temperature trends have been underestimated,” disproving those who claim conscious temperature inflation. It is dangerous when people like Gary Palmer make public claims like this because it leads others in the wrong direction. Thankfully, we have scientific evidence to disprove them.
Another argument against global warming is the case that the amount of human made CO2 is minuscule compared to the amount that is naturally produced. In our atmosphere, there is a cycle of carbon being emitted and absorbed in a constant flow that keeps the equilibrium of CO2 stable in our environment. The total amount of natural CO2 emissions per year is 772 giga-tons, with 332 giga-tons coming from the ocean and 439 giga-tons produced by animal respiration and vegetation consumption. In terms of absorption, the ocean takes in 338 giga-tons with land plants absorbing around another 450 giga-tons. The 16 giga-ton difference keeps our atmosphere in a rough balance, with periods of low and high carbon dioxide in our air. Human created CO2 averages out to only 29 giga-tons per year, substantially less than natural amounts. Global warming deniers claim that 29 giga-watts is too small to make a difference and ignore the fact that it is enough to upset the carbon balance. Only 40% of the human made CO2 gets absorbed leaving 17.4 giga-tons unaccounted for. Because the earth can only absorb a set amount of CO2, the added 17.4 giga-watts per year creates a huge swing in the equilibrium causing drastic increase in our CO2 levels. Due to this rapid increase in CO2, our environment is showing signs of degeneration.
The Effects of Climate Change
As more CO2 gets put into our atmosphere, our Earth gets heated as a result. We have plotted our temperature since 1884 and have seen a dramatic increase since then. NASA has created a map showing the temperature difference over the years, and how we have rapidly been approaching the 1 degree Celsius mark. We currently lie 0.68C over the world’s historic average and are only expected to increase. The 9 warmest years on the 134 year record have occurred since the year 2000 with 2014 being the hottest year on record. Scientists and governments around the world have negotiated a 2C cap on the increase of heat. They have concluded that any increase over 2 degrees celsius would cause catastrophic changes that would irreversibly change the way we live as human beings. They have predicted with our current output of emissions for a 2040 reach of the 2 celsius mark unless immediate changes are made to our society.
Recently, scientists have come out in protest against the 2C cap, claiming that we will easily reach the 2C mark and have to work for a 1C cap in temperature change. In order to avoid the rise of 2C (with it’s catastrophic implications) we will have to radically change the way we live in order to reach the newly proposed cap. Scientists predict that in order to avoid hitting the 2C mark, we will have to cut our emissions by 80-90% by the year 2050. This means making significant changes to our CO2 output as quick as possible.
For more information on rethinking the 2C cap: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/02/1402277-global-warming-2-degree-target/
With rapid rises in temperature, comes rapid melting of the Arctic ice. In 2012, we reached our lowest levels of sea ice in the Arctic since our start of satellite observation. The melting of sea ice in the arctic means that our oceans will warm due to the lack of ice and the increase of water. As the water heats up, it expands and takes up more space, therefore pushing it’s way onto our land. Although sea ice is a large factor to the rising ocean levels, it is the ice sheets of Antartica and Greenland that truly contribute to the rise in our oceans. Much like an ice cube in a glass of water, the water will remain the same height even with the melting of the ice. However, ice sheets have land ice, meaning that they do not contribute to the ocean mass already. As the world heats up, the glaciers and ice masses outside of the water melts, and eventually finds it’s way to the oceans. As of now we have reached a 20 cm rise in ocean levels since 1880. By the end of the century, scientists predict a rise of about 0.5m to 1m.
A point that skeptics bring up in relation to sea level is the dip in sea rise that we saw in 2010. Critics of climate change stated that the sea rise wasn’t anything to worry about, because of the decrease during the 2010 year. What the critics didn’t mention though, was the mass flooding that occurred in Australia and Brazil during those times. As these areas received torrential amounts of rain, the land trapped the water from returning to the ocean. Normally, this amount of rain makes its way back to the ocean, but due to the location and dryness of the time, it was locked up in the ground. It took several months for it to seep back to the ocean, which is why we see a decline in our sea level during that year. Shortly after returning to normal, the oceans began to rise again and are now higher than they were prior to 2010. When dealing with climate change and science in general, it is important to include the entirety of evidence so that we don’t get focused on one detail which misrepresents the bigger picture.
Here’s more information including data on sea level rise:
If the scientists were correct in their 1m rise estimate by 2100, this would mean an end to many coastal cities around world. National Geographic states that if levels reach that high, it could cause “destructive erosion, flooding of wetlands, contamination of aquifers and agricultural soils, and lost habitat for fish, birds, and plants” (http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/critical-issues-sea-level-rise/).
Combatting the Climate Change
One of the most obvious ways to prevent climate change is the ways we can limit our CO2 emissions. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created restrictions on how much CO2 can be emitted from new natural gas or coal power plants. In the future, the EPA will limit coal plants to 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, compared to the 1,768 pounds on average today. For natural gas plants, the limit will be set to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour. It will be easier for natural gas plants to limit their CO2 output because natural gas on average creates less CO2. The modern combined-cycle gas plant already meets this new standard on CO2 emissions for natural gas, so it will be mostly coal plants that struggle to decrease their carbon emissions. The plan for new coal plants is to embed systems that will allow the plant to capture emissions and store them underground. If future coal plants wish to meet the new standard, they will have to bury between 20-40% of their emissions. These systems are still in development and will likely cost millions for the coal plants to install, so likeliness of burying CO2 for all coal plants is slim. The recent boom in natural gases makes it illogical to build new coal plants at the moment as prices for oil will likely stay cheap for the coming two decades.
Although the NRC has placed most of its importance on the mitigation of green house gases they have suggested other ways to prevent Global Warming. The two other strategies that the National Research Council have put forth are: the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and, albedo modification. The removal of CO2 comes largely from reforestation projects which will aim to plant mass amounts of trees in order to absorb CO2. They also have suggested Iron Fertilization as a way of stimulating a growth in phytoplankton. Phytoplankton live on the surface of the ocean and absorb the CO2 around them in order to grow. Iron helps to stimulate phytoplankton growth, and would ignite an increase in phytoplankton population, as well as increase the amount of CO2 absorbed. The second way of reducing CO2 from our atmosphere lies in the reflection of sunlight in our upper atmosphere. Albedo Modification, also known as Solar Radiation Management, is the manipulation of sunlight that reaches the earth. Scientists have suggested the injection of sulfate aerosols into our stratosphere to reflect sunlight and prevent it from warming our earth. Because this solution does not address the the acidity of our oceans (due to increased levels of CO2), albedo modification is seen as a quick fix and not as a long term answer to global warming.
The first step in tackling climate change is to push for an ultimate consensus on the situation, so that we may act swiftly in order to change our future. It is important to keep our observations and data about our environment accurate, in order to intelligently address the problems at hand. Whether you are a global warming skeptic or simply indifferent to the matter, the evidence is clear and available to the public. There is no denying that our response to climate change today will be crucial to the way we live our lives as humans on this planet in the future.