Heating Up: Truth About Global Warming
What is Global Warming?
Global warming is a term used to describe the increase in the average temperature of the oceans and atmosphere of the Earth. In particular, the time period that is most commonly referred to in discussions about global warming is the period from the late 1800's at the end of the Industrial Revolution, until now. The temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans has increased by almost one degree Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1800's, and most of that increase has occurred since the 1980s. Global warming is also related to the concept of climate change, in that has significant long-term effects on the Earth's environment. The effects of global warming upon the world's collective ecosystems could last for decades or even centuries. Global warming presents many challenges to human civilization, many of which are hazardous and potentially devastating in nature.
What Causes Global Warming?
There are a wide variety of factors that can cause global warming. Changes in the sun, such as increased solar luminosity, could result in global warming, as could changes in the Earth's orbit. Natural factors within the Earth's atmosphere, such as the prevalence of water vapor, can also contribute to higher temperatures. Scientific studies have shown, however, that the majority of global warming is due to the greenhouse effect. Most scientists agree that it is largely due to anthropogenic, or human-induced factors, particularly in the form of various greenhouse gases that human activities are releasing into the atmosphere.
When it comes to human-induced global warming, the factors involved are numerous. The burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas, are major contributors to the rise in global temperatures. In addition, people and industries are burning wood and cutting down trees, also known as deforestation. Trees and plants are carbon sinks, which means that they trap or sequester carbon dioxide and prevent large amounts of it from going back into the atmosphere. When they die or are burned, this carbon dioxide is released. The heating and melting of glaciers also releases greenhouse gases such as methane. Human activities that contribute to global warming include but aren't limited to agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, energy production, mining, and logging.
Of particularly great concern to scientists is the possibility of runaway global warming. This could happen if the world's environment reaches a tipping point where increasing temperatures will rise beyond the ability of human technology to control. This could be achieved by the melting of glacier ice, which releases methane that causes the Earth's atmosphere to heat up even faster than the carbon dioxide being released by factories. This would lead to more glaciers melting and more methane entering the atmosphere, causing a feedback loop and a self-sustaining process of climate change that could be catastrophic.
What is the Greenhouse Effect?
The term "greenhouse effect" is a term that was first invented by Joseph Fourier in the early 19th century. It describes the way in which climate temperatures rise as a result of certain gases absorbing atmospheric heat, or thermal radiation, and reflecting portions of it back to the surface of the planet in question, in this case Earth. It is similar in effect a physical greenhouse in that it serves to trap heat in the atmosphere and prevent it from radiating back out into space. Simply put, the greenhouse effect keeps Earth's atmosphere and oceans warmer than it would be without this process being in place. To some extent, it is necessary for human life and other complex life to survive, but in excess, it can make a planet unable to support any known life. For example, the greenhouse effect is why the surface of the planet Venus is hotter than Mercury. Mercury much closer to the sun than Venus, but the atmosphere of Venus consists of 96 percent carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and it traps heat so efficiently that the average surface temperature of Venus is 460 C (860 F), which is hot enough to melt lead.
What are Greenhouse Gases?
Greenhouse gases are gases that help to trap heat in a planet's atmosphere. There are many types of gases that meet this description, however the major ones are various types of fluorocarbons, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and ozone. Carbon dioxide levels are now estimated to be at nearly 400 PPM, or parts per million, and its potency as a greenhouse gas, also known as its global warming potential (GWP), is 1.
Methane is 72 times more effective as a greenhouse gas over a period of 20 years than carbon dioxide, which means its GWP is 72, but its concentration in the Earth's atmosphere is 1.7 PPM. Nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times as powerful a heat-trapping gas as carbon dioxide, and its concentration levels are at 0.3 PPM. Some fluorocarbons rate as high as over ten thousand GWP, but their concentrations are quite low.
What is Global Warming Doing to the Environment?
At moderate levels, global warming can gradually put an end to an ice age, giving life time to adapt to the rising temperatures. In the modern age however, it is feared that global warming is moving so fast that many animals and plants cannot adapt. Polar bears, for instance, are facing a significant change in their habitat. With the thawing and melting of the ice platforms that they live on, they are being forced to swim more, putting them at greater risk for attack by killer whales. In addition, it reduces their access to food, which is causing them to face starvation. The average weight of polar bears has dropped as a result, as well as their populations.
The habitat destruction caused by global warming also includes the problem of rising water levels, which can result in flooding of lower-altitude lands. Because glaciers are also melting, particularly those on land, they are contributing water into the world's oceans and raising their water levels. For example, the island nation known as the Maldives has been steadily disappearing underwater due to rising global water levels. Rising water levels will also threaten coastal cities around the world, forcing mass relocations of millions of people around the world. Scientific estimates say that global water levels have risen almost 10 inches within the last 100 years.
The effects of global warming on habitats are also causing tropical diseases to expand into new areas. Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever thrive in warmer climates and are now being seen in new areas where they weren't seen before. Global warming is also enabling mosquitoes to move into new areas, spreading diseases to new populations of people. Ancient viruses and bacteria trapped inside glaciers might also emerge, devastating native plant and animal populations, and possibly even spreading to humans.
Weather patterns are also being affected by global warming. With the rise in ocean temperatures comes the increased threat of more floods, as well as an increase in the number and severity of windstorms, such as hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes. Global warming also leads to a rise in the number and severity of droughts, which affects farmlands and crop yields. The disastrous 2010 wildfire season in Russia, for instance, was caused by an extreme drought, combined with the hottest temperatures in Russia's history. The record heat wave and the smoke from the fires were responsible for the deaths of over 50,000 people. This also resulted in widespread crop failures in the region, along with billions of dollars in damage. On the other side of the world, it is credited for the record heat wave in Texas in 2011, along with widespread wildfires, the worst in the state's recorded history. Ultimately global warming could result in the rapid growth of deserts as heat waves and droughts destroy vegetation on a wide scale, while flooding sweeps other areas away.
As global warming contributes to the problem of droughts and famines, fights over access to food and drinkable water are likely to intensify. This will increase the risk of more wars breaking out over natural resources. The devastation of war, as well as its inherent drain on natural resources and its carbon footprint, could make things even worse. Ultimately, resource shortages could even spread to the industrialized world and spark civil wars in those regions.
While global warming won't reduce Earth to a Venus-like environment where lead melts on its surface, it could result in lesser, though quite devastating catastrophes. These include droughts, pandemics and famines, along with mass starvation. Between the wars that could break out as a result, the forced relocations of millions, the deaths from fires, pollution and outbreaks of dangerous weather, humanity could suffer a catastrophic die-off. Scientists agree that global warming, if unchecked, could easily rival an all-out nuclear war as a threat to humanity's very survival as a species.
What Can People Do to Stop Global Warming?
Individuals and societies alike can do many things to slow or stop global warming. The umbrella term for actions that people can take to fight climate change, is called sustainable living. Reducing one's carbon footprint is a phrase that is often used. This means to reduce the total amount of greenhouse gases that are released in order to sustain one's life and standard of living. In the United States, the average person's carbon footprint is between 10,000 and 21,000 pounds of carbon dioxide produced per year to sustain their current lifestyle. The ultimate goal of one who wishes to eliminate their contribution of carbon dioxide is to achieve a carbon-neutral lifestyle in which one contributes no carbon dioxide. Another option is to live a carbon-negative lifestyle, which means their activities result in a net reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
One important step that people can take to fight global warming is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that they use. Reducing one's usage of gasoline is a major contribution in the fight against global warming. This can be achieved by carpooling, taking public transportation, moving closer to work, driving fewer miles, buying a hybrid or electric vehicle, or even walking and riding a bicycle in place of driving. In addition, people can purchase items, such as food, from local sources. Thisreduces the need for trucks that use fossil fuels when transporting goods from afar.
Most electricity in the United States and other nations is produced by coal-fired power plants, which generate a major portion of humanity's greenhouse gas production in the process. People can cut down on global warming by being more energy efficiency. Switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, installing energy-efficient appliances, turning off electrical devices that aren't in use, and taking shorter showers, are examples of ways to reduce one's usage of electricity, and thus one's carbon footprint. In addition, homeowners can install solar power systems to help reduce their dependence upon power plants. Solar power generates electricity without burning fossil fuels, and while it has a high up-front cost, it is free to operate after it is purchased. In addition, solar power is becoming more efficient; the nation of Germany currently generates up to 50 percent of its power with solar energy on some days, or 20 percent overall.
Reducing one's consumption of natural resources is another major method of curbing global warming. Reusing paper, glass, and various metals, would remove over 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, per person. Buying goods that use less packaging would result in over a 1,200 pound reduction an individual's yearly carbon footprint. In addition, putting natural resources back in the world can help, such as planting a tree, each of which will sequester, or remove, 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Individuals can use the power of their vote to influence politicians to pursue policies that stop or reduce global warming. Activists can work to raise awareness of not only the dangers of global warming, but also ways to reduce, eliminate or reverse it. At the same time, people can also vote with their wallets by buying products that require a lower carbon footprint to produce. This will also require consumers to research products and their manufacturers to not only find eco-friendly products, but also make sure that their eco-friendly claims are in fact legitimate.
What is the Government Doing to Stop Global Warming?
While much of the responsibility of curbing global warming lies with individuals, there are many things that governments can do and are doing to help. Switching from power plants running on fossil fuels such as coal and oil, to nuclear power, is one major way a government can reduce their nation's carbon footprint. While fossil fuel power plants constitute the largest source of power in the world, nuclear power plants generate far more electricity per facility. Even further steps can be taken by governments to move toward renewable, carbon-neutral power sources like hydroelectric, wind, or solar power. While all power plants have a carbon footprint associated with their construction, these three sources of power generate no greenhouse gases during their operation. Germany is already taking the lead when it comes to moving to solar energy, with more solar power generated within its borders than the rest of the world combined.
Governments can also encourage the use of public transportation and the use of fuel-efficient cars. China, Japan and much of Europe employ high-speed rail lines, in which commuter trains use electricity and magnetism to achieve speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. Cheap access to buses, and efficient bus routes that cover an entire city will also encourage people to avoid using cars. Certain governments are also giving subsidies to companies that produce electric or gas-electric hybrid cars, as well as rebates to customers who buy them. Some governments also subsidize solar power, and give rebates to people who buy solar panels.
Governments can also mandate higher fuel efficiency by manufacturers of automobiles, as well as reduced emissions requirements for cars, power plants and factories. A global effort to fight the usage of chlorofluorocarbons, which were once a potentially major source of greenhouse gases, has led to a drastic reduction of their presence in the atmosphere. They can also invest in funding to produce more efficient solar power, and other sources of energy that produce no greenhouse gases. Advanced countries could also offer their technology to developing nations, which are more likely to rely on older style technology that has a higher carbon footprint. Ultimately, the most important thing governments can do to reduce global warming, is to make it more affordable to citizens to participate in its reduction. This includes tax breaks and subsidies for eco-friendly products and transportation options, while also levying taxes on various human activities that contribute to the greenhouse effect.
By Rae Eriksen