Climate Change
The Environmental eZine - Global Warming



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What is Climate Change?

Source: The Icarus Foundation, The Climate Change Challenge - March 2008.

Climate Change is caused by the build-up of carbon dioxide and other particulates that prevent some of the sun’s warming rays from being reflected back out of earth’s atmosphere. The burning of carbon-based fuels, notably wood, coal, and oil generates “greenhouse gases” – so-called because their dispersal throughout the upper atmosphere creates a layer that traps the heat from the sun close to earth.

Approximately 7 billion metric tons enters the atmosphere each year from human activity. Some of that CO2 is absorbed by vegetation and soils that generate oxygen as a by-product; some is stored in the oceans, but not all. As a consequence, every year the concentration of CO2 and other green house gases increases and the heat from the sun’s rays is trapped within our atmosphere slowly increasing average global temperatures.

Between 1970 and 2004, global emissions of CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs and SF6 have increased by 70% to 49 Giga tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents such that the current concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is equivalent to 430 parts per million by volume – expressed as 430 ppm CO2e.

The rate at which greenhouse gases are emitted is accelerating and, without mitigation, can be expected to continue to increase as such populous, rapidly developing nations as China, India, Russia and Brazil embark on their own industrialization and while many developed countries show no sign of extinguishing their appetite for fossil fuels.

CO2 Emissions and Concentrations Chart

The average temperature of the earth has increased by 0.8 degrees Centigrade since the beginning of the industrial revolution (i.e. from 1860-2004). According to the National Academy of Sciences, the data suggests that the planet as a whole, is within 1 degree C of the maximum temperature experienced on the planet over the past one million years.

In 2005, the concentration of carbon dioxide exceeded the range that has existed over 650,000 years. Eleven of the warmest years since instrumental records have been kept occurred during the last 12 years and therefore climate change is accelerating. In the 20th century, the increase in average temperature was 0.74 degrees centigrade; sea level increased by 17 cm and a large part of the Northern hemisphere snow cover vanished. Some regions are more vulnerable than others – the Arctic region, for example, is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

The global warming of the past 100 or so years has already resulted in:

A. More extreme weather patterns (too hot, cold, dry or wet for some);

B. Less predictability

C. Melting of ice in polar regions and the retreat of glaciers in alpine regions;

D. Variable and unpredictable snowfall reductions in areas that have supported winter tourism activities (snowfall in the Alps has halved over past 30 years); Year after year ski rental figures go down as temperatures go up.

E. Desertification (the world’s tropical forests are disappearing at the rate of 13 million hectares a year – that is an amount equivalent to the size of Greece);

F. Unusual flooding and increasing storms.

Until relatively recently (the last 3-5 years), there was no scientific consensus that the planet was warming and that this increase in average temperature was caused by human activity. Now the evidence of warming is indisputable although some still argue that its cause may be more due to natural cycles than human activity. While changes in average temperature have occurred on several occasions in the past, they took place over much longer time frames (from thousands to millions of years) giving species time to evolve and adapt. Meta changes are now occurring within decades.

The scientific community is unable to predict with absolute certainty the precise level of future increases in average temperature. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has suggests that continued emissions will lead to a further warming of between 1.8 and 4.0 Centigrade.

The relatively wide range of the forecasts reflects the unknown relationship between various causative factors: continued human use of fossil fuels, the climate’s own sensitivity to changes in CO2 concentration; the synergistic impact of CO2 combined with other gases; the effect of sea level rises, de-forestation and changing levels of freshwater absorbed in the ocean; and the extent to which the global community reduces its emissions. While the ranges are wide, warming at some level is inevitable. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to cease today, the inertia of the system is such that warming will continue for several decades based on the gases already released and accumulating in the atmosphere and will increase average temperatures by 1.4 degrees C.

Higher Emissions leads to Higher Temperatures Chart

Climate change may not always be gradual. Systematic average temperature rises can increase the probability of crossing a critical threshold and triggering an abrupt change in climate.

Major events such as the collapse of the western Antarctic Ice Sheet; the melting of the Greenland ice sheet; the shut-down of warm water currents such as the Gulf Stream; the destabilization of methane hydrates that exist below the continental shelf; and the declining ability of the biosphere to continue to absorb significant amounts of CO2 could individually, let alone in combination, trigger abrupt and meta changes that could persist for centuries or millennia. For example, many scientists are concerned that the IPCC forecasts have not recognized the speed with which the Greenland ice sheet is melting.

Furthermore, current levels of scientific knowledge are insufficient to predict the precise ways in which such increases in average temperature will be expressed in changing climates and weather patterns. The earth is now recognized as a highly complex, adaptive, organic system with every system being connected to and affected by every other. Scientists do not know the precise nature of those inter-dependent relationships – their scale, or direction and speed with which changes can occur. We are entering an Age of Massive Uncertainty and Volatility whereby seemingly small events can have huge and unpredictable consequences for the systems in which they occur.

One of the major factors in Global Warming is the emissions that come from the vehicles that we drive around daily. As a result of this many car companies are making serious efforts to lower the environmental impact that their cars have. BMW and Mercedes are two of these companies making changes to their vehicles. There are now special BMW parts that help to control the emissions from their cars. Which makes a big difference when compared to the emissions released from the old classic Cadillac models. You also see many of these companies making more fuel efficient hybrid models while many car owners are taking matters into their own hands by making their cars run off of biodiesel. They can do this to their mercedes by changing out some of the Mercedes parts for their new biodesiel fuel systems. It is efforts like these and the awareness of the people that may help us through these uncertain times.

WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN IF THE EARTH CONTINUES TO WARM?

The National Academy of Sciences concludes that global warming of a further 1 degree centigrade relative to 2000, will constitute “dangerous” climate change as a result of rising sea levels and extermination of species. The Stern Review (a comprehensive examination of the economic costs of climate change conducted for the UK Government) states that at present rates of greenhouse gas accumulation “there is at least a 77% chance – and perhaps up to a 99% chance, depending on the climate model used – of a global average temperature rise exceeding 2 degrees C.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has been researching this phenomenon since the mid 1980s and that has become the primary source of climate change data also considers the 2 degree figure a major threshold with the consequences for human life on this planet, which, if it is exceeded, is considered “dangerous”. While the effects of such an increase would not be experienced in equal measure across the planet, the overall impacts of such an increase would clearly be devastating for the global tourism sector:

  • Rising sea levels will flood large areas of land rendering them uninhabitable for humans. Given that the 30% of the world’s 6 billion people live within 100 km of an ocean and many more live on floodplains, the dislocation in humanitarian, social and economic terms will be enormous.

  • Rising sea levels will introduce salt into the natural water supply reducing the productive capacity of agricultural land long before it is flooded. Many small island states will experience partial if not total, catastrophic flooding due to rising sea levels and the increasing frequency of storms.

  • The glaciers that occur in mountain ranges (e.g., the Andes, Himalayas, Rockies) act as huge sponges soaking up and storing moisture that is released slowly to the plains below where much of humanity resides. Their melting and drying will result in a combination of flash flooding and extreme droughts. On September 24th, the Chairman of the IPCC told invitees to a UN Conference that the melting of glaciers could negatively impact some 500 million people in South Asia, 250 million people in China and between 75-250 million affected in Africa

  • Changing climatic patterns, combined with increased human activity, are destroying the habitats that support other forms of life. In many ecosystems, we do not even know what species we are losing, as mankind has yet to discover all known forms of life and their contributions to other species. 20-30% of all plant and animal species risk extinction if global average temperature exceeds 1.5-2.5 degrees centigrade. Many charismatic species at the top of their food chain and of greatest interest to international travelers such as lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, bear, whales, primates, are already at risk from expanding cities, agriculture, mining, poaching etc. Climate change exacerbates the problem and speeds their extinction.

  • 95% of all coral reefs will die and Mediterranean, Baltic and US wetlands would suffer. The Amazon rainforest would suffer irreversible decline; China’s boreal forests, Canada’s low arctic tundra and the Russian Coastal tundra would face 70-80% losses. Even at today’s average temperature, half the coral in the Caribbean has disappeared and the great barrier Reef that supports a tourism industry generating some 4 billion dollars (Cdn $ equivalent) in value is under threat.

  • The number of people at risk of hunger would triple and 1.5-2.4 billion additional people would be at risk from water shortages, while an additional 275 million people would be exposed to health threats and 30 million additional people would be at risk from coastal flooding. For every 1 degree rise in the Tropics, crop yields there could decline by as much as 10%

  • The British economist, Sir Nicolas Stern has estimated that without drastic mitigation, i.e. if humanity proceeds on a “business as usual” basis, climate change will reduce welfare by an amount equivalent to a reduction in consumption per head of between 5 and 20%. It is for this reason that Stern observes: “climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen…Our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and economic depression of the first half of the 20th Century”.
  • It is not as if humanity cannot afford the costs of mitigation and avoidance. The IPCC currently estimates that the cost to stabilize emissions and avoid the 2 degree increase in global average temperature will cost the world less than 3% of the GDP in the year 2030. This means that the prosperity that we would normally achieve by 2030 may be postponed by a few months at the most. It is not a question of affordability but a question of priorities, vision and political will. The cost of stabilizing climate must be seen as an investment, the price of which compares favorably to other investment decisions. Three percent of global GDP in 2007 equals $1.8 trillion – an amount only slightly higher than the $1.6 trillion spent by one country (the United States) on the war with Afghanistan and Iraq and considerably lower than the $22 trillion that the International Energy Authority believes is required to build the infrastructure necessary to cope with rises in global energy demand.

    HOW LIKELY IS IT THAT SUCH WARMING WILL OCCUR?

    The plain and short answer is sadly: Very likely. The IEA World Energy Outlook 2007 states that on current energy trends, CO2 emissions will increase 55% between 2004 and 2030. This means that, without strenuous and urgent mitigation actions over the next 20 years, we will be committing the planet to an average increase of between 0.5 and 2.0 degrees centigrade relative to today by 2050 and possibly earlier. Given that the mid-point of that range creates “dangerous” conditions, it is not surprising that climate change has been described as the greatest threat to humanity in our history as a species.

    See Also

    Climate Change will effect Economy

    The Theory of Rapid Climate Change

    Climate Change, Food Shortages and Overpopulation

    Australian Drought - Climate Change

    Military Leaders step up to Fight Global Warming

    North America preparing for Environmental Change

    Global Warming in Russia & the North Atlantic

    Ancient ice shelf snaps free from Canada

    Global Warming: Hurricanes in Europe?

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