Warming Up on Global Warming: Are We Still Up to Curb It?
As the dominant species on earth, human beings have been heralded for our power to control, manipulate, and alter our surroundings. To a large extent, we have learned to use the natural resources of the planet for our own benefit. But in doing so, we have also created a host of environmental problems. For a long time, many of these problems went unrecognized. However, with the growth of technology and industry, the problems became more and more obvious. Even then, many preferred to ignore what was happening to our environment, attributing it to the price of progress. In any case, there seemed to be no way of correcting many of the problems.
Today, more and more people are becoming aware of the negative impact human activity has had on the environment. Many of the negative changes that have occurred did not have to happen. Certainly, most do not have to keep getting worse. We can no longer plead ignorance about how many of our activities affect the world in which we live. We also are increasingly recognizing our responsibility toward protecting the environment and preserving our natural resources for future generations.
Nobody can deny the fact that the trend of global warming or climate change has become ominously dangerous to all living creatures. The earth’s temperature has been climbing up steadily, with changes occurring in land and sea temperatures all over the world. Whether or not human beings are the cause of this climate change is what many in the scientific and business community are debating. Most scientists agree that human activities, mainly the use of fossil fuels and the clearing of land, are the main culprit for the dramatic climate changes that are taking place. The other argument is that climate change is a naturally occurring process and that there is no solid evidence that human activities are the reason for the climate change. Man-made or not, global warming is an important issue that needs to be addressed. The delicate balance of nature is in jeopardy, and no one knows exactly what the deleterious results would wield to us.
For the past two centuries, at an accelerating rate, the basic composition of the Earth’s atmosphere has been materially altered by the fossil-fuel wastes of the arising machine culture. Human-induced warming of the Earth’s climate is emerging as one of the major scientific, social, and economic issues of the twenty-first century, as the effects of climate change become evident in everyday life in locations as varied as small island nations of the Pacific Ocean and the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Growth in industry, agriculture, and transportation since the Industrial Revolution has produced additional quantities of the natural greenhouse gases plus chlorofluorocarbons and other gases, augmenting the thermal blanket. It is generally accepted that this increase in the quantity of greenhouse gases is trapping more heat and increasing global temperatures, making a process that has been beneficial to life potentially disruptive and harmful.
Since 1896, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first proposed the theory that carbon emissions from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels could create a “greenhouse effect” by trapping solar heat in the atmosphere, leading to global warming (Hunter et al., 2002). This was further verified in the late 19th century when global temperatures have risen approximately 1 degree Fahrenheit (F) (about 0.6 degrees Celsius (C)), with greater increases of about 1.4 degrees F (about 0.8 degrees C) in the Northern latitudes. Because global warming reduces ice and snow cover, which previously reflected solar radiation back into space, and increases the amount of bare soft, which absorbs more radiation and heat, the most dramatic increases have occurred in the northern polar areas–increases ranging from 3.6 to 5.4 degrees F (2 to 3 degrees C) in approximately one century (Hodas, 2003). Furthermore, polar winter season temperatures have risen even faster, with increases ranging from 7 to 9 degrees F (3.9 to 5 degrees C) higher in some areas of the Arctic between 1954 and 2004 (Pegg, 2004).
Some projected, longer-term results of global warming include melting of polar ice, with a resulting rise in sea level and coastal flooding; disruption of drinking water supplies dependent on snow melts; profound changes in agriculture due to climate change; extinction of species as ecological niches disappear; more frequent tropical storms; and an increased incidence of tropical diseases. Among factors that may be contributing to global warming are the burning of coal and petroleum products (sources of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone); deforestation, which increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; methane gas released in animal waste; and increased cattle production, which contributes to deforestation, methane production, and use of fossil fuels (“Global Warming,” 2004).
Recently, there is more evidence that global warming is indeed accelerating, with the most rapid increases occurring since 1976. The decade of the 1990s was the warmest decade since meteorologists began the first systematic effort to keep formal worldwide temperature records in the 1860s, and probably the warmest decade in the last thousand years in the Northern Hemisphere. The year 1998 was the warmest year ever recorded, and the years 2002 and 2003 are tied as the second warmest years (Mank, 2005).
Melting Ice Caps, Rising Sea Levels
According to Bill Sherwonit (2004), extensive global warming is reshaping the Southeast Panhandle to its far northern reaches in the Alaska’s landscape. Glaciers and sea ice are rapidly melting, boreal forests are being transformed by unprecedented insect outbreaks, permafrost is diminishing, lakes are drying up, Arctic tundra is giving way to woodlands, and coastal areas are being eaten away by fierce storms. As a consequence, many of the state’s inhabitants – both human and non-human – are being forced to adapt to new living conditions. That is the reason why, more and more of that evidence is being collected by legions of Alaskan researchers, and it is being experienced first-hand by residents. Among those most directly affected are the Inupiat Eskimos of Alaska’s northern coasts, where rising sea levels, thawing permafrost, and increasingly severe storm surges are eroding the ground beneath several villages.
In connection, during the 1990s, the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (which comprises about a quarter of the Earth’s largest mass of frozen water) became a subject of intense scientific inquiry. A vibrant debate has grown up regarding the future of the ice sheet, with assurances of stability on one side, and speculation of future collapse on the other. A report issued by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) during 1991 asserted that melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is unlikely, “and virtually impossible before the end of the next century” (National Academy 1991, 23). According to climate models used in this report, several centuries of rising temperatures will be required before the ice sheet disintegrates.
The melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice will do more than inconvenience coastal urban dwellers. Melting is already destroying an ecosystem built around sea ice. A report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute sketches the vital role of sea ice in polar ecosystems:
Sea ice is fundamental to polar ecosystems: it provides a platform for many marine mammals and penguins to hunt, escape predators, and breed…. Its edges and undersides provide vital surfaces for the growth of algae that forms the base of the polar food web. In areas with seasonal ice cover, spring blooms of phytoplankton occur at ice edges as the ice cover melts, boosting productivity early in the season. But sea ice is diminishing in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. As this area diminishes, so does the food available to each higher level on the web, from zooplankton to seabirds. Higher temperatures predicted under climate change will further diminish ice cover, with open water occurring in areas previously covered by ice, thereby diminishing the very basis of the polar food web (Mathews-Amos and Berntson 1999).
Reduced ice cover changes the Earth’s albedo (reflectivity), which could become a factor in global warming, causing the earth to absorb more solar energy, as ice and snow (which reflect 75 percent or more of incoming sunlight) is replaced by bare soil, which reflects 10 to 25 percent. Ice and snow, in some cases, may be replaced by liquid seawater, which reflects 10 to 70 percent of incoming sunlight, depending on the sun’s angle (Petit, 2000).
Perhaps most disturbing consequence of global warming is the sea-level rise. Water expands with increasing temperature, causing the sea level to rise accordingly. The best evidence from observations gives a mean global sea-level rise over the twentieth century of at least one foot, corresponding to the approximately one-degree Fahrenheit mean global temperature rise. Many of the world’s glaciers are also retreating and very few are growing. Jordan (2005) noted that if greater warming should induce significant melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (anchored in the ocean below sea level) or, worse, a significant part of the Greenland Ice Cap, the rise in sea level could exceed twenty feet or more. The effect on major coastal cities, if warming continues, is likely to become significant by the end of the twenty-first century and will be disastrous or even catastrophic if the warming exceeds moderate increases of a few degrees Fahrenheit.
The accusing finger points at the human activities producing greenhouse gases (GHGs), most notably carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels, are causing global warming both in the United States and throughout the world. There is evidence that global warming has already caused the average global sea level to rise between four and eight inches during the last 100 years and that the seas are now rising at one tenth of an inch per year. Many scientists believe that global warming will cause serious environmental and human health impacts if the world continues to burn large quantities of fossil fuels, increasing GHG levels (Climate Change Report, 2001).
There will be many other damaging effects of sea-level rise. The global ocean-circulation “conveyor belt” is known to be highly sensitive to temperature and salinity, resulting in so-called thermohaline circulation. Some observations suggest that the Gulf Stream, on which northwestern Europe is critically dependent, may be slowing down due to the reduced density of Arctic seawater. This water is becoming fresher from the more rapid melting of the Arctic Ice Sheet and is thus less density driven to sink into the deep ocean, providing a major driving force for the circulation at high northern latitudes. Sea-level rise will also flood many coastal wetlands critical to certain human activities and many forms of wildlife. While tough-minded “realists” may scoff at the importance of songbirds in the United States, they need to consider the role these birds play in controlling insect pests. Flooding the low-lying swamps of southern Louisiana will ensure a precipitous drop in the numbers of insectivorous migrating songbirds that are critically dependent on this area for food after their long spring migration back to North America (Jordan, 2005).
Thus, the issue of global warming initiates the melting of ice caps and increasing sea levels are not the dangers alone, but the consequences that these phenomenon brings could be as devastating.
Global Warning on Global Warming
Global Warming gained prominence when an article from the British journal Nature on May 3, 1979 announced that “The release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels is, conceivably, the most important environmental issue in the world today” (Bernard 1993, 6). At about the same time, a study conducted by a scientific team chaired by meteorologist Jule Charney estimated that doubling the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere would raise the average global temperatures by about three degrees C, plus or minus 1.5 degrees C. Four years later, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released a report, “Can We Delay a Greenhouse Warming.” A National Academy of Sciences report, also issued in 1983, stated, “We do not believe that the evidence at hand about CO2-induced climate change would support steps to change current fuel-use patterns away from fossil fuels” (Pomerance 1989, 261).
In the US, the global warming emerged as a significant global political issue in 1988. NASA scientist James Hansen’s statement to the US Congress that ‘it is time to stop waffling so much. We should say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here’ (quoted in Pearce 1989, p. 1) has often been taken as a defining moment. This came on the back of the biggest drought in the US since the 1930s, as well as freak weather patterns across the world, and the realisation that the six hottest years on record were in the 1980s. These events made claims by scientists such as Hansen about possible global warming increasingly plausible (Paterson, 1996, p. 1).
Hansen also continued a running battle during the Reagan and Bush administrations, to call the science of global warming as he saw it, despite repeated threats to the funding of the Goddard Institute. The Office of Management and Budget forced Hansen to censor the severity of his findings several times. The pressure was so intense that Hansen sometimes asked to testify as a private citizen rather than as a federal employee (Hansen, 1989).
In the meantime, the scientific debate over global warming was intensifying. By the end of 1988, the United Nations General Assembly had approved the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A year later, Hansen said that it was “time to cry wolf”:
When is the proper time to cry wolf? Must we wait until the prey, in this case the world’s environment, is mangled by the wolf’s grip? The danger of crying too soon, which much of the scientific community fears, is that a few cool years may discredit the whole issue. But I believe that decision-makers and the man-in-the-street can be educated about natural climate variability…. A greater danger is to wait too long. The climate system has great inertia, so as yet we have realized only a part of the climate change which will be caused by gases we have already added to the atmosphere. Add to this the inertia of the world’s energy, economic, and political systems, which will affect any plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although I am optimistic that we can still avoid the worst-case climate scenarios, the time to cry wolf is here (Nance 1991, 267–268).
Undeniably, the United States is a major contributor of GHGs, especially from coal-burning power plants. In 1998, the United States produced approximately 24 percent of the world’s emissions of CO2, more than any other country. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that between 1990 and 2001, the United States’ GHG emissions grew by 12 percent, with between 81 and 84 percent of the total U.S. GHG emissions as CO2 (US EPA, 2005).
Debates regarding the greenhouse effect intensified when temperature readings in 1990 eclipsed the record warmth of 1988. During the 1992 presidential campaign in the United States, candidate Bill Clinton criticized the Bush administration’s refusal to join in worldwide diplomatic efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Clinton’s first budget proposed a carbon tax, a measure that was quickly dropped under pressure from Republicans in Congress. In Congress, the carbon tax died in committee. Meanwhile, a Climate Convention signed by 161 countries at the Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, during 1992, contained a directive, in Article 2, favoring stabilization of greenhouse gases “at levels and on a time scale that do not produce unacceptable damage to ecosystems and that allow for sustainable economic development” (Woodwell, Biotic Feedbacks in the Global Climate System, 1995, v).
Later in the decade, 1995 became the warmest year, followed by 1997, and 1998. During most of these years, The Southern Oscillation (El Niño) weather pattern (called “ENSO” in climate-change literature) was an important factor in world weather. The ENSO involves a marked warming of the tropical ocean off the west coast of South America. The pattern occurred more often during the 1990s than at any time for the century and a half during which detailed worldwide weather records have been available. Some atmospheric scientists have asserted that the ENSO was associated with a gradual warming of the lower atmosphere during most of the twentieth century. In 1996, Kevin E. Trenberth and Timothy J. Hoar of the National Center for Atmospheric Research pointed out that El Niño periods had occurred more frequently in the 1980s and 1990s than during the previous century (Christianson 1999, 224).
Clearly, things need to be done internationally to have some grip on the global warming issue. Countries need to unite and formulate laws that would hamper the deleterious effects of the global warming and regulate the human activities that cause damage to our ozone layer.
International Discussion on Global Warming
Much of the debate surrounding global warming has centered on the accuracy of scientific predictions concerning future warming. To predict global climatic trends, climatologists accumulate large historical databases and use them to create computerized models that simulate the earth’s climate. The validity of these models has been a subject of controversy. Skeptics say that the climate is too complicated to be accurately modeled, and that there are too many unknowns. Some also question whether the observed climate changes might simply represent normal fluctuations in global temperature.
For some time there has been general agreement that at least part of the observed warming is the result of human activity, and that the problem needs to be addressed. In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, over 150 nations signed a binding declaration on the need to reduce global warming. The United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization jointly established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “to assess scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation,” with the goal of producing a new assessment approximately every five years. IPCC issued its First Assessment Report of climate change in 1990 and its Second Assessment Report in 1995. Each assessment has found stronger evidence that human activities significantly contribute to global warming, and has led to increased international efforts to establish treaties to regulate GHGs (Carey, 2004).
In 2001, IPCC issued its Third Assessment Report (Report), which concluded that “there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” The Report found that the increasing concentration of CO2 is the single most important factor in this warming. Carbon dioxide is the most abundant of the GHGs and can remain in the atmosphere from decades to centuries. Scientists have found that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution in approximately 1750, to 360 ppm by 2000.
By 2004, the level of CO2 was between 370 to 380 ppm. These levels have not been exceeded in at least 420,000 years and may be equal to the highest CO2 concentrations for the last 20 million years. The Report found that approximately three quarters of the anthropogenic emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere during the past 20 years result from fossil fuel burning of oil and coal. Most of the remaining increase in CO2 concentrations is caused by human land-use changes, especially deforestation caused by human activities including excessive logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and urbanization.
The UN scientific advisory panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that reductions beyond those envisioned by the treaty would be needed to avoid global warming in 1994. The following year, the advisory panel forecast a rise in global temperature of from 1.44 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8–3.5 degrees Celsius) by 2100 if no action is taken to cut down on the production of greenhouse gases, and a rise of from 1 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5–2 degrees Celsius) even if action is taken (because of already released gases that will persist in the atmosphere).
A UN Conference on Climate Change, held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 resulted in an international agreement to fight global warming, which called for reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases by industrialized nations. Not all industrial countries, however, immediately signed or ratified the accord.
However, newly elected President Bush strongly rejected the Kyoto Protocol and any mandatory regulation of GHGs despite his campaign promise in 2000 to support mandatory reductions in GHGs. Since 2001, the Bush Administration has primarily committed to research about the causes of climate change, and its Climate VISION program has encouraged voluntary reductions by industry in the amount of GHGs released. In its 2002 Climate Action Report to the United Nations required by the Framework Convention, change was a significant problem, but also argued that the United States should not adopt changes that could harm the U.S. economy and instead contended that the government should research more efficient ways to reduce GHGs. Instead of reducing GHG emissions compared to a baseline year, e.g., 1990, the Bush Administration seeks to reduce the ratio of GHGs to total gross domestic product by making the economy at least 18 percent more energy efficient. That approach, however, will still result in a total increase in GHG levels because of economic and population growth. Despite the American move, most other nations agreed later in the year (in Bonn, Germany, and in Marrakech, Morocco) on the details necessary to convert the agreement into a binding international treaty.
Alternative solutions that are being considered are improved automobile mileage for vehicles, reforestation projects, energy efficiency in construction, and national support for mass transit are among relatively simpler adjustments that could significantly lower U.S. production of greenhouse gases. More aggressive adjustments include a gradual worldwide shift away from the use of fossil fuels, the elimination of chlorofluorocarbons, and the slowing of deforestation by restructuring the economies of developing nations. In 2002, the Bush administration proposed several voluntary measures for slowing the increase in, instead of reducing, emissions of greenhouses gases.
If the global warming trend continues, the results could be depressing indeed: melting polar ice along with thermal expansion of the oceans could raise the sea level, flooding coastal cities, and many agricultural landscapes could dry out, becoming deserts. And yet, as the class studied the issue further, we learned that the news is not all bad. The nations of the world have already taken collective action to solve one global atmospheric problem: depletion of the ozone layer. Global warming, is a different and a bigger problem, but scientists have already come together to measure, understand the causes of, and set goals for reducing the rate at which it occurs.
It is obvious that this issue should no longer be ignored because of the unknown negative consequences of global warming. Corporations that benefit from an economy dependent on the industries that support it have a huge influence on how this issue is portrayed in the media, and how it will be addressed and most likely ignored by the government. It is not in the best interests of these extremely wealthy companies to seek alternatives to their technologies that produce greenhouse gases, and destroy the environment, because it will severely cut into their profits. These corporations have too long benefited from the ignorance of the masses, the compliance of the government, and the abuse of the earth’s natural resources.
Everyone should do their share in preventing global warming from getting worse. The government and other international organization should not be complacent about this issue because many studies have proven that sooner or later we will feel the negative consequences of global warming, the greenhouse effect and the depletion of our ozone layer. It is about time we act as the dominant species on earth, human beings should put a stop on activities that endanger our very existence. Fact is, we only have one planet to live in and it is our sublime task to care of it in order for us to continue and enjoy the benefits of acquiring its resources.
Bernard, Harold W., Jr. Global Warming: Signs to Watch For. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Carey, John et al., Global Wanning, Bus Week, Aug. 16, 2004, p. 60-63
Christianson, Gale E. Greenhouse: The 200-Year Story of Global Warming. New York: Walker and Company, 1999.
Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change Website. Available online last Jan 31, 2006 at http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/index.htm.
Dep’t of Energy, Climate VISION–Voluntary Innovative Sector Initiatives: Opportunities Now, Available online last Jan 31, 2006 at http://www.climatevision.gov
Global Warming. The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2004.
Healy, J.K. ; Tapick, J.M. Climate Change: It’s Not Just a Policy Issue for Corporate Counsel–It’s a Legal Problem, J. Envtl. Law. 29: 89, p. 96 (2004)
Hodas, David R. State Law Responses to Global Warming: Is it Constitutional to Think Globally and Act Locally, 21 Pace Envtl L Rev. 53, 61 (2003)
Hunter, David et al. International Environmental Law and Policy, 2nd ed. 2002
Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Dec. 10, 1997, art. 3.1, 37 I.L.M. 22: 33 (1998).
Loftis, Randy Lee. The Green Vote; Where Bush and Kerry Stand on Environmental Issues, Seattle Times, Apr. 23, 2004, p. A3.
Mank, Bradford. “Standing and Global Warming: Is Injury to All Injury to None?.” Environmental Law 35.1 (2005)
Mathews-Amos, Amy ; Berntson, Ewann A. Turning up the Heat: How Global Warming Threatens Life in the Sea. World Wildlife Fund and Marine Conservation Biology Institute, 1999.
National Academy of Sciences. 1991. Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Paterson, Matthew. Global Warming and Global Politics. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Pearce, Fred. Turning Up The Heat, London: Paladin, 1989.
Pegg, J.R. The Earth is Melting, Arctic Native Leader Warns, Env’t News Service, Sept. 16, 2004.
Petit, Charles W. 2000. “Polar Meltdown: Is the Heat Wave on the Antarctic Peninsula a Harbinger of Global Climate Change?” U.S. News and World Report, 28 February, 64–74.
Pomerance, Rafe. “The Dangers From Climate Warming: A Public Awakening.” In Dean Edwin Abrahamson, ed., The Challenge of Global Warming. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1989, pp. 259–269.
Sherwonit, Bill. Alaskan Meltdown: On the Frontlines of Climate Change, Nat’l Parks, Available online last Jan 31, 2006 at http://www.npca.org/magazine/2004/summer/globalwarming.asp.
U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency. Global Warming-Emissions: Projections. Available online last Jan 31, 2006 http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/index.html
Woodwell, George M. “Biotic Feedbacks from the Warming of the Earth.” In George M. Woodwell and Fred T. MacKenzie, eds., Biotic Feedbacks in the Global Climate System: Will the Warming Feed the Warming? New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 3–21.