Climate Change

The consequences of dramatic climate change are uncertain in terms of specific impacts. This uncertainty is everyone’s concern. Some general effects, such as rising ocean levels, are known. Specific weather changes that are not yet known could occur abruptly. Many scientific, legal, and international debates are emerging with respect to this issue.

What Is Climate?

Climate is the total of all weather conditions over time.

The difference between climate and weather is specific: climate is average regional weather typically based on a 30-year period. Whether and to what extent there are seasonal changes and when they start and end determines climate. Amount of rainfall, hours of sun, prevailing wind patterns, and temperature are parts of what we call climate. The global warming controversy focuses on the speed of change in climate and the extent humans cause it and can remedy it.

When is climate change too fast or too abrupt? Differing viewpoints exist, however the National Oceanic and Aeronautics Administration (NOAA) notes that shifts historically taking centuries or longer that begin to occur more rapidly, in periods as short as decades, are characterized as “abrupt.” Scientists also have couched climate change in terms of effects on ecosystems and social systems and their ability to adapt to climatic shifts.

Science and Forecasting

Underlying the climate change issue is the matter of contested science. The scale is so large that until the advent of computers, climate change science was theoretical. Now there is consensus among scientists and engineers that climate change is driven by greenhouse gases. There is agreement, for example, that the sun provides about 344 watts of energy per square meter on average. Much of this energy comes in the part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to humans. The sun drives the earth’s weather and climate and heats the earth’s water and land surfaces. The earth radiates energy back into space through the atmosphere. Much of this is reradiated energy. Atmospheric gases—including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and particulate matter—exist in a very delicate and dynamic balance. They act like glass windows, letting heat in and holding in some of it to create what is called a greenhouse effect. Scientists can now observe atmospheric conditions further in the past by examining deeply embedded ice cores from old ice. Doing so has helped them to isolate the effects of human development on the atmosphere. This research also helped scientists pinpoint large catastrophic natural events in earth’s history.

Since as late as 1800, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased by almost 30 percent. With more carbon dioxide and warmer air, more moisture develops in the atmosphere and increases warming trends. Methane concentrations have more than doubled. Nitrous oxide concentrations have risen by about 15 percent. Increases on this scale have enhanced the heat-trapping capability of the earth’s atmosphere. They have blurred the windows of the greenhouse. The effect is melting ice caps, rising ocean levels, and in general a warmer planet.

Some scientists contend that human activities are the main reason for the increased concentration of carbon dioxide. They argue that human impacts have affected the usual balance of plant respiration and the decomposition of organic matter, causing them to release large amounts of carbon dioxide. Fossil fuels are responsible for about 98 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, 24 percent of methane emissions, and 18 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. Increased agribusiness, deforestation, landfills, incinerators, industrial production, and mining also contribute a large share of emissions. In 1997, the United States emitted about one fifth of total global greenhouse gases. This estimate is based on models and industry self-reporting.

Environmental regulation and monitoring are relatively new and dominantly exists only in developed countries. Environmentally regulated countries still allow large amounts of chemicals into the land, air, and water without complete knowledge of short- or long-term ecological risks and impacts. It is difficult to assess these impacts because not all the emissions from humans are regulated. Large amounts of unregulated industrial emissions, municipal emissions, agricultural emissions, and commercial and residential emissions remain unregulated and are a source of uncertainty. Each category represents future stakeholders in a growing controversy. Because so much is still unknown regarding the scale and scope of emissions, it is impossible to predict environmental impacts such as synergistic and cumulative risks. Over time, with an increasing human population and more extensive monitoring, the level of uncertainty about the effects of climate change may decrease. Fear of liability for contamination figures into this equation. Uncertainty about the best policies to follow to mitigate climate changes continues. Many contend mitigation will require better knowledge about actual emissions. The policy need for this information and the stakeholder fear of liability and increased regulation will fuel the first fires of the climate change policy wars. The current state of knowledge is highly dependent on modeling and weather data.

The Case of Methane

Methane remains in the atmosphere for approximately 9 to 15 years. It is more than 20 times as effective for trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and others conclude that large pockets of methane at the north and south poles will produce more methane than anticipated as the poles warm. The projected consequence is a greatly increased rate of global warming and climate change.

It is estimated that 60 percent of global methane emissions are related to human activities. This gas is emitted during the drilling, refining, use, and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil all over the world. Methane emissions also result from the decomposition of organic wastes. Wetlands, gas hydrates, permafrost, termites, oceans, freshwater bodies, nonwetland soils, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires are natural sources of methane. Some sustainable dairy farms in Vermont began defraying expensive heating costs by collecting and burning methane from cow manure. Now farmer in almost every U.S. state do the same. Methane also collects in municipal solid waste landfills, which are near capacity. Sometimes landfills burn off the methane gas, which can form in a landfill. Methane is a primary constituent of natural gas and an important energy source all over the world.

Other Emissions Affecting Climate Change

As human populations and industrialization increase, several emissions also will increase. Greenhouse gases are expected to escalate substantially. The climate changes that occur could be dramatic. Many experts generally expect:

  1. Land temperature to increase more than ocean temperature;
  2. Northern hemisphere sea ice to retreat substantially;
  3. Sea level to rise more than a meter over the next several hundred years;
  4. A sharp reduction in the overturning circulation of the North Atlantic ocean;
  5. Substantial reductions in mid-continent summer soil moisture (about 25 percent);
  6. Increases in the intensity of tropical hurricanes and /or typhoons;
  7. Sharp increases in the summertime heat index (a measure of the effective temperature level a body feels on a humid day) in moist, subtropical areas.

Additional impacts have been speculated upon, including natural disasters and power conflicts between nations.

Climate Data Availability

Climate data provide the basics for characterizing various statistics for temperature, pressure, wind, water amounts, cloudiness, and precipitation as a function of geographical location, time, and altitude. Such data provide invaluable information on the natural variability of climate, ranging from seasons to decades. These data sets have led to important understandings of how the climate system works. They also provide valuable information on how ice ages and warm epochs interact with climatic changes. For example, for meteorological purposes, thousands of observation points collect information continuously for weather forecasting. Most of this information is important to research on longer-term climate change. Climate change data are more expansive than weather forecasting data sets. Some climate change data not usually included in weather data sets are vertical velocity, radiative heating/cooling, cloud characteristics (albedo), evaporation, and properties of critical trace species such as particles containing sulfate and carbon. Weather data sets do not provide information on the vegetative cover and its role in governing surface water evaporation. The ocean’s currents, waves, jets, and vortices are important climatic measurements that are not included in the usual weather data sets.

Weather often determines human settlement patterns, and as world population increases, the unstable and sometime contradictory computer modeling of climate changes lends itself to controversy. Weather forecasts can also determine financial lending patterns in agricultural areas as well as economic development based on industrial manufacturing. This expands the role of industrial stakeholders from one of being regulated by various international and state governments to one of engagement with the accuracy of the models.

Climate Changes and Their Effects on Animals

The earth is warming and the climate is changing. Climate changes faster than an ecosystem does. Some species in the food chain will be affected first and, unless they evolve or move, will become extinct. Robins, for example, were recently sighted in the Arctic for the first time. Species such as grizzlies and polar bears may move to new territories and interbreed more frequently. Rapidly increasing ice melt is decreasing polar bear habitat and sometimes preventing the bears from getting to the seals they hunt. Consequently, polar bears have moved inland in search of food. More ecosystem aspects will be tested as climate change speeds.

Where Are the Animals Going? Current Research

Vast ecosystem changes cause plants and animals to migrate. They can also cause migrating animals to alter their genetically inbred routes of travel. In the year 2000, scientists from 17 nations examined 125,000 studies involving 561 species of animals around the globe. These investigators found that spring was beginning on average six to eight days earlier than it did 30 years ago. Regions such as Spain saw the greatest increases in temperatures. (This contradicts some climate change models, which forecast the greatest temperature changes at the north and south poles.) Spring season began up to two weeks earlier in Spain. The onset of autumn has been delayed by an average of three days over the same period. Changes to the continent’s climate are shifting the timing of the seasons. There is a direct link between rising temperatures and changes in plant and animal behavior.

Recent research examined 125,000 observational series of 542 plants and 19 animal species in 21 European countries from 1971 to 2000. The results showed that 78 percent of all leafing, flowering, and fruiting was happening earlier in the year, while only 3 percent was significantly delayed. When species that depend on each other change at different rates, a breakdown in the food web could result. Current research is based only on indicator species, not entire ecosystems.

Conclusion

Scientific and political controversies about climate change will increase. International environmental responsibilities and choices and rising local concern will raise some inconvenient environmental issues. Industrialization has had and continues to have a large environmental impact, perhaps affecting climate stability. Some of the nations most benefiting from industrialization are now debating policies about sustainability. They ask poorer nations to refrain from using the same fuels that began their own economic development under free market capitalism. This is the so called North–South debate. Poorer nations want the quality-of-life improvements of free markets and do not like interference from richer nations. This aspect of the issue is global.

The rate of climate change is a continuing element of this discussion. While NASA officials ponder terraforming, concerns about water press toward scarcity. An August 2007 study by NASA climatologist James Hansen predicted that oceans could rise substantially more than predicted. In 2009 Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and a professor at Columbia University, contended that the two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—had fallen to 50 percent of capacity. These lakes provide water to tens of millions of westerners in the United States. Hansen argued that to stop the cycle we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions to below 350 parts per million from today’s 387 parts per million, thus opposing his many colleagues who support stabilizing them at 450 parts per million.

Hansen’s argument is based on paleoclimate data published in 2008, showing that the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were this high, the earth was ice-free and the sea level was far higher than it is today. His 2007 study argues that because of positive feedback loops in the atmosphere, global warming events could cause oceans to rise much more quickly than predicted. It projected that by 2100, oceans could rise hundreds of feet instead of the smaller predictions of two to four feet by conservative climate-watch organizations. Three years later, Hansen had not changed his position. Recent ice quakes in Greenland, ice core samples from the poles indicating rates of melting, and the rapid release of methane from thawing permafrost all give greater credibility to this still controversial prediction. There will be more controversies surrounding the accuracy of the measurements of climate changes themselves, their rate of change, and their environmental impacts. NASA recorded 2009 as the warmest year on record, but in the following year questions were raised about the validity of climate data generated by a United Nations scientific panel. (The questions were subsequently largely laid to rest.)

Climate change is a local issue as well as a global one. As the push for sustainability rises to a policy level in richer nations, they confront an industrial past. Large programs of waste cleanup and assessments are begun. Environmental regulations are tightened to include all environmental impacts. Local communities begin to adopt environmental principles, like the precautionary principle, in their land-use laws. Climate change concerns may be creating a greater environmental consciousness and in that way create a supportive environment for policies like sustainability and 100 percent waste cleanup.

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Bibliography:

  1. Archer, David, The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  2. Clowney, David, and Patricia Mosto, Earthcare: An Anthology of Environmental Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
  3. Condon, M. et al., Urban Planning Tools for Climate Change Mitigation. Lincoln, NE: Institute of Land Policy, 2009.
  4. Cox, John D., Climate Crash: Abrupt Climate Change and What It Means for Our Future. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2005.
  5. DiMento, Joseph F. C., and Pamela Doughman, eds., Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
  6. Fagan, Brian M., The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.
  7. Hansen, James E., Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.
  8. Hulme, Michael, Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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