Featured Photo: Harrison (coal-fired) Power Station, Haywood, West Virginia. Photo Credit: REUTERS
While some politicians and citizens continue to deny the existence of man-made global warming, the evidence supporting it continues to grow.
words by Henry Lewis
As the clock continues ticking toward the collective future of the human species on planet Earth, there are still some among us who are either skeptics or out-right deniers of climate change. While ignoring the scientific data and credibility of internationally renowned climate scientists and researchers, these skeptics focus their arguments on relatively insignificant generalizations that are often made in the mainstream press or other online media sources. While I do the daily rounds of mainstream media outlets, I don’t depend on their news articles to provide the scientific data necessary for arriving at conclusions on such an important topic―one that poses serious threats for both our near and long-term future.What I do trust, however, are the findings of scientists from such prestigious organizations as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the Union of Concerned Scientists USA (UCSUSA), to name but a few of the groups that have stated that 97% of climate scientists worldwide agree that global warming is caused by human activities. By spreading rumors based on unreliable media sources rather than seeking facts from authorities in their respective scientific fields, these climate change deniers appear to be much more interested in preserving personal lifestyles than in learning how to interpret and digest scientific data. Thus, in an effort to help balance some of those skeptics who may be sitting on the proverbial fence at the moment, let’s take a look at relevant data as well as some of the international institutions that are working to address climate change.
A Few Relevant Data PointsWith the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, humans began their dependence on the burning of fossil fuels―coal first and then later oil and natural gas―to power factories, heat homes and light city streets at night. Later, Henry Ford and others developed methods for the mass production of cars and trucks, making them affordable for the middle class while at the same time radically increasing our appetite for fossil fuels. According to Dr. Caleb A. Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University, “Current data (from direct measurements of the atmosphere to historical records of industry) tells us that between 1751 and 1987 fossil fuels put about 737 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Between just 1987 and 2014 it was about the same mass: 743 billion tons. Total CO2 from industrialized humans in the past 263 years: 1,480 billion tons.” While the ramifications of such data may be difficult to grasp by the layperson, what’s important to note here is that carbon emissions from human activities have been accelerating at an alarming rate. The collection of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere traps heat which has subsequently caused surface temperatures to steadily rise, particularly since the 1980s.
Climate Change Awareness TimelineConcern in scientific circles about climate change isn’t merely a recent phenomenon. In 1906, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius foresaw the warming of the planet as a positive advantage for his far-northern country when he wrote, “By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equitable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth…” Since researching climatic change is a slow, painstaking process, it took scientists another eight decades to begin drawing firm conclusions. Fast forward to 1988 and a series of natural disasters―extreme temperatures, drought and raging forest fires―brought about the founding of the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body tasked with assessing the science of climate change. The IPCC was an outgrowth of a 1987 Canadian conference which produced the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances that are responsible for ozone depletion. In June of 1988 James E. Hansen, a climate scientist and head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), testified before a US Senate committee telling them he was 99% sure that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” Over the following two and a half decades, scientists continued to collect data on climate change at the same time that governments worldwide argued over the economic and political implications of taking action to counter its effects. United States presidential administrations prior to Barack Obama’s chose to ignore Hansen’s warning and go on with business as usual.
Which countries and sectors are the largest polluters?China currently emits more CO2 than any other country, but by most estimates the United States has been the largest contributor when measured historically between 1850 and 2007. The world’s two largest economies rely heavily on the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity for homes and manufacturing facilities as well as for their vast agricultural industries and to keep transportation systems moving.
The Challenges AheadThe warnings have been issued loudly and clearly in the latest IPCC report. “Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II. The latest IPCC report went further by adding, “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” So, are humans up to the challenge? Simply put, many citizens in the developed world don’t want to see their electricity bills increase―which would almost certainly be the case, at least at the beginning―by converting to more environmentally friendly forms of renewable energy. Nor do they want―as is the case in the USA―to give up the convenience and freedom of mobility they enjoy by owning and driving individual cars. At the same time, leaders in the developing world want to be able to take advantage of highly polluting fossil fuel resources to build and diversify their rapidly growing economies just as wealthier nations did in the past. The 2015 Paris Agreement, which is now in doubt, adopted provisions whereby these wealthier countries would help subsidize the development of cleaner burning technologies in an effort to lower carbon emissions while at the same time allowing these poorer countries to move forward economically. Countries such as Japan are focusing on efficiency which could be a stopgap measure while renewable sources of energy are being further ramped-up. According to a report released in 2016 by the IEA’s Clean Coal Centre, “…the coal fleet in Japan is the most efficient in the world, followed by China, the EU, and finally, the U.S.” Some members of the European Union appear to be at the forefront of new trends to combat climate change. Germany, Europe’s largest economy and a country which currently produces 35% of its electricity from coal, has set a target to stop burning coal by 2038. Germans have shown a willingness to pay the costs of such rapid reform even though they currently pay the highest power prices in Europe. Clearly, the United States government is dragging its feet and falling behind other countries in doing its part. But even in the USA’s current dark environmental climate, positive changes are being made on the state and local level. Cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and Miami are taking the threat of climate change seriously and passing local laws and ordinances with fixed targets for reducing carbon emissions. China’s single party government has shown that it can get things done quickly and leaders there are working in earnest to clean up the environmental mess created by decades of rampant industrial expansion. Chinese citizens―who normally accept government actions without questioning―are now demanding that their central government take action on issues such as air pollution, much of it caused by the burning of coal for electricity and heating.
ConclusionIt’s clear there are countries moving forward in their efforts to confront the many challenges we face from climate change, while others are either in denial or effectively gridlocked politically when it comes to recognizing the problem and adopting solutions. Some politicians are waging a war of fear using misinformation and claiming job and economic losses will result from any changes in decades-old policies based on a continued reliance on fossil fuels. While the Neros of the world are fiddling, the scientists of the IPCC warn that the longer we wait to take action, the greater the likelihood that climate changes will be long-lasting or irreversible. So, the big question looms: Can we form consensus on the best way forward within each nation and work together as one united humanity in an effort to thwart the most severe effects of climate change? Let’s hope the human species is up to the task. The future is ours to either create or destroy.
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