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 Points
With 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.
The UCSUSA points out that “Consequences of global warming include drought, sea level rise, flooding, extreme weather, and species loss. The severity of those impacts is tied directly to the amount of carbon dioxide we release.” While CO2 may be the greatest contributor to climate change, other gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are also responsible for creating the greenhouse effect, therefore, solutions must also focus on the reduction of these gases.
Climate Change Awareness Timeline
Concern 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.
As the research data and the trapped atmospheric gases continued to accumulate, the UNFCCC Secretariat (UN Climate Change) was established in 1992 with the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Since that time, conference delegates have met annually to evaluate the latest research findings and discuss possible ways to reduce global warming and its effects. Political progress on the issue came with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol at the conference in 1997 which set binding targets for emissions reductions with the developed world being tasked with making the greatest changes. There were 192 parties to the Protocol, but with varying commitments. Some of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, such as the USA, never ratified the Protocol so in essence it had no teeth to create the change needed.
More research, heated debate and negotiations ensued leading to the adoption of the December 2015 Paris Agreement, a watershed moment in dealing with the causes of climate change. For the first time, the vast majority of the world’s countries agreed “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Getting the USA to sign this agreement was a major achievement of Barack Obama’s administration, but unfortunately current President Donald Trump has stated repeatedly that the US will withdraw from the agreement. While Trump has yet to officially do so, he has, however, worked diligently to undo all the Obama era regulations that were meant to decrease the US contribution to carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, without the participation of the US, other major greenhouse gas contributing countries such as China and India will feel less pressure to adhere to the agreed emissions targets.
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.
Both China and the United States depend heavily on the burning of coal to produce electricity. Chemically coal is mostly carbon, and unless expensive scrubbers are installed on coal burning power plants, it’s one of the dirtiest burning fuels available. In addition a certain type of high-carbon coal, known as coking coal, is used in the production of iron and steel, making these factories particularly offensive polluters.
While China continues to build new coal-fired power plants, it has made great strides in the development of mass transit infrastructure to move people and goods in more environmentally friendly ways. In this regard, the USA lags far behind China and other developed countries due to its emissions-heavy transportation sector which is dependent on the use of private cars, diesel burning delivery trucks and the highly polluting airline industry. Based on EPA data in 2016, the transportation sector and electricity production in the USA each produced 28% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, with industry coming in close behind at 22%.
In India, which has overtaken China as the world’s fastest growing large economy, coal is the main fuel, generating three quarters of electricity. Many other countries in South and Southeast Asia with rapidly growing economies are expanding their use of coal to create electricity. Based on research carried out by the International Energy Agency (IEA), Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam have more than 800 million people combined, yet their average annual per capita electricity consumption is just one seventh of that in Europe. Increasing coal power generation, supported by new coal plants under construction, will be the main driver of coal demand growth in those countries.
This economic catch-up game using fossil fuels is, of course, highly controversial. Even though the United States has put more carbon into the air than any other country and China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases by a wide margin, reductions in these two countries alone can’t solve the problems presented by climate change. According to Meg Argyriou, Acting CEO of Climateworks Australia, “One of the ironies of fighting climate change is that developed countries―which have benefited from decades or centuries of industrialisation―are now asking developing countries to abandon highly polluting technology.” Ideally, the richer countries must do more to cut emissions while at the same time assisting developing economies to grow without the environmental impacts we see today.
The Challenges Ahead
The 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.
It’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.