For good reason, global warming and climate change have been some of the most urgently discussed topics of environmental science over the last few years. And despite all of the controversy that has surrounded it, one thing has always been clear: the effects are apparent. For whatever reason that you want to believe, there has been a continuous increase in the Earth’s climate over the past 150 years that have caused detrimental effects to the it’s environment and a solution to this problem does not seem in sight at the moment. In this discussion, I hope to raise awareness of the most important points surrounding this controversial topic, providing background, arguments for and against the human impact on the planet, and ultimately hope to provide what I think is a solution to the topic.
For many years, dating back to the ancient Greeks, people had wondered what the human impact on the climate could potentially be. Examples of this were with the debate in the 19th century, as Americans wondered how cutting down forests could bring more or less rainfall to the forest. The origin of the discussion of global warming started with the discovery in the mid 1800’s of past ice ages, and the newfound idea that at moments in history the climate could radically change around the globe. Discoveries continued to be made about how heat could potentially be trapped in the atmosphere, with scientists observing in 1824 that Earth’s temperature would be lower if the planet lacked an atmosphere and later on, that carbon dioxide was what trapped heat in our atmosphere.
In 1896, the Svante Arrhenius proposed the idea that perhaps the burning of fossil fuels could potentially raise the Earth’s average temperature, by adding Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. At the time, this concept was panned by the other scientists, as many of them were stuck on the idea that it was simply implausible for human emission to be capable of causing noticeable change in our Earth’s temperatures. Experiments were done, but typically in a poor and lazy manner, with attempts at debunking Arrhenius’ theory.
As further research was done on the Earth’s temperatures, it became clear that in the period between 1850 and 1930, the United States’s average temperatures had increased significantly, but even then, scientists were for the most part adamant that this was simply due to a natural cycle.
Research on this topic increased significantly in the 1950’s, as Guy Stewart Callendar became the face of the greenhouse warming movement. Callendar urged the United States to perform more thorough research on the topic, and ultimately government funding was increased for environmental science, a major reason for this being that the US was currently in the midst of the Cold War and scientific progress was crucial to earning prestige during this time. In 1960 painstaking measurements of the level of the gas in the atmosphere by Charles Keeling, a young scientist with an obsession for accuracy, drove home the point. The level was in fact rising year by year. Research only increased on this topic following Keeling’s discoveries and by the end of the 1970’s, studies had proven that there was a correlation between CO2 buildup
in the atmosphere and temperature increase.
Scientists had also discovered that cooling was also occurring in areas, but ultimately dismissed the concern due to the fact that smog left the atmosphere quickly, while CO2 lingered around for centuries; research only proved that this was true. The concern around this time period then became on what could warming temperatures potentially mean for the planet, with many experts fearing that it could lead to rising sea levels, droughts, and other disastrous events.
Following the summer of 1988, the hottest summer ever up to that point, the first proposal was made to Congress requesting steps to cut out greenhouse gas emissions. This was viciously denied, as corporations did their best to advertise to and convince the public that this was all nonsense and that these were pointless cries.
By 2010 impacts long predicted were turning up, sooner than many had expected — acidification of the oceans, unprecedented deadly heat waves, record-breaking floods and droughts, heat-related changes in the survival of sensitive species. Most impressive, as scientists ever since Arrhenius had predicted, were changes in the Arctic. The summer Arctic ice pack was dwindling with unprecedented speed and Greenland was melting. In Antarctica, the disintegration of some ice sheets into the ocean might be irreversible. Meanwhile it became clear that even if all emissions could be instantly halted, the gases already in the air would bring some additional warming for millennia. Computer studies found that problems would get truly serious if global temperatures rose more than 1.5°C or so above the pre-industrial level, which was now almost unavoidable.
Since the Industrial revolution began around 1750, there has been an exponential increase in the greenhouse gases emitted in the Earth by humans, as demonstrated in the graph below.
The chemistry regarding the idea of human influenced global warming starts with the carbon cycle. The carbon cycle is a relatively simple cycle to follow and is the main route of energy transfer between organisms, for we can turn inorganic carbon into organic carbon that can then be used for energy. That being said, the release of inorganic carbon in the form of CO2 is another crucial part of the carbon cycle and so, our problem become apparent, as we know that CO2 is the heat trapping greenhouse gas.
As seen in the diagram below, plants use the carbon in the atmosphere CO2 to create sugars and carbohydrates to grow and reproduce. Animals will potentially eat these for energy and survival. After being metabolized, it’s released back into the environment and it returns back into the atmosphere.
Photosynthesis is the first half of this cycle, which basically entails plants taking carbon dioxide and water and turning it into organic carbon (sugars) through the process of carbon fixation.
The other end of this carbon cycle is cellular respiration, which is essentially the opposite of photosynthesis. This is where the organic matter which we consume is released back into the atmosphere. Breathing is one of the prime examples of respiration and how carbon returns to its inorganic form.
What is most essential to understand about the carbon cycle is simply the idea that over the course of history, it has been essential to controlling the concentration of carbon dioxide and has done its job by remaining in equilibrium. However, this seems to be change due to the Greenhouse Effect.
The greenhouse effect emits rays that warm the surface of the earth. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are most essential in keeping this emitted heat in the atmosphere, which thus allows for us to be able to continue to survive on this planet.
The problem comes when we increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, which as seen through the trend of history dating back to the origins of the industrial revolution, will contribute to us retaining more heat in the atmosphere than need be, which in turn should cause the Earth’s heat to rise.
With the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the carbon cycle is no longer able to adequately regulate itself anymore. This is because that the plants responsible for photosynthesis are simply too few in quantity at this point to consume enough CO2. This leaves plenty of unwanted Carbon in the air, which has thus led us to the problem we are at today.
So What Exactly are the Problems with Global Warming?
The current prediction is that by the year 2100, global emissions of carbon dioxide, through coal and oil, will likely lead our world to be about 8 degrees warmer on average. To an average mind, this may seem like just the difference between wearing and not wearing a sweater; however, the consequences are far worse than this.
Already, we have seen drastic changes to our planet, as Ice continues to melt, especially at the Earth’s poles. This has caused the decline of plenty of species including the Adelie penguin of Antarctica, whose numbers have fallen from 32000 to 11000 in just 30 years.
Sea levels have also risen signficiently, which can continue to jeaprodize our wildlife, particularly the animals that live on beaches and ice. This occurs because that as seawater expands, it takes up more space in the ocean basin and causes a rise in the water level. This will only get worse, as we are expected to rise in sea level by up to 23 inches by the end of the century.
Droughts can also be an issue, for as the temperature rises, more moisture will evaporate from land and water. Also, while some places will get far less rain, others will get far more, leading to floods. As warmer air can hold more moisture, far heavier precipitation can be expected to come.
Natural disasters can serve to become an issue as well, if it hasn’t already. Between 1980 and 2015, the United States spent about 5 billion dollars a year due to natural disasters, but last year, we spent over 10 billion. More heat and water in the atmosphere and warmer sea surface temperatures could provide more fuel to increase the wind speeds of tropical storms.
The Arguments against climate change:
For the most part, the consensus seems to be among scientists that humans are indeed the primary power responsible for the increase in the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. However, there continue to be people who are skeptical of this idea that we are indeed responsible. Procon.org does a beautiful job of laying out the two different sides of the argument. There were plenty of different arguments, but the one that I found the most compelling was this idea of the Earth’s climate cycle. Below is the argument:
“Earth’s climate has always warmed and cooled, and the 20th century rise in global temperature is within the bounds of natural temperature fluctuations over the past 3,000 years. Although the planet has warmed 1-1.4°F over the 20th century, it is within the +/- 5°F range of the past 3,000 years.  A 2003 study by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics found that “many records reveal that the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium.”  A 2005 study published in Nature found that “high temperatures – similar to those observed in the twentieth century before 1990 – occurred around AD 1000 to 1100” in the Northern Hemisphere.  A 2013 study published in Boreas found that summer temperatures during the Roman Empire and Medieval periods were “consistently higher” than temperatures during the 20th century.  According to a 2010 study in the Chinese Science Bulletin, the recent global warming period of the 20th century is the result of a natural 21-year temperature oscillation, and will give way to a “new cool period in the 2030s.”
There actually is a lot of truth to this argument, as there have been moments in human history that have seen abrupt changes in Earth’s temperature, but what this argument fails to recognize is that there has always been just one reason for these temperature changes: rapid emissions of greenhouse gases, something that humans have been doing a lot of over the last 150 years.
What this argument also fails to recognize is that during these global warming phases, the rises in temperature were actually extremely harmful to life and even caused extinctions such as at the end of the Permian and Triassic periods.
Rising sea levels, a jump in global temperature, ocean acidification: these were all symptoms of this period and they are all happening today. The human influence on global warming is apparent and is certainly upon us, but this recognition is just the first step in a very tricky solution to the problem.
The Bitter Truth:
My hopes coming into this project were that I could to the best of my ability conjure up a reasonable solution to the problems of climate change going forward. I searched throughout the internet for solutions, with many sounding very similar. Some of the solutions that I heard were to promote climate science literacy, in hopes that we could help citizens make more informed decisions about their daily gas emissions. I read that we must now invest in clean energy technology. I read that we should find more convenient ways for mass transit to reduce our transportation emissions. Basically, all of these involved decreasing our every-day emission of fossil fuel.
After reading through all of these… well seemingly obvious solutions to the problem of global warming, I came to a pretty unfortunate conclusion. Climate change is irreversible, and even worse, there is no legitimate solution to the problem. We have already caused a lot of problems to the Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures have already increased, and sea levels have already risen. The truth is that even if we stopped emissions altogether today, the Earth’s temperatures would still rise an average of 2 extra degrees. And let’s be realistic: it’s probably not going to stop there. Currently, companies still have enough fossil fuel to increase the Earth’s temperature by an average of 10 extra degrees!
Now when I say that our Earth is hopeless, I don’t mean that it is because that scientifically, we are in a hopeless situation. Technically, if we make drastic cuts to CO2 now, our descendants of the year 3000 could be fine. Of course, there will be some inevitable effects, given the fact that sea ice has already dropped over .8 square miles across the earth and could potentially disappear from summers within the next decade. But for the most part, it is very likely that even by the year 3000, the US should be able to remain above water.
What I am saying is not that we have already dug ourselves too deep, but that realistically, I do not see CO2 emissions dropping significantly any time soon, as there are just so many factors that will stall us as a society from taking significant action. So far, we have hardly made attempts to reduce our admissions and this is why we still release more and more by the year. And why would we stop? So far, the exponential increase of CO2 in the air has actually not correlated to anything too bad for the common person. In fact, the correlation has been tremendously beneficial to us. Since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, no numbers could begin to recognize just how great the standard of living has risen in the world. In the US, while the average life expectancy was only about 38 in 1850, it is now in the mid 70’s. Everybody lives more comfortably and there has potentially never been such an exponential growth in standard of living since the start of the human race. Obviously, the carbon in the air is not the reason for this, but my point is that we as a society have dug ourselves too deep.
Plenty of scientists have recognized that even if we completely stopped releasing carbon today, the temperature would still go up at least one degree, with the more likely situation being that at our current pace of carbon emissions, it will be more like 11 degrees. These scientists are also the same scientists that believe that our best solution is to prepare for our future world. My personal opinion is that this is naive, as there is simply no way that given the exponential increase in our standard of living that we could possibly go back to not releasing this carbon. It just seems unrealistic to me that we could possibly do this. Viable solutions will not just cost us money, but will also probably cost us our standard of living as well.
But the money involved in a solution is definitely playing a major role too. Another movement that is being promoted is to increase the funding of clean power strategies. While this seems to be at face value the most viable solution to the issue at hand, I think that there are far too many factors that will slow this solution down. For one, there are far too many uninformed people in government that are for one reason or another not on board with spending the resources necessary to have a developed program. The United States’ current President Donald Trump is one of these people, which is why he plans to scrap the clean power plan put in place under Obama as soon as he can. Former Presidential nominee Rick Santorum also discussed his disapproval for these plans on “Real Time With Bill Maher”, when he stated that whether or not global warming is real, he does not believe that it is worth using the resources to tame given how powerful of a force it is.
On top of these skeptical politicians, we also need to remember that the people who are emitting the most carbon also are some of the most powerful and wealthy people on the planet. It is no secret that the Saudi Arabian economy relies heavily on oil revenue. Do you think it makes sense for them to want to put an effort to stop these sales? As Francesca de Châtel, an Amsterdam-based expert on Middle Eastern water issues notes, “for years, they have failed to address these problems adequately despite warnings from climate experts and U.N. agencies, and it may be too late now.” Certain economies greatly depend on our world’s carbon obsession, so this is just another hurdle that we would need to jump over to tame global warming. The truth is that until there is a palpable effect on us as people because of global warming, the economy is not going to stop for a solution, so unless you can find one that doesn’t virtually shutting down our whole economy, I do not see anything coming into place.
Another potential issue with Clean Power Programs is that our world may still be in a place where research of “nuclear energy” can scare people. When Iran, for example, attempted to starts its nuclear power plant, it was consistently shut down by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Association, who could never completely prove that it was strictly for clear energy enhancement. While there certainly could be other motives to their attempt at a power plant, as evidenced by the country’s blatantly unnecessary use of Uranium in their program (getting sidetracked), it does bring up an important point that our society will always stall these innovations, for our fear of the potential harm in the research. Finding a solution to global warming will take a worldwide effort and the truth is that the United Nations may be worried to even allow this research in certain countries.
And on that note, before we even make the steps necessary, we still need to take the huge first step that is unfortunately taking far too long. We have to as a society get everybody on board with this “consensus” that global warming is indeed a product of our society’s carbon emissions before we can even go about finding a solution to any of my concerns stated above. As of now, only 27 percent of people believe that our scientists still do not firmly believe in one side of the argument compared to the other, even though the U.N Intergovernmental panel on Climate change concluded that at least 85 percent of scientists do believe that human activity is the driving problem.
Although it typically takes a while, society’s are typically successful in making progress on social issues, even if it may take multiple generations. This is why that we in the United States can live in a society that is so diverse and for the most part very open to people of all races, sexualities, skin colors, etc. While it may have taken a number of years to end slavery and even more to give black people the rights they deserve, we ultimately succeeded. This is why I am hopeful that we will all ultimately come to a consensus on global warming.
That being said, we do not have time to waste for everyone to agree on this matter. How much carbon will we have to admit for people to finally understand that this is an issue? We do not have another generation or two to step on the gas peddle (or actually take our foot off of it in this case). The problem has already started and we have done almost nothing to tame it and unfortunately there are so many obstacles we must pass before we can even begin to form a viable solution. And unfortunately, by the time we can even agree that a solution must be made, it may already be too late.
Let me be very clear. I am not by any means saying we should not look for a solution to global warming and that we should just dismiss it. I genuinely hope that we can as a society come to a consensus and I hope that the powerful people who control our world’s oil and other carbon emission sources will make the sacrifices necessary to allow us to make significant change. My only argument is that I am not optimistic for our future. I simply believe that there are too many factors stopping us from coming to this solution and I unfortunately believe that we are not going to make a significant enough effort in time to make a difference in our planet’s future.
This is just my personal opinion on the matter, and I really want to turn this into a discussion. Please answer this survey below and tell me what makes you optimistic about our potential to respond positively to this issue. How would you do it realistically?