Global climate change is arguably the largest and most pressing problem facing humanity today. Unfortunately, many people simply don’t understand the basic processes behind global warming, and thus are unable to assess the true scope of the problem. In this article I will give a very basic description of how global warming occurs and what it is doing to our planet:
The Global Climate Change Process
Starting after the industrial revolution and the massive increases in fossil fuel burning, human industry became able to affect the long-term climate of the planet. Humanity’s use of dirty fuel sources has led to a situation where humanity has become the driving force behind a warming trend for the entire planet’s climate.
Humanity’s massive use of fossil fuels to produce energy through combustion (burning oil/gas/coal) reactions releases large amounts of gasses into the atmosphere. Among these gasses, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have been released into the atmosphere at far-higher than natural levels. They are considered “greenhouse gasses” because of the way they trap heat in the atmosphere. In addition to gasses, the use of fossil fuels and combustion engines releases large amounts of water vapor. Greenhouse gasses and water vapor accumulate in the atmosphere and decrease its permeability to solar radiation.
The atmosphere acts as a semi-permeable barrier to the sun’s rays—it blocks enough of the rays to make the earth habitable yet allows enough through to sustain life. Once solar radiation gets through the atmosphere, it reflects off of the ground or is absorbed into surfaces. Humanity’s release of huge amounts of material that thicken the atmosphere and decrease its permeability causes more of the energy that gets through to be trapped inside. The increased amount of energy which is trapped by the human-altered atmosphere leads to a warmer planet overall and a shift in global heat distribution.
A warming of planet earth has the potential to cause significant shifts in weather patterns and huge damage to human life. The warming of our atmosphere increases the levels of evaporation (more heat energy in the air=faster evaporation), thus making our climate warmer and wetter. A warm and wet environment leads to increased storm activity in some areas of the planet, but also could lead to drought in others (where evaporation is increased without and correspondingly increased precipitation).
The heating of the planet which comes from the thickened atmosphere causes the polar ice caps to melt, which, in turn, causes a shift in ocean and air circulation. Ice caps are shrinking because they have suddenly (in a geological timescale) been put into a climate that is too hot to sustain them—they are melting faster than seasonal accumulation can replenish them. This melting has already begun, and scientists see no scenario where it will stop or reverse itself any time soon.
As ice caps are large masses of frozen fresh water, there are dramatic effects on our planet’s global (salt-water) ocean characteristics when they melt significantly. Ice floats on water, thus the melting of the ice caps adds huge amounts of water that was previously sitting on the ocean’s surface (or on a continental plate) to Earth’s oceans. Additionally, the warming of the oceans themselves leads to an expansion of water molecules. The increased water volume in our oceans leads to a higher sea-level and will result in the flooding of most coastal areas on the planet. Moreover, the water which is melting off of glaciers is fresh water, not salt water, thus such a massive influx of melt-water will lead to a decrease in the salinity of our oceans. Ocean salinity (salt content) is a major factor in the circulatory patterns of our planet’s oceans, so a disruption in the normal salinity of ocean water is likely to have very real effects on global ocean circulation. Any disruption in the circulatory patterns of the oceans causes disruptions in the heat circulation of our planet (global convection currents that move warm water to the poles and cold water to the equator) and results in shifts of weather patterns (ex. El Nino).
Eventually, scientists have predicted that the earth will reach a tipping point where the effects of global climate change will fly out of control and speed up. This tipping point is due to several complex feedback loops that are created by global warming. For example: Ice caps have a higher albedo than many other materials (light reflects off of them and isn’t absorbed as easily) and the increase or decrease in ice caps often leads to positive or negative feedback—as ice caps decrease, they shrink and reveal materials which are more absorptive of light energy, thus leading to more warming from solar-radiation absorption. In addition to the decreased albedo, of the earth when the ice caps melt, huge volumes of gas are released during the melting process—this gas further accelerates the melting process and leads to even more ice cap melting.
The Effects of Global Climate Change
Global climate change has a myriad of effects on the planet, and thus human life. The changes to the Earth’s atmosphere that global climate change brings has resulted in, and will result in more, catastrophes that kill humans and force us to reconsider how we live our lives.
The simplest effect of global climate change is an increase in the global sea-level due to arctic melting. While there is some debate in the scientific community over just how large this increase will be, it is undeniable that the increase will occur and will cause problems.
In addition to the increase in sea level, the earth will experience volatile and unpredictable weather patterns due to global climate change. Here are just a few examples:A higher sea level will cause coastal areas to flood and will eventually displace large portions of the population who live in these areas. Just as the city of New Orleans is below the sea level and must be protected by levies, other cities will need to follow suit or be flooded. The wide-scale flooding that accompanies global warming will result in huge costs to all coastal settlements and will literally redraw the maps as to what land is above the water and what land is underwater. In addition to flooding, this rise in the sea level will lead to far more devestation in coastal areas during extreme weather events (as we saw during Hurricane Katrina).
- Increased Hurricane Activity – A warm and wet environment creates perfect conditions for hurricanes, thus global warming will lead to more hurricanes, many of which will be stronger than those of the past (ex. Katrina, Sandy, etc.)
- Droughts – Some areas will suffer prolonged and severe droughts due to the hotter climate (ex. Texas during 2011).
- Increased Tornado Activity – A more volatile atmosphere leads to increased cyclonic activity and allows tornadoes to exist in areas where they previously could not (ex. the severe tornadoes of the Midwest during 2011, the recent Massachusetts tornado, etc.)
- Flooding Rain – The increased evaporation of a warmer climate leads to stronger rainstorms and the potential for destructive flooding.
Global Climate Change Denial
Many Americans continue to believe that global climate change is a natural progression that has nothing to do with human conduct (a recent Yale study indicated that only 63% of Americans believe in man-made climate change). Put plainly, these people are wrong and are misunderstanding the concept of global climate change. While it is true that the earth’s climate goes through temperature cycles (ex. the last ice age) and that these cycles can be natural, the scientific evidence clearly, even unequivocally indicates that this period of climate change is due to human action.
Barring a catastrophic event (such as a volcanic eruption kicking up ash), the earth’s climate cycles between hot and cold periods over a very long time-scale—this process is akin to the movement of a carousel (slowly up and down). Human action has accelerated this process and has resulted in a period of extremely quick warming—this acceleration has turned the normally slow carousel into a roller coaster, and we are stuck along for the ride.
The reason that many Americans are misinformed on the subject of climate change is simple: the petrochemical corporations which benefit from the massive use of global warming-inducing energy sources have made every effort to confuse the average American. By spending immense amounts of money on propaganda and political contributions, these corporations have made every effort to increase doubt, prevent any discussion of climate change, and stop any legislation from addressing the problem. Unfortunately, a refusal to address a problem does nothing to solve it and may even result in it becoming worse: Global climate change is real, is here, and will gradually worsen to irreparable levels if we ignore it.