Climate change has been a hot topic in American society. We have people on the right saying either that climate change isn’t occurring, or that it is completely natural and the climate has always changed, and people on the left trying to convince the right that we need to spend money to implement solutions for the perceived issue. While there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community supporting the claim that humans contribute significantly to climate change, at the same level of confidence as the claim that cigarette smoking is bad for human health, I do not believe the scientists tend to do a great job of communicating information about climate change to the general public. Consensus: https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm
In this blog post, I will address 3 primary concerns:
- Is the Climate Changing?
- What are the Human Contributions to these Changes?
- Does Warmer Climate = Greater Harm? What is the extent of this harm?
To begin, saying that “the climate has always changed” dismisses the issue at hand before investigating it. Yes, the climate has always changed. Very rarely has the climate changed at this rate. Furthermore, global climates stabilized about 12,000 years ago, which is what allowed humans to settle and develop agriculture resulting in the first human civilizations. Changing the conditions around which we built the modern world may impact the modern world we have built. Independent of whether or not humans have an impact on the global climate, the change in climate is of concern. I will highlight why below.
Global climates did not change much after that point until about 200 years ago, when humans began burning coal for energy production. Here is a fantastic link from the American Institute of Physics highlighting the timeline of global warming and its discovery: https://history.aip.org/climate/timeline.htm. As it mentions, around 1859 we discovered that some types of gases block infrared radiation (aka heat) like that which comes from the sun and heats the earth. The gasses which possess these qualities are the same ones that we release when producing energy. This brings me to the section in which I will discuss the causes of climate change.
Causes of Climate Change
First, I will need to differentiate a few terms to alleviate some common misunderstandings.
Weather = Local, short-term environmental conditions.
Climate = Long-term weather trends.
Weather tells us that it will be 62°F tomorrow. Climate tells us that summer 2007 was cooler on average than summer 2017.
Second, I am going to go ahead and clarify that the recent warming of the global climate cannot be attributed to natural sources. Since 1950, all natural sources of climate change have resulted in a net-cooling effect. All heating since then has shown to come exclusively from manmade sources. https://skepticalscience.com/graphics.php?g=57
The causes of human-driven climate change include 3 primary mechanisms:
- Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- The Greenhouse Effect
- Feedback Mechanisms
Note, Greenhouse Gas Emissions must be deemed a separate mechanism from The Greenhouse Effect. While they are closely related, the complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions will not reverse the mechanism’s previous contributions to the greenhouse effect on Earth.
It is also important to understand that the sun is always heating the earth, and the earth is always radiating off heat through its atmosphere into space. If the earth is radiating more heat than it receives, it is cooling. If the earth is radiating less heat than it receives, it is warming. From about 10,000 BC to 1800 AD the earth was in a relative balance, in that it was radiating away about as much heat as it was receiving, and biological life adjusted to the stable climate.
Now to address the first 2 mechanisms of climate change; Greenhouse Gas Emissions and The Greenhouse Effect. The main source of greenhouse gas emissions are grid energy production, transportation, industry, and agriculture. Burning fossil fuels to produce electrical energy, and to power vehicles, results in the vaporization and emission of gasses such as CO2, N2O, and CH4.
Where do fossil fuels come from? “Fossil fuel is a general term for buried combustible geologic deposits of organic materials, formed from decayed plants and animals that have been converted to crude oil, coal, natural gas, or heavy oils by exposure to heat and pressure in the earth’s crust over hundreds of millions of years.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/fossil_fuel.htm. These deposits contain a vast amount of carbon, being the primary element found in biological life. Burning these materials releases the carbon from solid or liquid form into gaseous form.
The gasses produced from burning these materials (CO2, N2O, CH4) are often referred to as “Greenhouse Gases” because when released into the atmosphere, they settle along the troposphere and act as a greenhouse, or “blanket”, in that they trap heat on the surface. The more of these gasses we dump into the atmosphere, the more heat gets trapped. This has resulted in a net-warming effect on global climates.
Onto feedback mechanisms. A feedback mechanism is a mechanism in which the result of an initial action will cause the initial action to repeat, again and again, at a more and more rapid rate. An example in this context is water evaporation. Water exists on earth in 3 states: solid, liquid, and gas. The state of the water depends on its temperature and pressure. If global temperatures increase, more water will evaporate and become water vapor. Water vapor acts as a greenhouse gas as well, trapping in heat when it is in the atmosphere. This is why a cloudy night is warmer than a night of clear skies. This trapping of heat causes more water to evaporate, and more heat gets trapped, and on and on. This is one of the feedback mechanisms which contribute to the warming of global temperatures.
How Do We Know the Climate is Changing?
A consensus has been reached that global climate conditions are currently changing by correlating the following data:
- Average Surface Temperature Analysis
- Rising Sea Levels
- Rising Atmospheric CO2 Levels
Average Surface Temperature Analysis
The graph above is known as a “GISS Temperature Analysis”. From a NASA webpage, “The NASA GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP) provides a measure of the changing global surface temperature with monthly resolution for the period since 1880, when a reasonably global distribution of meteorological stations was established.” This method of gauging the average surface temperatures of the earth indicates an increase of over 1°C since 1880, when it was developed. https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/
Sea Level Rising
Sea levels have risen about 200mm since 1870. As stated on nasa.gov, “There are two main factors responsible for sea level rise, and both are related to our warming climate: the melting of land-based glaciers and ice sheets, and the thermal expansion of the upper ocean caused by warming surface waters.” https://climate.nasa.gov/resources/education/pbs_modules/lesson3Overview/
This also has great relevance to the melting of the ice caps, as seen in the image below.
The poles are warming faster than most other parts of the earth. This is how the “Save the Polar Bears” campaign originated.
Atmospheric CO2 Levels
CO2 levels are at their highest on record, at 440ppm (parts per million). https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/
Effects of Global Warming
A 1°C increase in average global temperatures may not sound like a big deal. It isn’t, if the earth were to remain at current average temperatures. The consistent release of greenhouse gas emissions, which is driving other feedback mechanisms to warm the earth more quickly, is set to warm the earth by 4-7°C by the end of the century.
Global climate temperatures can be thought of as similar to human body temperature. If your body temperature increases 1°C, you may have a slight fever. If your body temperature increases 4-7°C, you are on the verge of death. This applies in the same way to biological life on earth. Here is a great link describing global warming’s effects on biological life: https://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/briefs/rosenzweig_02/
To put these numbers in perspective, the last time the earth was 4-7°C cooler than it currently is, it was in the midst of an ice age.
What is dangerous about this human-caused global warming is the rate at which the earth is warming. Our species has not incurred such a drastic change in climate since before we started forming civilizations. We have built our modern world around current climate conditions without anticipating any change. Other animal and plant life are also not being given sufficient time to adapt to the changing climate.
Here are some negative effects we expect from the warming of average global temperature:
- Effects of rising sea levels
- It will contaminate drinking water
- This will also interfere with farming
- Flooding and mass migration away from the coastlines. 200 million people live on coastlines less than 5 meters above sea level. Rising sea levels has to potential to force these people from their homes and cost billions of dollars (at minimum) to account for losses in infrastructure and accommodation. The Syrian refugee crisis disrupted the global political atmosphere, this would be equivalent to 100 Syrian refugee crises, on a global scale.
- It will contaminate drinking water
- Crops will be forced into a new climate, yields may suffer, farms relocated at great cost.
- Livestock; Heat stress on animals resulted in over $1 billion in losses in 2011. Losses due to heat stress will be greater with increases in temperature. Of course, warmer winters for livestock in certain areas may prove beneficial, and survival rates during this time may compensate for the losses incurred due to high heat levels.
- National and International Security Concerns
- This comes as a result of mass migration away from coastlines, and shortages of food.
- Economic Catastrophe
- “In terms of overall effects on gross domestic product, the authors predict negative impacts in the southern United States and positive impacts in some parts of the Pacific Northwest and New England…The combined value of market and nonmarket damage across analyzed sectors—agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor—increases quadratically in global mean temperature, costing roughly 1.2% of gross domestic product per +1°C on average.” For the USA GDP, this would be about $185 billion per degree Celsius increase in average temperature. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/356/6345/1362
So, according to the data above, this appears to be a pretty serious issue. To solve this issue, we must first identify the specific sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
What kind of solutions could be implemented to reverse, mitigate, and prevent the effects of global warming?
1.) Renewable Energy Production
As seen in the above pie chart, Electricity and heat production account for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Agriculture, Forestry, and other land use account for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. “Greenhouse gas emissions from this sector come mostly from agriculture (cultivation of crops and livestock) and deforestation.”(EPA)
Industry, which accounts for 21% of global greenhouse emissions, is primarily driven by the use of fossil fuels.
Coal and other fossil fuels are considered “nonrenewable energy”, as once they are burned, they are of no more use as they cannot renew themselves. Below are some of the current methods we have for renewable energy production:
- While nuclear power has a bad reputation, that reputation is not well-earned. Nuclear power production has resulted in a few notable accidents (meltdowns, water contamination), but it is also considered the most sustainable energy source we currently have available. http://dailycaller.com/2016/12/01/nuclear-power-is-most-sustainable-energy-source-according-to-un-official/
- Yes, accidents have occurred in certain cases. However, considering that the US Navy has used nuclear reactors to power submarines for decades now without even 1 single incident suggests that proper management of nuclear power can allow for an efficient, safe energy source. I personally work with quite a few former Navy Nuclear Engineers/Mechanics/Electricians, and have heard of how safety-intensive and procedure-oriented the Navy is with its nuclear power. A quote from Forbes: “The Nuclear Navy has logged over 5,400 reactor years of accident-free operations and traveled over 130 million miles on nuclear energy, enough to circle the earth 3,200 times. The nuclear reactors can run for many, many years without refueling. They operate all over the world, sometimes in hostile environments, with no maintenance support except their own crew. These reactors can ramp up from zero to full power in minutes, as fast as any natural gas-fired plant.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/10/28/americas-navy-the-unsung-heroes-of-nuclear-energy/#273d1a053eeb
- While the materials required to produce photovoltaics is a process which currently has a negative impact on global warming, the technology is becoming cheaper and more efficient daily.
- “U.S. wind farms reduced electric power sector carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 132 million metric tons in 2015, according to the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) forthcoming annual U.S. wind industry market report. Those avoided emissions are equal to that from 28 million cars, or more than six percent of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from U.S. electricity generation last year.” https://www.awea.org/epa-regulations
- This is why we build dams. While the applications for this technology appear to be limited to specific types of bodies of water, it is a valuable addition to our energy production grid.
- We can utilize the heat present underneath Earth’s crust to produce steam, turning turbines and generating electricity.
- Burning certain plants and animal products to produce energy. While this is technically renewable, this contributes to the release of greenhouse gasses so is not an ideal solution to global warming.
Below is a useful graph in determining how much every main source of energy has been utilized from 1776-2016:
2.) Electric Vehicles
14% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation; road vehicles, airplanes, etc. Implementing a shift from gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles to electric vehicles is not just inevitable, it is painless, given recent innovation paving the way for cheaper, more efficient electric vehicles. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/25/electric-cars-will-be-cheaper-than-conventional-vehicles-by-2022
3.) Upgrading Building Infrastructure
- In my position with AWS, one of my responsibilities is to help optimize our “Power Usage Efficiency”, to minimize the amount of power that is necessary to operate our facilities’ electrical/mechanical loads at optimal levels. Methods can be developed to frugally (with money and resource) increase the insulation of homes and buildings, and optimize the layout design to lower the use of the cooling/heating system, one of the largest consumers of electrical power in buildings.
- Installing energy-efficient lighting.
- “Investing in new infrastructure, or radically upgrading existing highways and transmission lines, would help cut greenhouse gas emissions and drive economic growth in developing countries.Of course, it takes a lot of cement, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, to construct new buildings and roads. The U.S. alone contributed 50.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2005 from cement production, which requires heating limestone and other ingredients to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit). Mining copper and other elements needed for electrical wiring and transmission also causes globe-warming pollution.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/10-solutions-for-climate-change/
4.) Consume Less Resources
- So that, in turn, less resources are produced.
5.) Draw Greenhouse Gasses out of the Atmosphere
- A possible avenue to explore: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/531346/can-sucking-co2-out-of-the-atmosphere-really-work/
- Humans are harvesting coal and other fossil fuels which formed from long-dead plants and animals, and burning it to release the energy stored inside.
- The act of burning these materials releases the carbon and other elements that were stored inside, which then in gaseous form settle in the atmosphere and act as a blanket to trap heat on the surface.
- This heating causes more liquid water to evaporate into water vapor, and more frozen water to melt into liquid. The liquid water which becomes water vapor acts to trap heat on the surface as well.
- The melting of frozen water (i.e. land glaciers) into liquid water, and the expansion of arctic waters, cause sea levels to rise, which threatens to relocate millions of people around the world, and contaminate drinking water.
- The warming changes environmental conditions for all life, including our crops, which may result in food shortages.
- Food shortages and mass migrations, if such things come to fruition, would be a global economic catastrophe, and international security concern.
The best we can do right now, in my opinion, is to band together internationally (such as in the Paris Agreement) to hold standards for the implementation of renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, upgrading building designs, and consuming less nonrenewable materials in general. I hope this has been an educational snack for your brain.
Thanks for reading.
Other Helpful Links:
Climate Science: What You Need To Know https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffjIyms1BX4
Why People Don’t Believe in Climate Science https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2euBvdP28c
Global Warming is a Hoax https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AwNKQqLESc
Response to Bill Whittle’s “Is climate change real?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7aZ6vqCk2E
Climate Change Explained https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifrHogDujXw
Climate Deal in Paris: Everything You Need to Know https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdqPoX9IV9A