Monday, 21 February 2011

What is Global Warming? An Outline of Facts and Figures in Connection With Global Warming

Since the late 1960s, but more prominently in the last twenty years we have all heard of the phrase 'global warming.' Generally most people by now have an idea that this has something to do with the planets temperature, but, that it's cause's and effects are often hard to identify and quantify.
Global warming is a natural occurrence, think of planet Earth as a very, very complex machine, it has many intricate systems which allow it to sustain life, and global warming is simply one of  those systems, whereby 'greenhouse gases' as they have become known, trap solar heat in the Earth's atmosphere. Greenhouse gases can be natural, such as water vapour, but the levels of others such as carbon dioxide (CO2) are not always so natural. By trapping solar heat greenhouse gases affect the Earth's temperature and keep the planet from getting too cold (alternatively we might experience global cooling). In this respect it is a vital, natural event that makes our planet habitable, but the fear is that it is a process which has been affected by human behaviour which could have serious repercussions.
Perhaps the most important and controversial question is, to what extent has human activity increased or speeded up the process of global warming, and how? It has been argued that since the  industrial age, the burning of naturally found fossil fuels such as coal and oil has increased the amount of carbon dioxide that has been released into the Earth's atmosphere, and that this has speeded up global warming. Further more as the world's population increases, so has our need for energy, meaning the problem increases year on year, especially, when considering the additional pollution from emerging countries such as China.
Public opinion seems to be mixed generally on this subject, varying from people who adamantly don't believe or care, to people who devote their life to creating awareness. Even governments' aren't entirely convinced, or are at least, slow to act. The previous American administration, under President George W Bush, toed an almost non-committal line based on G8 recommendations to halve carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, and seemed impartial when faced with the issue of the human impact on global warming. This may largely have been to do with national policy, but there is also a hint that it is based on personal belief as well as financial interests (The US had a preferred policy of burning home coal reserves as opposed to using cleaner gas energy). Factor into this that China refused to reduce it's own carbon footprint until America did so and sometimes the situation seems deadlocked (but please read further).
This is ironic considering that after losing the 2000 American Election, Mr Bush's opposition leader, former Vice President Al Gore presented in a film about the same issue, An Inconvenient Truth  (David Guggenheim, 2006), details exactly how man's behaviour is having an effect on the environment. Reiterating that the burning of fossil fuels, air travel, car use and the depletion of green / forest land has increased the amount of carbon dioxide (and other man made greenhouse gases) that accumulates in the atmosphere. 
The issue is so important that in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up. The aim of the IPCC is to offer an objective source of information about the causes of climate change, its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences. It comprises of many scientists writing papers to outline those causes and effects that they believe are man-made or being sped up by human behaviour.
And, as previously mentioned it's not new news, as early as 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich commented in his book The Population Bomb that: the greenhouse effect is being enhanced now by the greatly increased level of carbon dioxide, that [a]t the moment we cannot predict what the overall climatic results will be of our using the atmosphere as a garbage dump.
So what has taken us so long? Because over 40 years later we can see what the effects of using our atmosphere as a garbage dump, are. Our polar ice caps are melting. Vast areas of American landscape's are changing, such as in Patagonia where glaciers are disappearing. If shelf ice in Greenland melts, sea levels could raise by as much as 20 foot, reducing land mass across the planet (not to mention the amount of extra trapped greenhouses gases they will release on breaking up). The ice is also fresh water which will affect the salinity in the water affecting natural sea life. Greenpeace also states that based on our current behaviour and negligence, within 50 years one third of all land based animals will face extinction. And, as  natural disasters increase, such as hurricanes (Katrina), droughts, floods, its not hard to see that already it is having an impact on human life, with around 150,000 people dying every year as a direct result of global warming.
In summary, whether you believe in man's affect on global warming or not, we as humans need to take more responsibility for the care taking of our planet. I've personally known people who regard the whole thing as rubbish, and that's their belief (in my opinion they are dangerously wrong), but understanding two basic things must / should still prompt people to action, which is; that no country can afford not to recycle, and, sooner or later we WILL run out of fossil fuels, the burning of which are a proven link to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The two easiest things that we can do to alleviate this problem on an individual level is try to recycle as much as possible and reduce our energy usage. Think carefully about the products you buy, do they come in recycled packaging (indeed is half the packaging required), can you get your energy from cleaner providers? Should you invest in a greener car, or failing that use public transport more often, remember to switch off appliances when not in use, use energy efficient light bulbs. Everything that we do, can done be in a greener way. As the world is a complex living machine, see yourself as a part of the whole. As the study aid for  An Inconvenient Truth suggests 'Think globally, act locally.' Your actions will have an impact on your local, and then, the world  wide environment. Although we seriously are threatened by what has been labelled by the Prince of Wales as, 'mankind's greatest challenge,' we still have time to make a difference.
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