Decade In Science: Climate Change


By A. Depsky

Polar bears are losing their homes, frogs are getting sick, flowers are losing their smell and humans might be next. As ice caps melt, sea levels rise and local precipitation and temperatures are shifting. Many species cannot deal with the changes. Scientists warn that if we do not act soon humans will be forced to deal with a changing climate that will alter agriculture, and displace cities.


The “greenhouse effect” is a good thing, we need it to live. Without it, earth would be an ice cube. When sunlight hits the earth much of it is reflected back to space. Due to gases in the atmosphere known as “greenhouse gases” some of this thermal energy is prevented from escaping and is trapped in the atmosphere. But, it becomes a problem when humans inject the atmosphere with unusually high levels of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and halocarbons (gases once used widely as refrigerants and spray propellants), and effectively enhance the greenhouse effect.

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide remained roughly stable for nearly 10,000 years, but have rapidly increased within the last 200 years. Reports place Co2 levels at about 35 percent higher than preindustrial levels, methane around two and a half times higher, and nitrous oxide levels around 20 percent higher. Extensive studies have shown that atmospheric carbon dioxide is rising by 2 ppm every year and that the global temperature has increased by about 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

Many people are under the impression that scientists have thought about climate change only very recently, but, in fact, scientists have been warning about the possibility of human activities altering the climate for fifty years, and have had knowledge of the “greenhouse effect” for far longer.

As early as 1863 an Irish scientist named John Tyndall published a paper describing how water vapor can be a greenhouse gas. And, in the 1890’s a Swedish scientist known as Svante Arrhenius and an American called P C Chamberlain independently considered the possibility of global warming due to build up of CO2 in the atmosphere, though neither one suspected that this may have already begun to happen. Arrhenius even thought that it might be an improvement for future generations to live “under a milder sky.”

In 1957, US oceanographer Roger Revelle warned people that humans are unintentionally conducting a “large-scale geophysical experiment” by releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gases, and in that same year, his colleague, David Keeling, set up continuous monitoring of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which soon revealed a yearly increase that has continued to this day.

In 1979, the first World Climate Conference was held in Geneva and led to the establishment of the World Climate Programme, an “international scientific programme whose goals are to improve understanding of the climate system and to apply that understanding for the benefit of societies coping with climate variability and change.”

In 1985, scientists at the World Climate Program in Austria predicted that increased CO2 will lead to a significant rise in earth’s temperature, and that same year, a hole in the ozone layer was discovered over Antarctica.

Due to increasing concern, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or (IPCC) was set up in 1988 to provide reports on the knowledge and viewpoints within the scientific community. (This institution has since been accused both of being too conservative in its reports as well as too exaggeratory.)

In June of this year, Dr James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies delivered a testimony to the U.S. Senate in which he stated that based on computer models and temperature measurements, he was 99% certain that human-caused greenhouse effects are already changing the climate.

Within the last decade evidence to support this claim has amassed rapidly, coming from many diverse fields of science due to the wide reaching effects of climate change. Political response, however, has occurred at an much slower rate.

In 2000 a series of major floods around the world reinforced public concern about the possibility of global warming raising the risk of extreme weather events. That year IPCC scientists issued an assessment of future emissions warning that the earth could rise in temperature by 6 degrees C within a century. Talks held in The Hague to finalise the “Kyoto rule book” failed to reach an agreement after the EU and the US backed out.

In May of 2001, the Kyoto Protocol was finalized despite the refusal by George W. Bush to allow the US to join out of fear of harming the US economy. The third official report by the IPCC concluded that it was “likely,” or more than 66% probable that most of the recent warming was caused by humans.

In 2002 a piece of the Larsen Ice Shelf roughly the size of Rhode Island on the northernmost part of the mainland of Antarctica broke up. This was also the hottest year on record.

2003 followed as the third hottest year on record, but for Europe it was the hottest summer in at least 500 years and it was estimated that 30,000 people died as a result. Researchers later came to the conclusion that climate change can at least DOUBLE the likely-hood of a heatwave occurring. 2003 also showed an abrupt increase in the rate and accumulation of greenhouse gases, which confused scientists.

In November of 2004 Russia agreed to back the Kyoto protocol, giving it enough participation to become a legally binding treaty by 2005, though Australia and the US still refuse to join.

2005 was the second warmest year on record and researchers linked the warmer climate to a record US hurricane season, as well as acceleration of the melting of Artic sea ice and Siberian permafrost. Some scientists gave warnings that the Antarctic ice sheet was starting to collapse, and others reported polar bear drownings because they have to swim farther to reach solid ice.

In 2006, the “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change,” by economist Nicholas Stern was commissioned by the UK government. It basically said that the cost of preventing climate change is far less than the cost of dealing with it later.

It states, “our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century. And it will be difficult or impossible to reverse these changes. Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries”

This was the same year that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released and became a box office hit, CO2 emissions were reported to be rising faster than in the 1990’s, wildfires hit a record for a season with nearly 100,000 fires reported, and severe heatwaves in North America left at least 225 people dead.

By 2007, 175 countries had ratified the Kyoto Treaty including, now, Australia. Arctic sea ice covered an all time record low in area, and it was reported that within the last 30 years an area the size of Norway, Sweden and Denmark has disappeared. The fourth official IPCC report was released this year, and it now claimed 90% certainty that global warming is caused by humans. The report included a number of observed consequences from the changing climate including: decreased snowfall, rise in sea level due to both heating expanse and ice melting, and changes in large scale patterns of precipitation. It also included a reconstruction of past climate from tree rings and other proxies which indicated that the warmth of the last fifty years is unusual at least within the last 1,300 years. Measurements were published this year that showed a decline in solar activity since the 1980’s, debunking the theory that increased solar activity could be the reason for global warming.

In 2008 the polar bear became listed as an endangered species because of its current and predicted habitat loss due to climate change, and 160 miles of the “Wilkens Shelf” broke off from the Antarctic coast. At the annual UN climate summit, representatives from around the world agreed to a timetable to create a post 2012 replacement for the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2009 Indigenous peoples from around the world gathered in Anchorage, AK to come to a united consensus about climate change, and demanded a greater voice in the global decision making process and in the Kyoto replacement. In September of this year the World Bank Issued a statement on the social and economic state of climate change which insisted that developing countries can shift to lower-carbon paths while still reducing poverty and continuing to develop, but that it will require financial and technological assistance from rich countries.

According to the World Bank Chief Economist, Justin Lin, “Developing countries face 75-80 percent of the potential damage from climate change. They urgently need help to prepare for drought, floods, and rising sea levels. They also need to intensify agricultural productivity, contain malnutrition and disease, and build climate-resilient infrastructure,” Developing countries will be the most impacted by climate change not only because of their lack of financial and infrastructural resources, but also their reliance on direct agriculture and animals in their lifestyles, their physically exposed locations.

In December 2009 the United Nation Climate Change Conference, or Copenhagen Summit, produced disappointing results. Shortly thereafter United Nation’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, announced his resignation after the conference failed “to agree to more than vague promises to limit carbon dioxide emissions”.

Much of the stagnation in climate change policy-making stems from the controversy surrounding the issue. The complexity and uncertainty inherent in the science makes it an easy target for manipulation and dispute. Recently in November of 2009, a series of emails between scientists were leaked from a hacked server used by the Climate Research Unit. The emails contained comments that could be interpreted as conspiring to manipulate the data, though this has been denied. Skeptics jumped on this incident, calling it “Climategate.”

“The Great Global Warming Swindle” was released in 2006 and argues against the science behind anthropogenic global warming, asserting that it is “the biggest scam of modern times.” The original working title was “Apocalypse my arse.” The documentary points to a number of political reasons for the “scam” such as increased funding for climate science and global warming research, influence of vested interest groups who are making a living off the theory, influence and support of the theory by those with political ideologies against capitalism, globalization, etc, and the film goes so far as to even claim the theory was invented by Margaret Thatcher to promote nuclear power and lessen the blow of striking coal miners. There are many denial websites out there that discuss the “global warming hoax” such as, where they claim, “Only the Truth Heats Up.”

Conversely, many people counter that climate change denial is a finely crafted “scam” to keep industries safe from regulation. In a report, titled “Dealing in Doubt: The Climate Denial Industry and Climate Science,” Greenpeace outlines a history of the war waged by polluting industries against climate change science, the IPCC, and individual scientists, focusing especially on ExxonMobil, which is known to have invested over $23 million since 1998 to fund anti-climate change think-tanks and non-profits.

Despite the debating public, the climate change science continues… A recent study attributes the lowered activity of some pollinators to a dryer climate which causes “The aroma producing chemical compounds in flowers [to] dry up faster now compared with before.” The State of the Birds: 2010 Report on Climate Change, follows a comprehensive report released a year ago showing that that nearly a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline:

Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg, director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says, “For well over a century, migratory birds have faced stresses such as commercial hunting, loss of forests, the use of DDT and other pesticides, a loss of wetlands and other key habitat, the introduction of invasive species, and other impacts of human development,” Salazar said. “Now they are facing a new threat–climate change–that could dramatically alter their habitat and food supply and push many species towards extinction.” “Birds are excellent indicators of the health of our environment, and right now they are telling us an important story about climate change. Many species of conservation concern will face heightened threats, giving us an increased sense of urgency to protect and conserve vital bird habitat.”

And now, innovative solutions are rolling in, ranging from commonsensical to outlandish. Some of the more creative ideas include:

wrapping Greenland in white blankets to replace the reflective surfaces lost from ice sheets melting,

artificially feeding a greater population of plankton because they are important carbon sinks,

shooting huge mirrors into space to reflect some of the sun’s rays,

adding extra clouds consistently via ocean patrol boats spraying sea water high into the sky,

feeding cows garlic because it is known to kill the methane-producing stomach bacteria,

pumping sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to block sunlight,

and planting fake trees that contain proprietary absorbent materials that remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it, possibly to be sold to soda companies for carbonation.

And that soda could be sold in a vending machine that itself fights climate change. This is not just an idea, but a reality, “Coke, Pepsi, Ben & Jerry’s and GE are phasing out the use of ozone-depleting refrigerants, turning instead to carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons”. Most vending machines rely on a hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), for their refrigerant that although it is a highly effective air coolant, is also 1,430 times more harmful to the climate than CO2.

“We talk about fighting fire with fire,” said Bryan Jacob, director of energy and climate protection for Coke, who says CO2 is nonflammable, nontoxic, comparatively inexpensive and readily available. “In the right application, CO2 can be a solution to climate change.”

With the complexity of the science, the predictions for the future vary widely, but even the lowest predicted changes could lead to disruption of food and water supplies, increasingly flooded coastlines, and the extinction of many species.

Using computer models based on supposed future emissions, scientists predict that the global temperature will increase at an average rate of about 0.2 degree C per decade. However, long-term warming is very much dependent on the future rate of emissions.

Scientists warn governments that short term financial hardships should not stop them from taking action. Climate change will have far more devastating effects if no action is taken now.

Rosina Bierbaum, WDR co-director and Dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment says,“Grappling with climate shocks that are already hampering development will not be easy. But promising new energy technologies can vastly reduce future greenhouse gas emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change.”


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