Robert A. Levine 12-23-15
The Earth warmed more in the last three decades of the 20th century than in the previous 1400 years with rising temperatures accelerating at the start of the 21st century. Human activity has been mainly responsible. Changes in weather patterns, areas of drought, and heightened ocean levels can all be anticipated as atmospheric warming increases further. This will result in inundation of low lying portions of the Earth, with the possibility of numerous deaths from hurricanes, typhoons, and floods. And as the surface is flooded, more people will seek higher ground, crowding areas of perceived safety. There will also be less arable land available to produce food as heat and droughts are commonplace, with the likelihood of hunger and even famine stalking the Earth.
The vast majority of climate scientists (97 percent) agree that most of the planet’s warming is of man-made origin, primarily through the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as industrialization and the growth of the middle classes has spread everywhere. Climbing wealth in Third World countries has led to greater consumption and use of electricity, appliances, automobiles, air conditioning, and so forth. The burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil which releases CO2, along with the discharge of non-CO2 greenhouse gases are the two major factors responsible for the current scenario. Putting the climate genie back in the bottle will not be an easy task, but must be accomplished if the Earth as we know it is to survive.
China contributes the most to global warming with a dependence on coal for much of its energy, with the United States second. However, on a per capita basis and in total emissions over the years, the U.S. is first. China, Russia, India, Brazil, Germany and the U.K. make up the rest of the dirty seven. India is also coal dependent like China and with a soaring population may soon surpass China in polluting. In fact, New Delhi’s air may already be the dirtiest in the world. Unhappily, an Indian minister has stated that the growth of its economy and lifting its populace out of poverty is more important than dealing with global warming.
However, the Conference on Global Warming that took place in Paris recently provides some hope. In a landmark accord, the representatives of 195 countries, including China, the U.S. and India, committed their nations to cut greenhouse gases enough to moderate the worst effects of climate change. Unfortunately, this pact did not have mechanisms to enforce its provisions and is dependent on voluntary adherence to the limitations to which countries signed on. And past deals to control the use of fossil fuels and curb greenhouse gases have not been successful, as many nations disregarded the agreements. Perhaps because of greater urgency and the epic pollution occurring now in China, India, and other developing states, this program will be followed.
There also remains the question, however, whether the accepted cuts in emissions will be sufficient to meet the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above the prevailing temperature prior to the industrial revolution. Keeping it below 1.5 degrees would be the preferred limit. It is believed by scientists that atmospheric temperatures above that level will cause enough destructive effects to impact hundreds of millions of people. European democracies in general are already taking steps to reduce their production of carbon dioxide by using more renewable energy. (Though after the Fukushima nuclear accident, Germany has been abandoning nuclear energy.) But alternative energy sources are more expensive than coal. India and other developing countries have been reluctant to drop cheap coal and have been pushing for the developed nations to subsidize alternative energy for them. Greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, such as methane, must also be reduced if the rate of climate change is to be altered significantly.
In addition to the above measures, deforestation must be halted since it is a major factor in global warming. Harvesting of trees and clearing of land for farming and grazing pastures must be ended and forests replanted as sinks for absorbing carbon dioxide. Brazil, Indonesia and other nations with large forested areas must be encouraged to keep them intact and even start to enlarge them.
A report issued by an international commission in September 2014 entitled The New Climate Economy, suggested that the cost of lowering greenhouse gases might be much less than had been estimated previously. Some other credible international groups have even claimed that efforts to restrict carbon emissions would not hurt economic growth and might even act as a stimulus. What these scientists and economists say is that the cost of curbing carbon in the atmosphere would be offset by the benefits that would occur. This is partially because of the steep drop in solar and wind energy prices, along with the use of nuclear power and carbon recapture. Either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax could be used to drive the reduction of fossil fuel use, or any other path that was shown to work. One of the offsets would be greatly improved health, survival, and productivity of the population with the most exposure to “dirty air” and carbon particles.
The surprising drop in fossil fuel prices at the end of 2014 may cause more difficulties convincing underdeveloped nations to lessen the use of carbon-based fuels and increase alternative energy. And the election of a Republican president in the U.S. in 2016, who reverses Obama’s steps on the environment, could “heat” up the atmosphere further. Unfortunately, most Republicans in Congress deny the dangers of global warming and are unwilling to take action to curb greenhouse gases. In fact, Senator Jim Imhofe of Oklahoma, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, has said that climate change is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” God, not humans, controls the weather. How do you deal with such ignorance, since it is likely Imhofe’s constituents agree with his statements.
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