By Janes Ouma Odongo
“Climate change is an issue that presents great scientific and economic complexities, some very deep uncertainties, profound ethical issues, and even lack of agreement on what the problem is.” Mike Toman
Mother Nature operates on equilibrium with room for slight disturbances. Any unwelcome alteration to this state (massive disequilibrium) comes with devastating catastrophes both human and natural- a principle in Earth Science
- Definition of Weather and Climate
Whereas weather is the state of the atmosphere at a specific time in a specific place and is measured using elements such as temperature, cloudiness, humidity, precipitation, and winds, climate is defined as long-term weather patterns that describe a region. The same elements that measure weather are used to measure climate with their measurements taken over a long duration spanning 30years and above.
Climate variability refers to variations in the prevailing state of the climate on all temporal and spatial scales beyond that of individual weather events. Variability can be caused by natural internal processes within the climate system, or to variations in natural or anthropogenic (human-driven) external forcing.
Global climate change refers to a change in either the mean state of the climate or in its variability, persisting for several decades or longer. This includes changes in average weather conditions on Earth, such as a change in average global temperature, as well as changes in how frequently regions experience heat waves, droughts, floods, storms, and other extreme weather. Changes in individual weather events will potentially contribute to a great effect, to changes in climate variability (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); 2005).
The weather system. Source: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), 1996. http://www.dar.csiro.au/publications/info98_4.htm
The global climate system is driven by the sun’s energy. It is also regulated by natural processes and cycles in the Earth system which include the carbon cycle and greenhouse effect, orbital cycles (for the earth and the moon), ocean currents that distribute warmer and colder water around the globe, and atmosphere-ocean interactions that moderate temperature. In addition to this, some scholars humans are principally affecting the climate system through alterations to the carbon cycle, which regulates the flow of carbon among living and non-living parts of the Earth system.
Carbon Cycle. Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS). USGS Fact Sheet137-97 1997. http://geochange.er.usgs.gov/pub/carbon/fs97137/co2bdgt90.jpg
These gases are a natural component of the climate system with the role of maintains the Earth as a habitable planet. Greenhouse gases are transparent to incoming solar radiation, allowing the sun’s energy to pass through the atmosphere to the surface of the Earth. The sun’s energy is then absorbed by the Earth’s surface, used in processes like photosynthesis, or emitted back to space as infrared radiation.
Some of the emitted radiation passes through the atmosphere and travels back to space, but some is absorbed by greenhouse gas molecules and then re-emitted in all directions. This helps warm the Earth’s surface and the lower atmosphere.
Water vapor (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are the two largest contributors to the greenhouse effect. Others will include Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other greenhouse gases which are present only in trace amounts. These can still have a powerful warming effect due to their heat-trapping abilities and their long residence time in the atmosphere.
Without the greenhouse effect, Earth’s average temperature would be -0.4°F (-18°C), rather than the present 59°F (15°C), (NOAA; 2005).
The greenhouse effect. Source: United States Global Change Research Program, 1996. http://www.gcrio.org/ocp96/p30box.html
However some scholars are not in agreement with the addition of water vapor into the list of gasses that make up greenhouse gasses. Their thesis is that this list should only be composed of those gasses “with negative effects”.
- Definition of global warming
Global warming refers to a gradual increase in the overall temperatures of the earth’s atmosphere. Generally attributed to the greenhouse effect, global warming is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, Chloro Fluoro carbons and other pollutants in the atmosphere.
The major agents responsible for global warming include: Mercury, CO2, methane, nitrous oxide from industries, Sulfate aerosols and use of phosphates. The concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide has increased over the past two hundred and fifty years. This is attributable to the combustion of fossil fuels for energy production. Since the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century , some scholars report that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from about 270 parts per million (ppm) to about 370 ppm. Concentrations of methane have also risen due to cattle production, the cultivation of rice, and release from landfills. Nearly one-third of human-induced nitrous oxide emissions are a result of industrial processes and automobile emissions. Further to this, ecosystems have been altered with vegetation either burned or removed by or for human activities. The carbon stored in these forests is usually released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This deforestation is blamed on agriculture, urban growth, harvesting timber for fuel, construction, and paper, among other reasons.
Current reports indicate that, up to a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere can be attributed to land-use change (IPCC; 2001).
In addition to carbon dioxide, Sulfate aerosols and black carbon are two important additional examples of anthropogenic outputs. Sulfate aerosols, which enter the atmosphere naturally during volcanic eruptions, are tiny airborne particles that reflect sunlight back to space. Industrial activity has recently increased their concentration in the atmosphere primarily through the burning of fossil fuels containing sulfur. Anthropogenic emissions of sulfate aerosols have been associated with a net cooling effect. Black carbon (soot) is generated from industrial pollution, traffic, outdoor fires, and the burning of coal and biomass fuels. Black carbon is formed by incomplete combustion especially of coal, diesel fuels, biofuels and outdoor biomass burning. Soot particles absorb sunlight, both heating the air and reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the ground (Rosenzweig).
Greenhouse gases are released into the air from many sources. This pie chart shows where they were coming from in 2004. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group 3
Generally, fossil energy currently accounts for 80 percent of world energy use. Energy use is responsible for 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation contributes more than 13% of green house gas emission but if we are to continue with our business as usual attitude, then emissions from transport related activities will double by 2050 Industry currently accounts for about 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and uses about half of the electricity generated. Most important in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in industrial sector are the chemicals, cement, and steel industries.
Another sector that is worth mentioning is agriculture which according to some scientists, is responsible for 25% of the emissions whether directly or indirectly.(Bellona Foundation; 2008).
Since 1900 the global surface temperature of the Earth has risen by about 0.8 oC and since the 70s by about 0.5 oC. The temperatures therefore increased largely between 1970 and today. This temperature increase occurred during a significant atmospheric concentration increase of some greenhouse gases (especially CO2 and CH4) which is known to be mainly due to human emissions. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in its Third Assessment Report in 2002 that: there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. It predicts that global average temperatures are likely to rise between 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius over this century, depending on the amount of fossil fuels we burn and the sensitivity of the climate system.
Representatives from 192 countries signed a treaty in 1992 called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was later followed by the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. Also known as the Kyoto Accord, this is an international treaty among developed nations signed in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 with the aim of limiting states’ emission of green house gasses into the atmosphere. Participating parties aimed to create policies and measures that would reduce and offset domestic emissions and increase absorption of greenhouse gases. The members were required to abide by the principles of accountability, compliance and reporting. The accord expired at the end of 2012 but parties agreed upon an extension of the protocol, effective from 2013 to 2020.
The Kyoto Protocol is overseen by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). By late 2013, all UN member states except for Andorra, Canada, South Sudan and the United States had signed and ratified the treaty.
- A glance at the ongoing furious international debate on global warming
According to the Anthropogenic Global Warming Theory (AGWT) humans have caused more than 90% of global warming since 1900 and virtually 100% of the global warming since 1970.
This theory is advocated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which is the leading body for the assessment of climate change established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The establishment of this institution was guided by the belief by many scientists that further emissions of greenhouse gases could endanger humanity.
There however exists dissenting voices opposed to this theory from scientists who, other than following the theoretical perspective, rely on meteorological observation data to make predictions. There is also a phenomenological model which says the global increases in temperatures between 1970 and 1990s was caused by phenomena happening naturally within the solar system without human influence. To this model therefore, global warming is not continuous and induced by human undertakings as claimed by the IPCC (Scafetta; 2010).
On the other hand, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stuck to its estimate that, on average, the rate of global warming should be 0.2 degree Celsius (°C) per decade. According to the vast majority of climate scientists that are in support of the IPCC approach, climate change is already underway. The past decade has seen the warmest 6 years since records began. They say that a third of global habitats are at risk, and extreme events such as floods, storms and drought are becoming more frequent. Due to this, the financial consequences of climate change are also becoming apparent – with insurance claims due to weather-related damage increasing dramatically over the past few decades. Critics of this however question both observations; that natural disasters are on the increase due to global warming and not other factors, and that losses from disasters are increasingly more from this (Huang; 2004).
A twist to this heated debate is presented by Dr James Hansen of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies, New York, in a report tabled before the US Senate in 1988. According to this:
- From 1860 to 1910 there was a slight fall in global temperatures of about 0.15°C
- From 1910 to 1940 there was a rise in global temperatures of about 0.5°C
- From 1940 to 1975 there was a fall of about 0.15°C
- From 1975 to 2000 there was a rise of about 0.5°C
He gave an obvious explanation for these sequences, related to the increase in human population, the growth in the number and size of buildings, and the increased use of energy over the period for the temperature rise.
According to his report, from 1860 to 1910 the system was becoming established in the large industrial cities and spreading over the globe. Equipment was being moved from the sides and roofs of buildings to protected enclosures, leading to a slight fall in the average.
From 1910 to 1940 the cities expanded, together with their energy use. Thermometers still suffered from an upwards bias because of the shrinkage of the thermometer glass. The First World War closed many stations which were rebuilt with better facilities, still mainly in large cities.
From 1940 to 1975 many stations were moved to airports and others were set up in rural areas, so causing an average fall in temperature.
From 1975 to 2000 airports expanded to become “heat islands” and better heating took place everywhere.
His report also said that there are minor differences between the two Hemispheres. Since 1975 the Northern Hemisphere has warmed more than the Southern Hemisphere. But this is not true based on available global temperature data gathered since then.
The fluctuating behavior of the record is incompatible with any explanation involving a steady climate change and it is not possible to establish any particular trend (Gray; 2001).
In the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, 0.2°C per decade was the observed trend, but in the late 1990s and all subsequent years the trend has been zero. Global climate observations are becoming incompatible with the consensus theory of climate change. Some scientists suggests that global temperature change may not even be a reality at all, but rather a false conclusion based on temperature readings that have been skewed by human activity (Knutti; 2008].
The other fact that we may not want to turn a blind eye on is that the stations that monitor the temperature in cities have moved closer to humans as cities have expanded, and many rural stations have been closed down. That explains why there has been no recorded increase in the measure of atmospheric temperatures, only a spike in the data on surface temperatures.
This paper will give balanced analogy of the debate on global warming and then finally give a concluding opinion on the same. To note however is that I am not in agreement with any discussion that seeks to allow continued careless human emission of greenhouse gases, or any other wastes for this matter into the environment. The negative consequences of careless human interaction with the environment are almost obvious and readily visibly wherever we go on earth including in our homes and at our door steps. Any assertions that our activities are not impacting Mother Nature negatively are hence in my view, either careless or aimed at scoring other goals and are not necessarily pointed at furthering the debate on global environmental conservation.
A graph showing global climate variations over time. Source: NASA, http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
N/B an organization called Skeptical Science has published 176 reasons to prove that Global Warming is not taking place. These can be accessed on: https://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php
- Effects of Global Warming
The IPCC identifies the following effects of an increase in global average temperature:
- Steady rise of the sea level– Rise of the sea level occurs mainly due to glacier retreat. Eighty percent (80%) of the earth’s water is in solid form mostly stored in glaciers. The glacier on top of mountains, ice sheets covering West Antarctica, Greenland, and Arctic sea ice is melting at a very fast rate. When the water melts due to increased heating, it flows through streams and underground channels into the seas and lakes increasing their levels (National Geographic: 2015). Global sea levels are expected by between 7 and 23 inches (18 and 59 centimeters) by the end of the century. In addition, the continued melting at the poles could add between 4 and 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters).
- Flooding of coastal areas- As a consequence of the happenings in effect one above, increasing sea levels come with flooding along the sea coasts. This has effects both on the environment and human populations inhabiting the coast. The financial effects can be devastating considering that more people tend to invest heavily along the coast in high end homes and hotels.
- Frequent extreme weather conditions– Global warming results in climate change which happens through changes in the timing of seasonal events such as peak rainy, dry, hot, and cold seasons. It also alters the seasonal patterns of weather through increase or decrease in temperatures. The extreme and increasingly unpredictable weather conditions tend to create hazardous conditions which, if not well prepared for in advance, can bring about meteorological disasters.
- Frequent poor harvests- Happens mainly due to too high or too low precipitation as well as due to extremely high or low temperatures beyond what is normal for crops and livestock.
- Water shortage– Especially due to droughts. This results in water bodies drying up. The water levels in lakes, springs and wells may recede as well. In other places, the water gets polluted or salty. When this happens, there occurs shortage or complete absence of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use.
- Loss of biodiversity- Biological organisms are forced to adapt to new weather/climatic conditions. Those that are not able to cope with these environmental changes die and become extinct. For example researcher Bill Fraser has tracked the decline of the Adélie penguins on Antarctica, where their numbers have fallen from 32,000 breeding pairs to 11,000 in 30 years. (National Geographic: 2015). Most plants will bloom earlier than their pollinating insects become active which lowers fertilization.
- Ecosystems change– It is predicted that some animal species will move farther north to become more successful; those that won’t be able to move and could become extinct. Wildlife research scientist Martyn Obbard has found that since the mid-1980s, with less ice on which to live and fish for food, polar bears have gotten considerably skinnier. Polar bear biologist Ian Stirling has found a similar pattern in Hudson Bay. He fears is that if sea ice disappears, the polar bears will as well (IPCC, 2007).
- Increase of infections– This is mainly due to poor sanitation brought about by inadequacy of quality water supply. Lack of water for food production can bring with itself famines together with which comes several other diseases (IPCC, 2007).
- Challenges in combating global warming
- Lack of adequate scientific backing of the theory– As seen earlier, earth scientists are not all in agreement that the earth is heating up. Some statistics have come up which prove that the global temperatures have not risen since 1990s.
- Lack of political goodwill- There exists a level of reluctance among political leaders of the developed states to fully adopt the agreed upon way forward as held in the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent discussions.
- The global capitalist attitude- Everybody wants to continue exploiting the environment to achieve their economic ends. Some of the lead contributor agent to global warming actually sustains a great chunk of the global economy. E.g. crude oil.
- Feared effect of alternative technologies- The alternatives are not clean as claimed. Examples will include nuclear energy and solar energy. It is evident that wastes from these alternatives also have dangerous ecological effects. They are also very hard to dispose once expired.
- High cost of alternatives– The alternatives are more costly to produce and install. Their energy output per unit is low- the input/output ratio is too high. Using them increases production costs which in effect also increases commodity prices.
- Slow pace of global cultural change- There exists a fear of moving from the known to the unknown ways of combating in energy use and waste management systems.
- Suggested solutions to Global warming
There exists a consensus that increased energy efficiency is an important measure to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions. Large emission reductions can also be achieved by improving manufacturing processes, engaging in environmentally sound agricultural practices and increasing recycling.
In many people’s view, nuclear power production, though does not lead to any direct greenhouse gas emissions, and substituting fossil fuelled power plants with nuclear power has been suggested as a solution to global warming, will not help since nuclear energy use poses serious problems. These range from nuclear waste handling, the risk of nuclear accidents, and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Until these significant problems are solved, using nuclear power as a solution to combat global warming would be to fight one problem by creating another.
Other solutions that have been suggested include:
- Lifestyle change- Bringing about a change in consumer behavior by means of emission-based pricing, increased awareness, and public and market based initiatives.
- Use energy economical technologies in buildings- The major greenhouse gas emission from residential and commercial buildings comes from energy related CO2. This can be lowered by reducing primary energy demand through improved energy efficiency and to replace fossil heating with renewable heating. The use of efficient technologies can help us cut greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by about half.
- Increase efficiency in the transformation of energy and materials into products and services especially in industry, buildings, transport and power generation.
- Replace fossil energy in power generation, transport, industry and buildings with renewable energy such as solar, bio- and wind energy. Global energy demand is predicted to rise as countries industrialize and population continues to grow. Overreliance on fossil fuels is likely to do the globe more harm in the future. In the transport industry in particular, these are the other measures that are recommended:
- The need for use of light-duty vehicles to achieve improved fuel economy.
- Transition to using plug-in vehicles that operate partly or solely on electricity.
- Require the sale of energy-efficient replacement tires.
- Ensuring that the majority of new residential and commercial developments in metropolitan areas take place in compact, walkable distances with access to a range of transportation options.
- There is need for transitioning to pay-as-you-drive automobile insurance, which reduces vehicle travel and accident risk.
- Expand as well as encourage public transportation service through better transit service. This reduces per-mile global warming pollution from vehicles through reduced number of vehicles and traffic jam on the roads.
- Encouraging bicycle travel through improved safety and convenience of bicycling.
- Building high-speed rail lines in 11 high-priority corridors by 2030.
- Adopt strong fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks.
- Encourage energy efficiency improvements in airplanes and trains.
- Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – It is recommended that we capture CO2 from power plants and industrial plants and store it permanently in geological formations- Underground tanks. Here, fossil CO2 is captured from power plants and transported through pipelines to safe geological storage sites. CCS can also be implemented at large industrial plants.
- Production of carbon negative power- In a carbon negative process, CO2 is first absorbed from the atmosphere through the production of modern biomass, such as algae. The production is only limited to non-agricultural land so as to not compete with food and feed production. The resulting biomass is then used to generate power in modern power plants fitted with carbon capture and storage, hence achieving a net negative emission.
- Putting focus on non-CO2 greenhouse gas reduction- It entails reduce emissions of other greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) from waste, industry and agriculture. E.g. methane from livestock and manure, and nitrous oxide from agricultural soils.
- Use of climate friendly agricultural practices- Agriculture currently accounts for 13.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, of which methane from livestock and manure and nitrous oxide from agricultural soils make up the lion’s share. While there are no technical ‘quick fixes’ to reduce agricultural emissions, improved agricultural practices, such as restoring cultivated organic soils and improving cropland management, can enable a 30 percent emission reduction.
- Encouraging land use change- It entails managing forests better to enhance their role as natural sinks of CO2. Intelligent land management, reforestation, and measures to stop the deforestation of rainforests can make land use change a net absorber of CO2.
- Coming up with carefully planned waste disposal systems- Waste water and landfills produce about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of methane and nitrous dioxide. Through a global adoption of readily available technologies, such as land-fill and sewage gas recovery, emissions can be reduced by more than 90%.
- Implementing the agreements reached under the Kyoto Protocol- Here, legally binding greenhouse gas targets as well as ranges of flexible mechanisms were agreed. Joint Implementation (JI), the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) and Emissions Trading (ET) which were agreed upon approaches allow countries and companies to buy and sell emissions with other countries who may either need to buy or have excess emissions to sell to others.
- Using alternative sources of electricity other than burning diesel– The alternatives will range from wind power, to hydro, geothermal, biomass, cells, tidal sources and wave power.
- Transport fuels can be obtained from liquid ethanol and biodiesel produced from plants, and other chemicals
Scientists believe that biofuels can provide a wide range of products currently based on oil and gas. Most of the key technologies aimed at reducing carbon emission are already working well in most parts of the world though in small scale. Kenya for example almost wholly relies on hydro, wind and geothermal power production for electricity supply.
There exists a radical increase in public funding for developing and demonstrating new climate-friendly technologies. These technologies are however very costly both to develop and acquire. Large scale use of these technologies remains a nightmare for many. With concerted global effort in research and funding however, scientists and manufacturers will break even and bring these new technologies affordably at our door steps. As we wait however, there is need that we fight the conscious destruction of the environment that we are currently engaging in. For instance, a change of market conditions to make it financially attractive to protect the climate is necessary and the sooner this is done the better for the protection of the environment together with the sustenance of life on planet earth.
We may not have agreed on whether global warming is real or not especially due to political interests and lack of adequate data considering that making this conclusion requires data collected over centuries but one thing that is sure is that environmental pollution has very many negative consequences most of which we all have firsthand experience with.
If the green house effect, which has been explained in this paper is a fact, then it means that any excess heating up or cooling of the atmosphere will interfere with the system temperature equilibrium which is necessary for supporting life on earth.
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- Other relevant links that informed the findings in this paper