Climate Change For Beginners by Dean Goodwin and Joe Lee by Dean Goodwin and Joe Lee - Read Online

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Climate Change For Beginners - Dean Goodwin

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Chapter 1

Climate Change: An Introduction

It's Such a Hot Topic!

Climate change is a major environmental issue, one that has generated much interest, debate, argument, and conjecture in the media in recent times. Thirty years ago the general public had little idea of its existence; today the topic receives daily media attention. Some scientists have stood by the evidence that proves climate change while others have got very hot under the collar in their attempts to convince us otherwise. But the debate has not been just among scientists (where it is to be expected, because the scientific process should be open to healthy skepticism and data should be able to stand up to scrutiny by the whole global scientific community). Others who may not be as knowledgeable about the subject have gotten into the discussion, letting off enough steam that their voices are heard. This has led to the spread of misinformation and misconceptions in the eyes of the public as the global warming and climate change debate spirals out of control, leading to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.

So Why All the Fuss?

Many scientists have suggested that the climate changes that are occurring as a result of global warming are being caused by us—the human race. Societies around the world are using more and more fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, to provide increasing amounts of energy in order to meet the demands of an increasing population while at the same time increasing economic growth. Whenever a fossil fuel is burned it produces, among other things, carbon dioxide, which gets released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and some other compounds have been shown to be capable of raising the temperature of the atmosphere and have been labeled greenhouse gases. Many scientists are calling for a reduction in the amounts of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases that we are producing in order to slow down the rate of global warming and the accompanying changes in the earth's climate. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions would necessitate a reduction in the use of fossil fuels or a shift to using them more efficiently. That's why the debate really began.

Many untruths and junk science are dispersed to the public through the media by special interest groups that are directly involved in the production or use of fossil fuels, including energy utility companies. These groups rationalize that if carbon dioxide has to be reduced, then new regulations and mandates will adversely affect their operations. They disagree with the idea of global warming and the role that carbon dioxide plays in the process of climate change. The misinformation put forward by such groups not only receives widespread attention in the media, it also has the support of some politicians and other scientists, many of whom are not climatologists. They argue that climate change is part of the earth's natural cycles, and that the increase in amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere during the past 200 years or so are not to blame for the increased planetary temperatures.

Global warming is the second-largest hoax played on the American people, after the separation of church and state.

—US Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), 2005

During the winter of 2015, on February 26, Senator Inhofe brought a real snowball to the US Senate floor and threw it to the sitting Senate President in an attempt to disprove climate change once and for all, saying It's very, very cold out. Very unseasonable. Earlier in January 2015 NASA, a government agency, had declared that 2014 was the warmest year on record since we began tracking data in 1880. Although there were many record lows throughout the USA during the winter of 2014-2015, the country as a whole was actually experiencing a warmer than average winter! Just because it snowed in Washington, DC in February 2015 does not prove that global warming and the related climate change that is taking place on a global scale is a hoax, as some skeptics would have the public believe!

Putting Things into Perspective

It is true that over many thousands of years the earth experiences dramatic climate changes, and there have been some hot and cold anomalies that do occur once in a while. For example, the folks in New England called 1816 the year without a summer, because snow fell in every month of that year! In 17th-century Europe the temperatures were so low that England's River Thames froze, and the term Little Ice Age was used. Yes, these anomalies could have resulted from causes that are unrelated to the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, such as decreased sunspot activity, just as abnormally warm periods could occur due to increased sunspot activity. So today the skeptics use such arguments to discount the current climate changes as being just a part of the Earth's natural cycles and nothing for us to worry about. Not only that, they claim we are not responsible for these changes, and what's more, carbon dioxide is a gas that occurs naturally so how can our emissions of this natural substance affect anything? These arguments can sound very convincing, especially if one has little understanding of or basic common grounding in science.

However, people were worrying about humans' affects on nature long before the global warming debate began.

In an address delivered before the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont, on September 30, 1847, George Perkins Marsh said, But though man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow . . . it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action. Marsh was a farmer, and probably the first person to refer to human-induced climate change. He wrote a physical geography book in 1864, Man and Nature, in which he said the following:

The action of man, indeed, is frequently followed by unforeseen and undesired results, yet it is nevertheless guided by a self-conscious will. . . . The ravages committed by man . . . destroys the balance which nature had established . . . and she avenges herself . . . by letting loose . . . destructive energies hitherto kept in check . . . but which he has unwisely dispersed.

The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime . . . would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climate excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.

From these comments, it would appear that Marsh could be considered the Nostradamus of climate change and global warming, with his prophesies gaining support from the scientific community some 150 years later! Although he did not link the role of carbon dioxide to global warming, he did make a strong case for how changes in land use and human activity can adversely affect climate.

So How Did Carbon Dioxide Get the Blame?

Over the years many scientists have studied the properties of carbon dioxide. In 1860, John Tyndall, a British physicist born in Ireland, conducted experiments to measure the amount of infrared radiation (heat) that carbon dioxide could absorb.

Earlier, in 1827, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician who researched heat conduction, had suggested that heat gets trapped near the earth because the atmosphere behaves like the glass of a hothouse. This paved the way for the now ubiquitous phrase greenhouse effect.

In 1894, Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius hypothesized that the increased emission of carbon dioxide as a result of the industrial revolution would result in global warming. He published the first calculations of increased atmospheric temperatures resulting from human-induced, or anthropogenic, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and made predictions as to the extent of future temperature changes.

The first person to confirm that carbon dioxide released through the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial processes increased atmospheric levels of the gas was Charles David Keeling, who began recording the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere above the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in the late 1950s. His landmark research laid the foundation for many studies of global carbon dioxide levels and the climate changes that occur as a result.

Upon Keeling's death, Charles F. Kennel, the director of the Scripps Institution for Oceanography said:

There are three occasions when dedication to scientific measurements has changed all of science.

Tycho Brahe's observations of planets laid the foundation for Sir Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation. Albert Michelson's measurements of the speed of light laid the foundation for Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Charles David Keeling's measurements of the global accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere set the stage for today's profound concerns about climate change. They are the single most important environmental data set taken in the 20th century.

This data set is widely known today as the Keeling Curve and is referenced in many articles, textbooks, and other media presentations on global warming.

The Keeling Curve, showing the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over the last half-century.

Comparing the Keeling Curve to other graphs showing the increase in atmospheric temperatures has enabled climatologists to clearly establish the link between greenhouse gas pollution and global warming.

In the 1950s, climatologists began to use computer models to predict changes in the earth's climate as a result of global warming. In the 1980s it was clear that an actual warming trend was emerging. In 1988, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to investigate and report back their findings on increasing global temperatures due to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

What Is the IPCC and What Has It Reported?

The IPCC is, basically, a group of scientists. Governments of different countries submit the names of their own climatologists, and then several hundred are chosen by a leadership panel from the IPCC. Selection is based on a person's research area, as well as publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Each scientist selected is assigned to a specific working group whose responsibility is to assess the entire scientific literature on a particular aspect of global warming. Suffice to say, it is a great honor to serve on one of the IPCC working groups, which are composed of the world's leading climate