What Is Global Warming And Climate Change?

Global warming and climate change refer to an increase in average global temperatures. Natural events and human activities are believed to be contributing to an increase in average global temperatures. This is caused primarily by increases in ³greenhouse´ gases such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

What Is The Greenhouse Effect?
The term greenhouse is used in conjunction with the phenomenon known as thegreenhouse effect.
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Energy from the sun drives the earth¶s weather and climate, and heats the earth¶s surface; In turn, the earth radiates energy back into space; Some atmospheric gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases) trap some of the outgoing energy, retaining heat somewhat like the glass panels of a greenhouse; These gases are therefore known as greenhouse gases; The greenhouse effect is the rise in temperature on Earth as certain gases in the atmosphere trap energy.

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Six main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) (which is 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide) and nitrous oxide (N2O), plus three fluorinated industrial gases: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). Water vapor is also considered a greenhouse gas. The Greenhouse Effect Is Natural. What Do We Have To Do With It? Many of these greenhouse gases are actually life-enabling, for without them, heat would escape back into space and the Earth¶s average temperature would be a lot colder. However, if the greenhouse effect becomes stronger, then more heat gets trapped than needed, and the Earth might become less habitable for humans, plants and animals. Carbon dioxide, though not the most potent of greenhouse gases, is the most significant one. Human activity has caused an imbalance in the natural cycle of the greenhouse effect and related processes. NASA¶s Earth Observatory is worth quoting the effect human activity is having on the natural carbon cycle, for example: According to,
The Carbon Cycle; The Human Role, Earth Observatory, NASA

In addition to the natural fluxes of carbon through the Earth system, anthropogenic (human) activities, particularly fossil fuel burning and deforestation, are also releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

When we mine coal and extract oil from the Earth¶s crust, and then burn these fossil fuels for transportation, heating, cooking, electricity, and manufacturing, we are effectively moving carbon more rapidly into the atmosphere than is being removed naturally through the sedimentation of carbon, ultimately causing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to increase.

Also, by clearing forests to support agriculture, we are transferring carbon from living biomass into the atmosphere (dry wood is about 50 percent carbon).

The result is that humans are adding ever-increasing amounts of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Because of this, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are higher today than they have been over the last half-million years or longer.

Another way of looking at this is with a simple analogy: consider salt and human health: A small amount of salt is essential for human life; Slightly more salt in our diet often makes food tastier; Too much salt can be harmful to our health.

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In a similar way, greenhouse gases are essential for our planet; the planet may be able to deal with slightly increased levels of such gases, but too much will affect the health of the whole planet.

The other difference between the natural carbon cycle and human-induced climate change is that the latter is rapid. This means that ecosystems have less chance of adapting to the changes that will result and so the effects felt will be worse and more dramatic it things continue along the current trajectory.

The Climate Has Always Varied In The Past. How Is This Any Different?
Throughout Earth¶s history the climate has varied, sometimes considerably. Recent warming, however, is due to human industrialization processes, as the following graph from NASA shows: This graph below is based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Source: NOAA) NASA, accessed October 27, 2009

The above covers hundreds of thousands of years and shows how atmospheric CO2 levels have dramatically increased in recent years. If we ³zoom´ in on just the past 250 years, we see the following:

Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), April 29, 2009

NASA¶s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) tracks atmospheric global temperature climate trends: Environmental engineer, D Kelly O¶Day, writing on ProcessingTrends.com explains: ³To facilitate assessments of long term trends, climatologists compare the mean for a base period with the annual mean. Differences between the annual mean and baseline mean are called anomalies. GISS uses the 1951 - 1980 period for their baseline period. They use the difference between the annual mean and the baseline mean to determine the global temperature anomaly for the year.´

O¶Day summarizes the above chart: ³In the 1880 - 1935 period, the temperature anomaly was consistently negative. In contrast, the 1980 - 2005 period has had a consistently positive temperature anomaly. The 1917 temperature anomaly (-0.47oC) was the lowest year on record. Since 1917, global temperature has warmed, with the most recent years showing the highest anomalies of +0.4/ 0.6 oC in the past 120 years.´

What Are The Impacts Of Global Warming?
For decades, greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide have been increasing in the atmosphere. But why does that matter? Won¶t warmer weather be nicer for everyone?

Rapid Changes In Global Temperature
A documentary aired on the National Geographic Channel in Britain on August 9, 2003 titled What¶s up with the weather. It noted that the levels of carbon dioxide for example, were currently at their highest levels in the past 450,000 years. Increased greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect is feared to contribute to an overall warming of the Earth¶s climate, leading to a global warming (even though some regions may experience cooling, or wetter weather, while the temperature of the planet on average would rise). Consider also the following: The five warmest years on record, in order (warmest first) are:
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2005 1998 2002 2003 2004

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the 1990s was the warmest decade; The 1900s was the warmest century during the last 1,000 years. However, it is the rapid pace at which the temperature will rise that will result in many negative impacts to humans and the environment and this why there is such a world-wide concern.

Small average global temperature change can have a big impact
Climate scientists admit that the chances of the world keeping average global temperature at current levels are not going to be possible (humanity has done little to address things in the past couple of decades that these concerns have been known about). So, now, there is a push to contain temperature rises to an average 2°C increase (as an average, this means some regions may get higher temperatures and others, lower). Even just a 2°C increase can have impacts around the world to biodiversity, agriculture, the oceans etc (detailed further below). But in the lead up to important global climate talks at the end of 2009, some delegates are skeptical that temperature rises can be contained to a 2°C rise (or C0 2 levels of 350 ppm ). Some of the impacts are seen on the following: The Amazon forest: With the high levels of climate change, large areas of Amazon forest could be lost through either drought stress on vegetation or the uncontrolled spread of fire. This depends largely on whether rainfall will decrease in Amazonia. While some climate models suggest rainfall may increase, some of the more realistic models project severe drying in the Amazon, increasing the risk of major droughts. Agriculture: A climate change directly affects the crop productivity and food production. Changes in the regional differences in the climate patterns may widen production and consumption gaps between the developed and developing world. Current assessments are mainly limited to alteration in mean climate, but extreme weather or glacial retreat would potentially accelerate declines in productivity further. Agricultural yields are expected to decrease all major cereal crops in all major regions of production. Once the global average temperature increases beyond 3 degree c. for some crops the yield could decrease by over 20% at low latitudes, where the impact will be greatest. This would

in tens to hundreds of millions of additional people (roughly a 10-20% increase), at risk from hunger. Most of this increase is expected in sub-Saharan Africa, and some in the parts of south Asia and Central America, particularly for child malnutrition. For the population at 2050 in the increase in the number of malnourished children could be as high as 24 million. Water availability: A rise in the global average temperature of 40 C (70 F) would have a substantial effect on river flows and the availability of water. For the population rise at 2080, without climatic change, just over three billion people, out of global population of 7.5 billion, could be living in areas with limited per capita water availability (less than 1000 m3/person/year) By reducing river run off, climatic changes could mean that significantly less water was available to approximately 1 billion of these people ( range 0.4 to 2 billion), substantially increasing the pressure of managing water supplies. In addition, as glaciers retreat, communities relying on glaciers melt water will also come under further threat. Sea level rise: Sea level rise is an inevitable consequence of increasing global temperatures. Low lying coastal areas will become more vulnerable to flooding and land loss. As these areas often have dense populations, important infrastructure and high value agricultural and bio diverse land, significant impacts are expected. At the beginning of the 21st century, an estimated 600 million people live no more than 10 meters above present sea level. South and East Asia have the highest populations living in low-lying deltas, but small islands are also vulnerable from sea level rise and storm surges. Flooding from sea water would cause loss of land, crops and fresh water supplies, posing a risk to stability and security. For same, forced migration will be evitable. Carbon cycle: The 20th century rise in CO2 concentration was only 40-50% of the actual rate of emissions, because the rest was absorbed by the world¶s eco system and oceans. This process may be

damaged by climatic change. So that the impact of emissions on atmospheric concentrations could be greater in future. At 40 C (70F) increases in global average temperature, the proportion of CO2 emissions remaining in the atmosphere could rise as much as 70%. The longer emission cuts are delayed, the less effective they will be in stabilizing CO2 in the atmosphere. Temperature rise: An average global temperature rise of 40C (70F) is not uniform as oceans heat more slowly than land and high altitude particularly the Artic will have larger temperature increases. The temperature of the very hottest days will also increase and many areas of high proportion density will see a larger change in extreme high temperatures. This will have a significant impact on health. Temperature rises will impact water availability, agricultural productivity, the risk of fire, the melting of ice of sheets and the thawing of permafrost. Commercial activity will also be affected by loss of productivity in hotter conditions or the cost of maintaining cooler working environments. Heat related mortality and other adverse health impacts are likely to increase considerably, even when acclimatization, adaption and fewer cold related deaths are taken into account. In 2003 for instance , the European heat wave was responsible for around 35000 additional deaths.

On October 22, 2009, the British Government and the UK¶s Met Office (UK¶s National Weather Service) unveiled a new map, showing what would happen if we allowed average global temperatures to increase to 4°C above pre-industrial levels (the high end of the UNIPCC projections):

Extreme Weather Patterns
Most scientists believe that the warming of the climate will lead to more extreme weather patterns such as:
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More hurricanes and drought; Longer spells of dry heat or intense rain (depending on where you are in the world); Scientists have pointed out that Northern Europe could be severely affected withcolder weather if climate change continues, as the arctic begins to melt and send fresher waters further south. It would effectively cut off the Gulf Stream that brings warmth from the Gulf of Mexico, keeping countries such as Britain warmer than expected; In South Asia, the Himalayan glaciers could retreat causing water scarcity in the long run.


While many environmental groups have been warning about extreme weather conditions for a few years, the World Meteorological Organization announced in July 2003 that ³Recent scientific assessments indicate that, as the global temperatures continue to warm due to climate change, the number and intensity of extreme events might increase.´ The WMO also notes that ³New record extreme events occur every year somewhere in the globe, but in recent years the number of such extremes have been increasing.´ (The WMO limits the definition of extreme events to high temperatures, low temperatures and high rainfall amounts and droughts.) The U.K¶s Independent newspaper described the WMO¶s announcement as ³unprecedented´ and ³astonishing´ because it came from a respected United Nations organization not an environmental group!

Mentioned further above was the concern that more hurricanes could result. The link used was from the environmental organization WWF, written back in 1999. In August/September 2004 a wave of severe hurricanes left many Caribbean islands and parts of South Eastern United States devastated. In the Caribbean many lives were lost and there was immense damage to entire cities. In the U.S. many lives were lost as well, some of the most expensive damage resulted from the successive hurricanes.

In its wake, scientists have reiterated that such super-storms may be a sign of things to come. ³Global warming may spawn more super-storms´, Inter Press Service (IPS) notes.

Interviewing a biological oceanography professor at Harvard University, IPS notes that the world¶s oceans are approaching 27 degrees C or warmer during the summer. This increases the odds of major storms.

When water reaches such temperatures, more of it evaporates, priming hurricane or cyclone formation. Once born, a hurricane needs only warm water to build and maintain its strength and intensity. Furthermore, ³as emissions of greenhouse gases continue to trap more and more of the sun¶s energy, that energy has to be dissipated, resulting in stronger storms, more intense precipitation and higher winds.´

Rising Sea Levels
Water expands when heated, and sea levels are expected to rise due to climate change. Rising sea levels will also result as the polar caps begin to melt. Rising sea levels is already affecting many small islands. The WorldWatch Institute reports that ³[t]he Earth¶s ice cover is melting in more places and at higher rates than at any time since record keeping began´. (March 6, 2000).


Name Arctic Sea Ice

Location Arctic Ocean

Measured Loss Has shrunk by 6 percent since 1978, with a 14 percent loss of thicker, year-round ice. Has thinned by 40 percent in less than 30 years.

Greenland Ice Sheet


Has thinned by more than a meter a year on its southern and eastern edges since 1993.

Columbia Glacier

Alaska, United States

Has retreated nearly 13 kilometers since 1982. In 1999, retreat rate increased from 25 meters per day to 35 meters per day.

Glacier National Park

Rocky Mtns., United States

Since 1850, the number of glaciers has dropped from 150 to fewer than 50. Remaining glaciers could disappear completely in 30 years.

Antarctic Sea Ice Pine Island

Southern Ocean

Ice to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula decreased by some 20 percent between 1973 and 1993, and continues to decline.


Grounding line (where glacier hits ocean and floats) retreated 1.2 kilometers a year between 1992 and 1996. Ice thinned at a rate of



3.5 meters per year.

Larsen B Ice Shelf

Antarctic Peninsula

Calved a 200 km2 iceberg in early 1998. Lost an additional 1,714 km2 during the 1998-1999 season, and 300 km2 so far during the 1999-2000 season.

Tasman Glacier

New Zealand

Terminus has retreated 3 kilometers since 1971, and main front has retreated 1.5 kilometers since 1982. Has thinned by up to 200 meters on average since the 1971-82 period. Icebergs began to break off in 1991, accelerating the collapse.

Meren, Carstenz, and Northwall Firn Glaciers

Irian Jaya, Indonesia

Rate of retreat increased to 45 meters a year in 1995, up from only 30 meters a year in 1936. Glacial area shrank by some 84 percent between 1936 and 1995. Meren Glacier is now close to disappearing altogether.

Dokriani Bamak Glacier

Himalayas, India

Retreated by 20 meters in 1998, compared with an average retreat of 16.5 meters over the previous 5 years.

Duosuogang Peak

Ulan Ula Mtns., China

Glaciers have shrunk by some 60 percent since the early 1970s.

Tien Shan Mountains

Central Asia Twenty-two percent of glacial ice volume has disappeared in the past 40 years.

Caucasus Mountains


Glacial volume has declined by 50 percent in the past century.


Western Europe

Glacial area has shrunk by 35 to 40 percent and volume has declined by more than 50 percent since 1850. Glaciers could be reduced to only a small fraction of their present mass within decades.

Mt. Kenya


Largest glacier has lost 92 percent of its mass since the late 1800s.

Speka Glacier Upsala Glacier


Retreated by more than 150 meters between 1977 and 1990, compared with only 35-45 meters between 1958 and 1977.


Has retreated 60 meters a year on average over the last 60 years, and rate is accelerating.

Quelccaya Glacier

Andes, Peru

Rate of retreat increased to 30 meters a year in the 1990s, up from only 3 meters a year between the 1970s and 1990.

Increasing Ocean Acidification
Although it has gained less mainstream media attention the effects of increasing greenhouse emissions, in particular carbon dioxide, on the oceans may well be significant. Scientists are finding that on the one hand oceans have been able to absorb some of the excess CO2 released by human activity. This has helped keep the planet cooler than it otherwise could have been had these gases remained in the atmosphere. However, the additional CO2 being absorbed is also resulting in the acidification of the oceans (when CO2 reacts with water it produces a weak acid called carbonic acid, changing the sea water chemistry). This change is also occurring rapidly, so some marine life may not have the chance to adapt. Some marine creatures are growing thinner shells or skeletons, for example. Some of these creatures play a crucial role in the food chain, and in ecosystem biodiversity. Some species may benefit from the extra carbon dioxide, and a few years ago scientists and organizations, such as the European Project on OCean Acidification, formed to try to understand and assess the impacts further. One example of recent findings is a tiny sand grain-sized plankton responsible for the sequestration of 25±50% of the carbon the oceans absorb is affected by increasing ocean acidification. This tiny plankton plays a major role in keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations at much lower levels than they would be otherwise so large effects on them could be quite serious.

Increase In Pests And Disease
An increase in pests and disease is also feared. A report in the journal Science in June 2002 described the alarming increase in the outbreaks and epidemics of diseases throughout the land and ocean based wildlife due to climate changes.

CLIMATE change will have wide-ranging and mostly damaging impacts on human health,¶ warns Dr Paul Epstein in a recent study entitled Human Health and Climate Change. µThere have been periods of uncontrollable waves of disease that radically altered human civilisation in the past, such as when Europe¶s population was devastated by bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. That problem was associated with population growth and urbanisation. µNow a warming climate, compounded by widespread ecological changes, may be stimulating wide-scale changes in disease patterns,¶ Epstein remarks. His study seems to suggest that climate change could have an impact on health in three major ways, by: (a) creating conditions conducive to outbreaks of infectious diseases, (b) increasing the potential for transmissions of vector-borne diseases and the exposure of millions of people to new diseases and health risks, and (c) hindering the future control of disease. µThere are indications, he notes, µthat this disturbing change has already begun.¶

Differences in Greenhouse Gas Emission Around the World
As the World Resources Institute highlights there is a huge contrast between developed/industrialized nations and poorer developing countries in greenhouse emissions, as well as the reasons for those emissions. For example:

In terms of historical emissions, industrialized countries account for roughly 80% of the carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere to date. Since 1950, the U.S. has emitted a cumulative total of roughly 50.7 billion tons of carbon, while China (4.6 times more populous) and India (3.5 times more populous) have emitted only 15.7 and 4.2 billion tons respectively (although their numbers will rise). Annually, more than 60 percent of global industrial carbon dioxide emissions originate in industrialized countries, where only about 20 percent of the world¶s population resides. Much of the growth in emissions in developing countries results from the provision of basic human needs for growing populations, while emissions in industrialized countries contribute to growth in a standard of living that is already far above that of the average person worldwide. This is exemplified by the large contrasts in per capita carbons emissions between industrialized and developing countries. Per capita emissions of carbon in the U.S. are over 20 times higher than India, 12 times higher than Brazil and seven times higher than China. At the 1997 Kyoto Conference, industrialized countries were committed to an overall reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases to 5.2% below 1990 levels for the period 2008²2012. (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its 1990 report that a 60% reduction in emissions was needed«)

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is an organization ² backed by the UN and various European governments ² attempting to compile, build and make a compelling economics case for the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity.

In a recent report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for National and International Policy Makers 2009, TEEB noted different types of carbon emissions as ³colors of carbon´:


Brown carbon

Industrial emissions of greenhouse gases that affect the climate. y Green carbon

Carbon stored in terrestrial ecosystems e.g. plant biomass, soils, wetlands and pasture and increasingly recognized as a key item for negotiation in the UNFCCC. y Blue carbon

Carbon bound in the world¶s oceans. An estimated 55% of all carbon in living organisms is stored in mangroves, marshes, sea grasses, coral reefs and macro-algae. y Black carbon

Formed through incomplete combustion of fuels and may be significantly reduced if clean burning technologies are employed. Where emphasis has been place in terms of the above has affected both climate change and mitigation efforts:

Past mitigation efforts concentrated on brown carbon, sometimes leading to land conversion for biofuel production which inadvertently increased emissions from green carbon. By halting the loss of green and blue carbon, the world could mitigate as much as 25% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with co-benefits for biodiversity, food security and livelihoods (IPCC 2007, Nellemann et al. 2009). This will only be possible if mitigation efforts accommodate all four carbon colors.

² The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for National and International Policy Makers 2009 , p.18

Developing Countries Affected Most
It has been known for some time know that developing countries will be affected the most. Reasons vary from lacking resources to cope, compared to developed nations, immense poverty, regions that many developing countries are in happen to be the ones where severe weather will hit the most, small island nations area already seeing sea level rising, and so on. German Watch published a Global Climate Risk Index in December 2009 that attempted to list the nations that would be affected the most from climate change based on extreme weather such as hurricanes and floods. Between 1990 and 2008 they found these were the most affected nations: 1. Bangladesh 2. Myanmar 3. Honduras 4. Vietnam 5. Nicaragua 6. Haiti 7. India 8. Dominican Republic 9. Philippines 10. China

Warming happening more quickly than predicted While those denying climate change are reducing in number and there appears to be more effort to try and tackle the problem, climate scientists are now fearing that climate change is happening far faster and is having much larger impacts than they ever imagined. The Arctic plays an incredibly important role in the balance of the earth¶s climate. Rapid changes to it can have knock-on effects to the rest of the planet. Some have described the Arctic as the canary in the coal mine, referring to how canary birds used to be taken deep down coal mines. If they died, it implied oxygen levels were low and signaled mine workers to get out. Satellite observations show the arctic sea ice decreasing, and projections for the rest of the century predict even more shrinkage:

The decrease of Arctic sea ice, minimum extent in 1982 and 2007, and climate projections. UNEP/GRID-Arendal, 2007 BBC article reports scientists now have unambiguous evidence that the warming in the Arctic is accelerating. The Arctic reflects much sunlight back into space helping keep earth temperate. More melting will result in less reflection and even more heat being absorbed by the earth. A chain reaction could result, such as the Greenland ice sheet melting (which will actually increase sea levels, whereas the melting of Arctic ice will not because it is sea ice), possibly increasing the melting of permafrost in Siberia, which will release huge amounts of methane (as noted above), and rapidly change climate patterns, circulation patterns and jet streams, far quicker than what most of the environment could adapt to easily.

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