The term global warming refers to a gradual increase in the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere measured at its surface

. It is both the most important “change” in climate change and the cause of most of the other climatic changes. 1. Global Warming Yesterday Imagine Earth, which is 4½ billion years old, as just one Earth Year old. In this imaginary year, Earth was formed on January 1st. Right now, as the clock starts tolling midnight on December 31st, it is about to celebrate its first birthday. In that year, the first life forms appeared in the seas in late February. But almost all life remained at sea until December when, shortly after plants took root on land, the amphibians came ashore. The extinction of the dinosaurs around Christmas allowed mammals to evolve and primates to climb trees. Just this morning, our ancestor hominids started walking upright on the land. Our own species, homo sapiens, was born a half hour ago. Geologists call the last two minutes of our Earth Year the Holocene epoch. Stretching from 10-12,000 conventional years ago to the present, the Holocene marks a period of unusually stable climate when human hunter-gatherers settled down in farm communities, domesticated wild animals for transport and food, turned plants into crops, learned how to cook, divided up the communities’ chores and created civilization. Actually, many civilizations. The last five hours of December 31st before the Holocene is called the Pleistocene epoch, which started a couple of million years ago. The Pleistocene encompassed Earth’s most recent ice ages during which mankind emerged as a separate species. In colder periods of glaciation, masses of snow accumulated over land and compacted into new glacial ice. In warmer periods of interglaciation, glaciers stabilized or receded (melted) but never completely went away. Throughout these ice ages, the average surface temperature of Earth varied by no more than about 12 degrees Celsius, as you can see in these charts by the United Nations Educational Fund (UNEP)—the bottom one shows temperature change. Measured in Fahrenheit, the maximum variation was about 19 degrees. In our own experience, 19 degrees is no big deal since differences between local summer and winter temperatures or even day and night temperatures are often greater. But to Earth it made the difference between ice ages and the warmer periods that separated them. What caused those 19 degrees of temperature change? Earth gets its heat from sunlight in the form of shortwave radiation, some of which it reflects away but most of which it absorbs. Some of this absorbed heat is subsequently emitted as longwave infrared radiation, making Earth cooler. But then some of that emitted heat is trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and radiated back to reheat Earth. Like the greenhouse in your garden store, Earth’s greenhouse gases inhibit longwave infrared radiation from getting out but not shortwave solar radiation from getting in. This schematic illustrates how the process works.

How much heat Earth absorbs from solar radiation varies slightly according to small cyclical changes over tens and hundreds of thousands of years in Earth’s orbit around the Sun and the tilt of the axis of Earth’s rotation. But the slight changes in Earth’s temperature caused by these orbital and axial variations provoke two reactions or positive feedbacks that magnify and accelerate the temperature variations. One feedback changes the reflectivity or albedo of Earth’s surface. When Earth is warming up, snow and ice on its surface melt and expose the darker ocean or land beneath, thereby increasing the fraction of solar radiation—and heat—that Earth absorbs rather than reflecting away. The opposite occurs when the Earth is cooling and snow and ice are accumulating. The other feedback changes the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), the longest-lasting gas. When Earth is warming up, it emits CO2 stored in its land and oceans into the atmosphere and thereby increases the fraction of infrared heat radiated by Earth that is trapped and reabsorbed by Earth, making it warmer still. When Earth is cooling, it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and weakens the greenhouse effect, making it even cooler. Thus the natural causes of long-term global warming and cooling in the recent past—the last five hours of the first Earth Year—are three: a weak initiating cause or forcing from small cyclical variations in the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt; and two strong reinforcing feedbacks from changes in the Earth’s albedo and greenhouse. When the heat energy that Earth absorbs from the sun and its greenhouse exceeds the heat energy that it emits into space, Earth gets warmer. When emitted energy exceeds absorbed energy, Earth gets cooler. And when absorbed energy is more or less balanced by emitted energy, the Earth’s temperature doesn’t change much. Earth’s energy was more or less in balance during the Holocene, the period to which our way of life and the food that sustains it have been adapted. Global temperature may have varied by no more than 6-7 degrees Fahrenheit. What NOAA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, calls a natural greenhouse effect kept the average surface temperature of Earth at about 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Without greenhouse gases, Fahrenheit would have been zero. Civilization might not have made it at zero. The earlier cited UNEP charts which show the changes in world temperature over the past 400,000 years also show the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in parts per million (ppm). CO2 concentration went hand-inhand with temperature but with a lag (not apparent in the charts) of a few centuries since CO2 was part of the greenhouse feedback, not the initial forcing of temperature change. 2. Global Warming Today The Holocene that started in the last two minutes of Earth Year 1 is still the current epoch—at least until geologists define a new one. But something epochal did happen a split-second ago: the Industrial Revolution, which

began in the 18th century in Britain. Since that event mankind has managed to disrupt the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle, the food chain and the climate system, which makes the world and its different parts hotter or colder and wetter or drier. We have affected Earth’s ecosystems in almost every way imaginable! How did we disrupt the climate system? Industrialization is based on energy derived from the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas mined from the Earth. These fuels, when burned, emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We have pumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere in the last 200 years or so that the current concentration of atmospheric CO2 (as of March 2012) is 394.45 ppm. That amount exceeds the maximum concentration of CO2 in the last 650,000 years as shown in below in this chart by NASA—300 ppm—by more than 30 percent.

If you remember one datapoint in this essay, remember this: concentrations of the longest-lasting greenhouse gas now exceed the highest concentrations of that gas in the 6½ thousand centuries before the Industrial Revolution by almost one-third. We seized control of Earth’s temperature and sent Nature packing. Industrial emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have supplanted orbital variations and axial tilt as the initiating force in temperature change and in so doing have trashed the energy balance of the pre-industrial Holocene. Heat energy inputs now exceed heat energy outputs by a significant margin. Meanwhile the albedo and greenhouse feedbacks remain poised to augment and accelerate this imbalance. CO2 now plays a dual role. CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels has become the primary cause of global warming, and additional feedback CO2 emitted by a warming Earth will make it even warmer. To date global warming since a baseline calculated for the years 1880-1920 in the still early years of industrialization is reckoned to be about 0.8 degrees

Celsius, equivalent to 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit—not very much. Warming the oceans where Earth stores most of its feedback CO2 takes a long time. That’s why the greenhouse feedbacks in the ice ages lagged global temperature changes by more than a century. So 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit does not reflect all of the warming that is already inevitable. And recall another lesson from the ice ages: a few degrees of change in Earth’s temperature makes a big difference in its climate. Over the long run, as the UNEP charts remind us, temperature and CO2 concentrations walk the same path. Now that CO2 is a forcing, not just a feedback, and has already broken all records for the last 650,000 years by a large margin, we cannot expect that global temperature will not also break the records for these years —and, like CO2, in record time. During the last interglacial of the Pleistocene, when Earth’s temperature was climbing up from the Last Glacial Maximum to the warm days of the Holocene, the climb was suddenly interrupted by a cold spell known as the Younger Dryas. The cold spell ended after a thousand years, and the interglacial returned, in a reversal that took only one decade. The pace of global climate change tends to be ploddingly slow, but sometimes it can be very abrupt. Abrupt changes have been more likely when, as now, the factors controlling the climate system were changing. The Younger Dryas is generally attributed to a temporary malfunction (itself possibly caused by interglacial warming) of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, which transports the Gulf Stream to Europe to keep it warm. Today, when control of the climate system has changed from natural forces to record-breaking emissions of CO2 from human activities, abrupt changes could be caused by reinforcing feedbacks that we can’t predict or control. For one example, global warming has started melting the vast glacial ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, and the melting of these land-based glaciers is causing a slow increase in global sea level. But if melting proceeds to the tipping point where one or both ice sheets disintegrate, sea level and temperature (due to the albedo feedback) could increase abruptly. For another example, global warming has also started thawing the frozen permafrost in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions where huge amounts of methane have been buried in the tundra and seabeds for hundreds of thousands of years. While more short-lived than CO2, methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas. If thawing proceeds to the tipping point where this methane is released, global warming would increase abruptly. To maintain the benign climate of the Holocene where human civilization flourished, we need to take action to restore the energy balance by reducing the concentration of atmosphere carbon to 350 ppm, where it was in 1988. And we need to do it as fast as we can, say by the end of this century, to avoid tipping points that would take climate control out of our hands. 3. Global Warming Tomorrow

Global warming is not a myth. It is supported by the laws of physics, hard data, peer-reviewed studies and a strong scientific consensus, and its science is relatively mature: The greenhouse effect was discovered in 1824 by Fourier, the heat trapping properties of CO2 and other gases were first measured by Tyndall in 1859, the climate sensitivity to CO2 was first computed in 1896 by Arrhenius, and by the 1950s the scientific foundations were pretty much understood. The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether global warming is real (it is) or exists (it does) or what caused it (human activities) but what we should be doing about it. What should we be doing about it? Step 1 should be gradually rising carbon fees on fossil fuels to make non-fossil renewable energy cost-competitive within a decade, with all fees being handed over to the consuming public so that everyone comes out whole. ExxonMobil’s CEO supports such a tax. (His predecessor financed a covert corporate campaign to make us doubt whether global warming even existed!) Step 2 should be to restart the development of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), which President Clinton inexplicably canceled 18 years ago, and fast-track it so that within a decade or so we can start replacing all dirty coal or gas-fired generators of electricity with clean 4th-generation nuclear IFRs. The IFR promises to be much safer than current reactors as well as more efficient, proliferation-proof and scaled to meet all our electricity needs forever. Really! (The IFR can even resolve the toxic waste problem created by current reactors by recycling their waste as IFR fuel, thereby saving hundreds of millions of dollars in storage costs. The IFR creates most of its own fuel in any event, so no new uranium need be mined. And it’s own waste is much smaller and much less toxic than that of current reactors.) Meanwhile, we need to convert our transportation system from (dirty) oil and gas to (potentially clean) electricity. And to stop subsidizing fossil fuel energy production and exempting it from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. Global warming is a global problem, but the US has emitted three times as much CO2 since 1850 as any other country. Instead of shirking our responsibility, we should be leading the way. A grateful world would have no trouble keeping step. We also need to cooperate with the rest of the world in reforesting as much of it as possible (with biochar). Of course, the best time to act was 47 years ago when President Johnson’s science advisors warned him (and he warned Congress) about fossil fuel emissions’ causing global warming to such an extent that uncontrollable climate change could occur. But the next best time is now. The option of “business as usual” (doing nothing) leaves the problem of global warming to our children and grandchildren and generations unborn. Their problem will be much more difficult to solve than ours and may by then

have passed tipping points and become unsolvable. In the interim we’ll be living with more hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, heat waves, floods (Miami and New York are on the list), mass migrations, famines, political destabilization, failing states and war. That’s better than the cure? In any case, denying global warming or calling it a myth is not an option, and most people know it.

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