The troubled COP15 negotiations and the press release of scientific plundering and data changing has left many people believing Climate Change to be a farce, a tool for our governments to tax us further, and a way for companies to make money out of clever scams. In their minds, mankind’s development plays no role on the climate. Climate change is simply a natural occurrence, one that has happened since our planet’s birth. The fact we have just had a very cold winter only strengthens their resolve.
However, there is no period in Earth’s history where the climate has changed at the speed currently witnessed, and if you take some time to do your own research, then the correlations between mankind’s development and the changes to our climate appear undeniable. (Read our article ‘The Truth About Climate change’ in which David Attenborough explains what swayed him into believing Climate Change was influenced by human development.)
So what's happening?
Over the past 100 years human population numbers and our use of natural resources have increased dramatically. We are running out of land and consume three times the resources our planet can naturally produce per year. Fresh water and food shortages are a huge issue, as is disease, and these problems are set to increase as our population explodes over the next 50 years. (Based on current rates of increase, the world population is projected to double from roughly 6 billion to more than 12 billion by 2050.) To make matters worse most of these issues clearly affect rising climate temperatures, and this will only worsen as the climate warms.
Since 1900, the average global temperature has increased by 0.74°C, a small figure, but one that is playing havoc with our climate and ecosystems. Of course this is an average taken from temperatures gathered from weather stations across the globe. Some places have actually cooled slightly, others, such as the Arctic, have warmed by up to 3°C. Here, the ice sheets, within which vast quantities of water are stored and upon which many animals such as the polar bear depend for survival, are melting 3 weeks earlier each year. In fact, the polar ice caps have been retreating progressively for the past 50 years causing a gradually increase in sea levels and weather patterns. (Weather patterns are controlled by a number of factors, one of the major being ocean temperatures.)
Retreating ice caps and glaciers
The diagram below shows the extent of melting over a 24 year period, from 1979-2003. The retreat of ice from the northern ice fields of Alaska and the far eastern reaches of Russia is truly massive and is showing no signs of slowing.
In fact, since 1997, the ten hottest years on record have been measured globally. In England alone we have seen an increase of temperatures by 1°C since the 1970’s and sea-surface temperature by 0.7°C. Sea levels have risen by 10cm since 1900. (You can watch a NASA video about the cryosphere and how the poles help to control Earths temperatures using this link. This video also shows an animation of ice cap reduction.)
Of course, the polar ice caps are just one area being affected by global warming. Mountain glaciers all over the world are retreating at an accelerating speed. In southern Greenland, the amount of ice flowing into the sea has doubled in the last 10 years, steadily causing sea levels to rise. Desertification is also on the rise, with 16,000sq kilometers of good fertile land becoming barren every year. Our oceans are being poisoned by the increase in air born chemicals and land based run off, and unfortunately, even though they absorb some 25% of current annual carbon dioxide emissions (see our oceans article), we are destroying the underwater life and vegetation responsible for the carbon storage. Similarly, our atmosphere relies on the maintenance of forestation.
2°C temperature rise
Scientists have now calculated that if the rise of global average temperatures exceeds 2°C there will be irreversible impacts on water, ecosystems, food, coastal zones and human health. 20 - 30% of all species could face extinction, a problem already far exceeding the extinction rates seen during the end of the Jurassic period.
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) states that we have a 50% chance of avoiding a 2°C warming if we stabilize greenhouse gases at 450 ppm CO2 eq (parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent). If we do not, the effects will be felt not just by other species and ecosystems, but also dramatically by humans. For this reason, scientists are continuing their research into why our climate is changing and man's role in this occurence. This provides governments with valuable information on which to base important decisions. Of course, COP15 did not end the way some wanted, but a great road was paved for us to walk down. Hopefully, we can finalise agreements into a legally binding document this coming December at COP16 in Mexico. (Read the full outcome of COP15.)
(The IPCC core climate science document was written by 152 scientists from more than 30 countries and reviewed by more than 600 experts. It has concluded that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to observed increase in man-made greenhouse gas concentrations.)
So what is climate change and how does it occur?
Where some people make the error is that they view the climate in the same way as weather. (Hence they state that the recent cold winter proves climate change is unreal.) Weather is the temperature, precipitation (rain, hail, sleet and snow) and wind. These things change hour-by-hour, day-by-day. Climate is the average weather and the nature of its variations over a long period of time. The term climate change refers predominantly to man made changes since the early 1900’s.
Climate change occurs when the balances of gases within our atmosphere, responsible for maintaining temperatures on earth, alter. These alterations can be caused through natural means such as the eruption of large volcanoes, forest fires, or even large meteor strikes like those seen in Earths past, (although the probability of this happening again in mans history is unlikely). More recently human influence has massively altered what has been for several thousand years a delicately balanced mix.
The problem with changing the natural balance is that too much ultraviolet and visible light from the sun (the energy that heats our planet) is being allowed to pass through the atmosphere. (This was discussed heavily around 15 years ago when we were all discussing the holes in the ozone layer and that we had to stop dumping our fridges or using certain aerosol products.) Moreover, the infrared radiation (IR), most of which the earth normally bounces back to space, is being trapped by gases such as CO2. We call these gases greenhouse gases due to their relation to the greenhouse effect. (Read the IPCC explanation of the greenhouse effect).
It’s the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas that are the main human contributors to climate change. They release huge quantities of CO2 (carbon dioxide). Currently, CO2 concentrations are at their highest level in the past 80,000 years, and have increased by more than 35% since industrialisation began. In 2005 27 billion tons of CO2 were released into our atmosphere.
The problem is that fossil fuels are part of our everyday life. They heat our homes and buildings, provide the energy we need to grow, transport and cook food and to travel by car, plane or other public transport. They are used to treat drinking water, heating it and pump it into our homes. They are the main source of power and chemicals that run our manufacturing and consumer goods. Everything from clothes to plastic bags and batteries owes its existence to some form of natural resource and greenhouse gas emitter.
Other major contributors are methane, nitrous oxide, Hydrofluorocarbons, Perfluorocarbons and Sulphur hexafluoride. Methane is caused by landfill sites, peat bogs and by our meat and dairy industry animals, cows and sheep. Nitrous oxide is prominently released through the use of agriculture fertilizers. Yet these two gases are by no means on the same level as CO2 figures. Moreover, their life span in our atmosphere is far less than that of CO2.
Of course, the imbalance of what we use against what we return is made even worse by the fact we destroy nature’s carbon sinks, like the forests (the greatest carbon storer) to make space for our agriculture, urban dwellings and manufacturing. Unfortunately, the rate at which we fell our forests far exceeds the rate we replace them. Currently, 15 million hectares of tropical forests are lost every year – an area larger than the size of England. This deforestation causes 5.9 billion tones of CO2 per year to be released into the atmosphere, 20% of the annual carbon emission – more than the entire transport sector produces.
In the below diagram we can see a direct correlation between deforestation in the Amazon and the rise in CO2 emissions during 1990-2001. Some deforestation involves the burning of forests, which is even worse as the carbon stored within the vegetation and trees is released straight back into the atmosphere. In either case, whether you be felling the trees or burning them, you are still lowering the earths natural ability to absorb and store carbon. The diagram shows just how clear this statement is.
The transport sector and individual contributors
Unnecessary usage of cars, planes or other carbon releasing vehicles is also a huge problem. The next diagram shows the average levels of greenhouse gas emissions via transport related sources.
It’s pretty obvious that cars, buses, and lorries are the major culprit. But that’s due to the fact their numbers are so much greater. How many people do you know with a family, or over 25s with no families, who don’t have a car or can’t drive one? I’m sure the figure is less than those who do.
This proves one huge point. It’s not just our governments and other countries we should be looking at to solve the problems, it’s also ourselves. We, as individuals, play a massive role in the release of greenhouse gases. In the UK about 40% of emissions are caused by individuals. Heating your home to drinking water, clothes, computers, transport usage all play their part. It’s important then that we look at our own carbon footprint. If everyone could do this we would see a huge reduction in greenhouse gases. Governments can persuade the companies and govern our infrastructure, or pay to save our forests and ocean life, but we are the only ones who can make the decision to change our everyday lives and needs.
In an interview Zac Goldsmith, (conservationist and UK Conservative party member) discussed the matter in the following way:
"The steps you need to take to deal with Climate change, there all steps you need to take irrespective of Climate Change. We're dependent on oil for every one of our needs. That's mad, we know oil is going to run out and we know it’s not always in the hands of countries you can rely on. Weaning ourselves off this dependence makes sense. It doesn't matter about climate change, that's just another reason for doing it".
“We know this about our consumption of resources. If everyone consumed at the same rate as the average Britain, you'd need about three planets to do that. Its just a basic mathematical observation, we do have to live within our ecological means. Climate change is just another reason for wanting to do all of these things".
Why not calculate your carbon footprint using this UK government site. Maybe you think you’re doing well, when actually there’s much more you could achieve.
Calculate your carbon foot print
Which countries are the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions?
Without doubt it is the developed countries that emit the largest quantity of greenhouse gases. The diagram below, created by the UNFCCC (United Framework Convention on Climate Change) shows the top 20.
It is obvious then why the COP15 negotiations were so difficult. Major developed countries such as the USA and China rely so heavily on their industry that they find it difficult to lose this power, while developing countries want more. Some how then we need to come to a compromise, and developed countries must put in the investment to help all find new cost effect ways for us all to manage our industry and infrastructure. Those countries such as Brazil must be subsidised for preserving the rainforests they harbour and the public must also be taught how to reduce their carbon footprint.
(To read how you can personally do this, read this article created by the UK government.)
What, apart from an increase in temperatures, will happen if we don't control our greenhouse gas emissions?
The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) wrote this for their website when discussing climate change.
‘Climate change will increasingly cause storms, droughts, floods and fires and have a severe impact on food production, water availability and ecosystems such as forests and wetlands. A major concern is how rapid climate change will magnify existing environmental stresses and contribute to food insecurity, conflict over resources, and loss of livelihood for millions of people.’
Take hurricanes for instance. Hurricanes are created when the seas temperatures warm. The oceans heat energy, passes into the atmosphere fueling the immensely powerful winds, winds that then become so powerful they have enough power to run the whole electric grid for the United States for several weeks. The warmer the tropical oceans the stronger the hurricanes become.
During the Katrina hurricane that decimated New Orleans the sea temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic were the highest ever recorded. That certainly says a lot. Many scientists now state there is a clear connection between global warming, rising sea temperatures and the increasing strength of hurricanes. 2005 was the worst season ever recorded.
They continued their article by stating ‘certain regions will be worse affected than others. Global warming is expected to be greatest over land and at high northern latitudes. The Arctic, Sub Saharan Africa, small islands and the big river deltas of Asia will be most seriously affected.
Those least responsible for global emissions, the poor and vulnerable in developing countries, are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts. It is a global responsibility to help these people adapt.
The world has a wide range of solutions that will help combat climate change. Protecting and better managing our natural resources is a cost-effective and efficient way to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions while we make the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon world in the coming decades. Natural resources can also help us adapt to the impacts of climate change we are already facing. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up.’
Two diagrams showcase what they say perfectly:
Of course nothing better stimulates the mind than some simple bullet point facts. So here you are:
• The Earth has warmed by 0.7 degrees Celsius since 1900.
• To prevent an average global temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius that would cause harmful and potentially irreversible impacts, atmospheric CO2 concentrations need to be stabilized at 350 ppm. That means reducing GHG emissions 40 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, even as the global economy grows two to three percent per year.
• The 10 deadliest disasters of 2007 were climate related.
• 2005 was the worst hurricane season ever recorded.
• Changing our climate will also further increase extinction rates of plant and animal species, currently at their highest point in human history.
• Climate Change could lead to the extinction of a 3rd of all species by 2050
• One of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to reduce Global Carbon emissions is to conserve tropical forests
• Every year an area of forest the size of England disappears
• Every four hours an area of forest the size of Manhattan disappears
• The burning of forests amounts to 20% of Global carbon emissions
• The burning of forests releases more Carbon than all the cars, trucks, and planes combined
• Sea levels rose 20 cm last century
• Glaciers, snow cover and sea ice are all declining
• We are experiencing more heatwaves, droughts and extreme rainfall and more intense tropical cyclones
• Global temperature could rise by as much as 6.4°C by the end of the century
• Up to 30% of plant and animal species could go extinct if the global temperature increase exceeds 1.5 - 2.5°C
• Arctic sea ice could disappear altogether during the summer by the second half of this century
• Crop yields in tropical zones could significantly decrease with even a modest (1-2°C) temperature increase
• One in six countries in the world faces food shortages each year because of severe droughts that could become semi-permanent under climate change
• The overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing up to 20% of global GDP each year, while the costs of action now can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year
Hopefully this article has given you a small insight into the topic and has paved the way for you to do further research of your own. Below you can find a number of excellent websites full of facts and ways to tackle the problems we face.
The Met Office Climate Change Online Book
The IUCN Climate Change article
The Princes Rainforest Project Online Book
The UK Government article on lowering your carbon foot print
Calculate your carbon foot print
NASA's climate change resource reel
All diagrams supplied by the UNEP/GRID-Arendal website. This website is full of useful information and images that can be used with in presentations or websites.