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Environmental concerns

Predictions, skepticism, victims, trends

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Predictions of the effects of global warming:

Nobody is certain what will happen next. Deforestation, drainage of wetlands, pollution of ground waters and rivers, erosion and desertification of agricultural lands, global climate change? The prognosis is depressing. Some environmental consequences of the greenhouse effect and of the accompanying global warming are already with us; other are predictable with high probability:

We know that average global surface temperatures have risen by 1.0oF  (0.6oC) in the last 140 years, and scientists expect that they could rise further 1.0oF to 4.5oF (0.6 to 2.5oC) in the next 50 years. However, there are a lot more changes likely beyond simple warming of the earth. Possible impacts include:

bulletClimate change may kill off traditional crops.

bulletScientists have observed a wide range of changes in the migration patterns of birds, fish and turtles, apparently in response to warming which has already taken place.

bulletSince 1970, mean ocean surface temperatures worldwide have risen about 0.9oF (0.5oC). Global air temperatures have also inched up about the same amount.

bulletThe atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other greenhouse gases is expected to increase by 30% during the next 50 years. 1

bulletThe ozone layer that protects humans and other living things from ultra-violet radiation is already being rapidly depleted  and the process continues. 2

bulletOcean circulation has been observed to be slowing.

bullet Evaporation will increase as the climate warms up. Weather patterns may change producing not only an increase in average global precipitation but also heat waves and violent storms. Among the predicted results of protracted global warming were violent and frequent weather disturbances, including hurricanes, cyclones, and tornados. The storms are already observed to be getting stronger, and they last longer.

bulletEven relatively small increases in sea temperature may have dramatic impact on wild-life due to speeded up depletion of the krill and of the tiny plankton organisms that form the basis of the food web in the oceans (leading, for example, to the decline in the breeding of sea birds deprived of food.)

bulletCoral atolls in the Pacific and Indian Ocean are slowly showing increased erosion.

bulletA temperature increase of a few degrees is all that is needed to bring about the melting of the polar ice caps. It was thought that the entire Greenland ice sheet could melt in about 1,000 years, but the latest evidence suggests that it could happen much sooner - a comprehensive analysis found that the amount of ice dumped into the Atlantic Ocean has doubled in the last five years. 3 The melting of the ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctica would cause inundation of most of the world's coastal cities and farms. It is claimed that just the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet would raise global sea levels by about 23 feet (7 m)! 3 In 1996, Green-land was losing about 100 cubic km per year in mass from its ice sheet, and the loss had increased in 2005 to about 220 cubic km.

bulletEven if the rise in sea levels is less dramatic, low-lying lands will be flooded. Some coastal areas may become uninhabitable. Just another 20 inches of sea-level rise by 2100 will make most atolls uninhabitable. The inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati (Gilbert and Ellice), the Tokelaus, the Tuomotus, Maledives, etc. will have to move somewhere else. Bangladesh will lose more than half it's rice-growing land. If large ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica move into the sea, most of the world's coastal cities and farms will be inundated.

bulletThe icy homeland of the arctic natives, such as the Inuit, is melting. This threatens the their hunting culture. While many species have been able to adapt to new conditions by moving further towards the poles, this option is not available to such animals as polar bears, seals and walruses, whose habitat is disappearing with the melting of Arctic sea ice.

bulletIf the climate change materializes to the predicted extent, it will devastate the earth's productivity. New research in Australia suggests that the amount of water reaching the rivers will decline by up to four times as fast as the percentage reduction of rainfall in dry areas. This, alongside the disappearance of the glaciers, spells the end of agriculture based on irrigation. 4

bulletGlobal warming may reduce mountain snow pack on which the western states in the US depend for much of their water storage and supply. Left unchecked, global warming would cause unprecedented disruption of the already strained water resources that are central to West Coast economics. 5

bulletNobody can predict what the probable impact of climate change will be on food sup-plies. Only one thing seems certain: The developing countries that are poor and have made no contribution to the climate problem would suffer most.

A product of the burning of coal, which is immediately objected to, is smog. As discussed by Sean McDonagh, 6 in industrial states such as the United States, England, Germany, and Japan, the preferred way of combating smog was building taller smoke stacks. This measure helps reduce the smog in the vicinity of the plant, but results in acid rain that affects lakes, forests, and farmlands in countries hundreds of miles away. Thousands of freshwater lakes in Canada and Scandinavia have become so acidic that all life-forms are dying. Canadian scientists estimated that 4.4 million tonnes of acid reaching eastern Canada originated in the US. In reply, the Reagan administration insisted on more scientific studies before limiting the emissions from heavy industries and coal burning utilities. 6 Note that in 1984, the Thatcher and Reagan governments refused to sign an agreement on the reduction of the emission of Sulphur dioxide (by 30% over the next 5 years) which is the constituent of acid rain causing the problems. 6 The story has a familiar ring to it.

As to the burning of coal itself, Montana and Wyoming together have more energy in coal reserves than Saudi Arabia has in oil reserves. Most of the coal is used to produce electricity via coal-fired steam turbines operating at 25% efficiency. A pound of coal releases about 3.5 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. This makes coal the dirtiest resource in terms of acid rain, regional air pollution, and global warming. Like the U.S., China, too, has huge coal deposits and is predicted to double its coal production in order to build up its industrial capacity. On the plus side is that China signed onto the Marrakesh Accord (the follow-on to the Kyoto protocol), according to which the industrial nations must, on average, decrease their greenhouse gas emissions to 7% below the 1990 levels by the year 2012; the U.S. did not participate in the Marrakesh Accord!

Unfortunately, carbon dioxide (CO2) is well mixed in the Earth's atmosphere. That is, the level of CO2 everywhere on the planet is influenced by each country's CO2 emissions. One country could drastically lower its emissions, and have little effect on the main greenhouse gas everywhere. Only a joint effort by the countries producing major emissions would have a significant impact on greenhouse gas levels.

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Skepticism towards global warming:

There is general unwillingness to tackle global warming, to face this enormous environmental challenge. There are, of course, still those who deny that any warming is taking place, and/or who maintain that global warming can be explained by already well known natural phenomena. Not surprisingly, few of them are climatologists, and fewer still are climatologists who are not funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Outside the political institutions the ranks of the global-warming skeptics seem to be growing thinner:

bulletIn 1995, the IPCC said that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate" They strengthened this claim in 2001 to "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities." 'Balance of evidence' does not mean an unambiguous proof, but the evidence is getting stronger and stronger.

bullet According to Wikipedia, the current scientific opinion on climate change is that recent warming is largely human caused. This fact was denied by the US government.

bulletAccording to the former US President Bill Clinton, there is no longer any serious doubt that climate change is real, accelerating, and caused by human activities.

bulletGeof Jenkins, of the UK Met Office, said recently:

"Over the last few decades there's been much more evidence for the human influence on climate. We reached the point where it's only by including human activity that we can explain what's happening."

We cannot yet say that the higher temperatures we are getting are the result of global warming. What we can say is that they correspond to the predictions made by climate scientists.

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Who are victimized by global warming?

With about 4% of the world's population, the U.S. use about a quarter of world's energy. Each U.S. inhabitant uses twice the energy of a Western European, 12 times that of a resident of China, 33 times more than a citizen of India, and 147 times that of a Bangladeshi. While the U.S. and other industrialized countries produce most of the CO2 and other greenhouse gases, the effects of global warming are felt worldwide, most dramatically among the fringe cultures and species of the world whose homelands are degraded or destroyed.

Some of the regions hardest hit by global warming will be in the developing nations of the tropics. Since the damage is primarily the result of gas emissions by the rich nations, this is of global justice concern. Among the big losers will be the inhabitants of tropical islands who could lose their homes to the rising seas.

The targets set in the Kyoto Protocol are merely scratching the surface of the problem. The aim is to reduce emissions from industrialized nations only by around 5%, whereas the consensus among many climate scientists is that in order to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, emissions cuts in the order of 60% across the board are needed. The 60% reduction was effectively rejected by the British Government - the US Government refused to accept even a modest 5% reduction by signing up to the Kyoto Protocol.

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Recent trends:

Industrial countries cut their overall emissions by about 3% from 1990 to 2000. However, even this minimal cut happened because a sharp decrease in emissions from the collapsing economies of former Soviet countries masked an 8% rise among rich countries. In the words of Jeffrey Kluger:

"When it comes to the atmosphere, there is no such thing as creative accounting. If the world's population won't bring their climate ledger back into balance, the climate will surely do it for them." 7

Unfortunately, the political processes are not moving at a speed to satisfy scientists who want to see large cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. It is unfortunate that the climate resembles a speeding train that takes a long time to slow down, i.e., if we move quickly to clean energy, stop deforesting the tropics, and move to more sustainable agriculture, the effect will not be immediate.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. McDonagh Sean, "Johannesburg 2002,"
  2. Goldsmith Edward, "The Way," Themis Books, (1996),
  3. Rincon Paul, "Greenland ice swells ocean rise," BBC News, 2006-FEB-16.
  4. Monbiot George, "Sleeping to Extinction," The Guardian, 2003-AUG-12.
  5. Mazza Patrick, "Transportation and Global Warming Solutions," 2004-MAY, at:
  6. McDonagh Sean, "To Care for the Earth," Geoffrey Chapman, (1989).
  7. Kluger Jeffrey, "Evidence is Mounting that Human Activity is Helping Fuel These
    Monster Hurricanes
    ," Time, 2005-OCT-03.

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Copyright 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Originally posted: 2006-JUN-25
Latest update: 2014-JUN-02
Author: Vladimir Tomek

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