Jack oughton global warming - what everyone needs know
Global Warming – What Everyone Needs To Know
Unless you have been living in a hole for the past decade, or have made serious
efforts to avoid breaking news, you’ve probably noticed the words ‘global
warming’, and are aware of the controversy they bring and emotions they stir
wherever they are spoken. Former presidential candidate Al Gore’s Academy
Award winning film An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006 to a flurry of
media activity, taking $49million dollars worldwide at the box office, and
seems to be convincing evidence that in this day and age people are starting to
take interest in global warming. It follows him in his famous lectures around
the world as he tries to raise awareness on climate change. As we know,
however, human nature is to disagree on everything, and naturally the film (and
it’s message) was criticised. President Bush famously pulled America; one of
the world’s largest consumer of resources, out of a treaty that would limit the
amount of polluting emissions America could release. When asked if he’d even
watch the film, he simply responded “doubt it”.
To simplify the political issues a little; the debate itself is almost an ideological
war, a focus point in the battle between liberals and conservatives, Democrat
and Republican. The almost clichéd debate between the right to do business
and prosper weighed off at the expense of the environment. Not for the first
time, political motives succeed in clouding important issues.
The idea that humanity could actually be influencing the climate was not really
taken seriously by the scientific community until the 1960s. In 1958 an
American Oceanographer, Charles Keeling began long-term measurements of
atmospheric carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. His
research data showed an unmistakable link between the amount of greenhouse
gasses in the atmosphere and an increase in global temperature. In the 1820s
Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier discovered that greenhouse gasses (in order of
abundance; water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone)
trap heat radiated from the Earth's surface after it has absorbed energy from the
sun. This is the greenhouse effect hypothesis. Without it there could be no life
on the earth as the temperature would be too cold. However, the burning of
‘fossil fuels’ for energy such as gasoline, coal, and natural gas, mean that this
warm blanket may soon become a smothering shroud as an estimated 3.2
billion metric tons of carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere annually. In
1896 Svente Arrhenius, a Swedish Chemist and Nobel Laureate, showed that
doubling the carbon dioxide content of the air would gradually raise global
temperatures by 5-6C. Time magazine ran a cover story on the idea of a
warming world as long ago as 1939, boldly proclaiming “weathermen have no
doubt that the world at least for the time being is growing warmer”.
But what exactly is global warming? Global warming is the process in which
the planet’s average air and ocean temperature increases, this means the overall
temperature increases, but individual regions experience more varied
temperature fluctuations. Global warming is not new, throughout history the
Earth’s temperature has changed significantly in response to periodic natural
events and changes. Previous changes have been linked to events such as minor
changes in the earth’s orbit and orientation, impacts from large meteors, or
from particularly catastrophic volcanic activity, thickening the atmosphere with
dust and reducing the earth’s exposure to the sun’s rays. Natural variations in
the sun’s output are thought to play their part and even changes in ocean
circulation, which can be seen in atmospheric events such as El Nino, which by
virtue of an area of the Pacific ocean heating by just 0.5°C, can result in
drought in Africa, flooding in South America, and hurricanes in Australasia.
Our climate today is actually a warm interval between colder periods of
glaciations; times where ice from the poles covers greater areas of the earth’s
surface due to the lower temperature. Striking terrestrial features such as the
great lakes in the USA where caused by glaciers expanding and melting in old
valleys. Glacial ice melted and refroze in weaknesses in the bedrock, exploiting
small weaknesses is a process known as frost action. Glaciers also act like
sandpaper on rock, grinding across in the process of abrasion. What most
people refer to the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago and coincided with the
end of the Palaeolithic period. Around this time the first Civilizations began to
form in modern day Iran, and man began to establish itself as the dominant
animal species of the planet, taking advantage of a more hospitable climate
suited to agriculture and permanent settlement, and the scientific and societal
advances this allowed.
Why is global warming important? The effects of global warming are
already starting to make themselves known. Our interstellar ‘sister’, Planet
Venus is about as accurate a description of Hell as we know. Sulphuric acid
rains permanently from a caustic sky, never to reach the bleak surface. On the
ground the average temperature is 460 °C, hotter than any oven and enough to
melt lead. The atmospheric pressure is 92 times our own, the moisture is acidic
enough to corrode and the air itself is utterly poisonous. If by odd circumstance
you were to arrive there unprotected, you’d die quickly; crushed, cooked,
choked and corroded.
In spite of this the planet was once said to be quite similar to our own, how
then could it have become a shining example of almost ridiculous hostility to
life? The answer lies with global warming. Scientists believe that the planet
once had water on it’s surface, but it’s closeness to the sun lead to this water
being evaporated over time. As the atmosphere thickened with water vapour,
the planet’s temperature continued to increase in a feedback loop, eventually
getting so hot that all standing water had evaporated into the atmosphere, a
Though it’s safe to assume that we won’t be enduring Venusian climates any
time soon, the main worry is that just a small amount of warming can create.
As mentioned earlier, due to the precise nature of the earth’s climatic system,
small changes such as the causes behind El Nino can upset things significantly.
In the environmentally aware (DISASTER!) film The Day After Tommorow,
the hypothetical (but seriously taken) scenario of the Gulf Stream’s disruption
is explored, though possibly with some exaggeration, as the effects are
ludicrously apocalyptic (an almost immediate Ice Age, complete with tidal
waves, tornadoes, hurricanes…). However, melting of the ice caps could
disrupt the flow of the stream, and lower European temperatures by 5°C.
Considering the severity of El Nino effects by just a .5°C drop, this is definitely
cause for concern.
Then where is the controversy? The controversy arises from the argument
that global warming is a natural process, it is obvious that disaster scenarios
sell, the film industry has an entire genre based around the idea (see above).
Throughout history there are always examples of unfounded media alarmism,
recent examples such as SARS; which was hyped as a ‘superbug’, yet had a
mortality rate of 9.6%, or the H5N1 bird flu, which despite 5 years of
scaremongering, has yet to appear.
In 1923, just 16 years before the ominous article in TIME, a front page article
in the Chicago Tribune declared: “Scientist Says Arctic Ice Will Wipe Out
Canada.” The article quoted a Yale University professor who predicted that
large parts of Europe and Asia would be “wiped out” and Switzerland would be
The exploitation of abundant resources by the developing world gives the
people of these countries an opportunity to experience the quality of life of the
developed world, and who are we, who have spent the last 300 years since the
industrial revolution, devastating the planet in our own way, to stop them?
Much of their future economic growth will depend directly on the effects of
industry and the energy required getting it. For them, it is just not financially
viable to use cleaner, but more expensive sources of power, or to enact
industrial protocols that would decrease pollution but stifle much needed
What could happen in the future? Scientists using supercomputers to
simulate climate change get varied results depending on the figures they input
and the models they use, naturally they cannot predict what will happen, but
indicate what could happen, with some degree of accuracy. The results they
give us are generally grim, the average predicted temperature increase over the
next 100 years is around 3 degrees centigrade. This is enough to cause
widespread desertification, completely disrupt ecosystems, and flood regions of
lower elevation, severe consequences for all life on this planet.
Though nothing is really certain as far as science is concerned, would it not be
best to perhaps assume that we need to reduce the impact we are creating upon
the planet, to be on the safe side? Despite the hype, the possible consequences
for humanity could be dire.
Most would agree that the trade-off of some economic growth against the
possible stability of our climate is the only sane thing to do, for how can
economies grow if we cannot adapt fast enough to a rapidly changing planet, or
at worst if we cannot adapt at all to a planet no longer hospitable to us?
[ALL ACCESSED 27/02/08]
Business and Media Institute; Fire and Ice