Global Warming-Carbon Emissions
Global Warming – Carbon Emissions
For over two decades, the scientific community has been sounding the alarm of a man-made, global warming of our Earth’s lower troposphere. This warming has been accelerating at an unprecedented rate and its effects have been accumulating at a level that can be seen in the recent weather changes and natural catastrophes over the last decade. For examples: the most powerful El Nino ever on record; the hottest European summer in 2004 that killed over 26,000 people; some of the worst hurricanes and flooding, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that devastated New Orleans; not to mention the one out of every five species facing extinction because of the effects of greenhouse gases increasing over the last few decades.
The causes of this accelerated global warming of the earth’s atmosphere are both simple and complex. The simple reason is that our overuse of fossil fuels in industrial, affluent, and increasingly populated nations and the release of excess effluvia of CO2 into earth’s atmosphere is affecting the thermostatic temperature balance of the globe. That is the simple cause. The complex, interrelated causes have to do with our dependence on these fossil fuels and the local, regional and national economic interests of a free-market economy that causes tensions between developed nations (and between developed and underdeveloped nations) and the special interest groups whose relatively short-term economic goals are taking precedent over immediate and pressing global concerns. According to the majority of scientific experts on global warming, these complex factors, economic, national and social are impeding what should be an immediate, unified effort of nations to fashion solutions, before it is too late (Johansen, B.E., the Global Warming Desk Reference, 2).
CAUSES of GLOBAL WARMING
The widespread use of fossil fuels began during the Industrial age when economic industrial development brought greater financial profit along with an increase in human comfort and convenience.
The combustion of coal, oil and natural gas has been changing the atmospheric balance ever since with the increases in carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxides and other naturally occurring “trace gases” as well as synthetically produced chemicals released into the atmosphere. During 1860, human created carbon emissions were at about one-tenth of a gigaton (billion metric tons). This had increased, between 1900 and 1940. To about 1.0 to 1.5 gigatons. By 1960, the carbon emissions had passed 3.0 gigatons to more than 8.0 gigatons by the late 1980’s. This was a world increase of carbon dioxide emissions of 219%, or approximately a 7.3% increase, annually. Between 1850 and 2000, the human effluvia of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion had increased fifty times over (Johansen, 3).
Greenhouse gases are a class of gases that trap heat near the Earth’s surface. As they increase in the Earth’s atmosphere, the extra heat they trap creates global warming. This global warming affects the Earth’s climate system and can lead to weather changes through the world. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the best known of the gases that contribute to global warming because it is responsible, along with methane, water vapors and trace gases, for about half of the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect. Whenever we burn something and when things decompose, CO2 is produced. Without the greenhouse gases, life as we know it could not exist. CO2, as the most abundant of these gases, keeps the planet at a 57 degree Fahrenheit average temperature, keeping the surface above freezing. A doubling of the CO2 in the atmosphere, however, has the potential to heat our planet by approximately 5F and perhaps as much as 10F, causing catastrophic climate changes in world (Flannery, the Weathermakers, 22).
CO2 is actually a trigger for the potent greenhouse gas, water vapor. By heating the atmosphere, it allows it to take up and retain more water moisture, which then warms the atmosphere even further, operating like a feedback loop and raising the temperatures even higher (Flannery, 28).
About 40% of the U.S. carbon emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels for the generation of electricity. It is a little known fact that our 21st century, modern society is run on a 19th form of energy production. Coal is the greatest producer of carbon emissions, with a 1.7 times greater emission rate as natural gas and 1.25 times greater than oil. By driving at 25 miles a gallon for 10,000 miles, heating a home for one year with a natural gas-fired furnace, or four months using electricity from coal- fired plants, the average U.S. household emits a metric ton of carbon annually (EcoBridge, 2).
About 20% of carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of gasoline in internal-combustion engines of cars and light trucks such as mini-vans, SUV’s, pick up trucks and jeeps. Poor gas mileage vehicles contribute the most. An SUV which was made for rough terrain and not city driving creates an over-kill situation in the environment ( 3). Carbon emissions from commercial trucks contribute another 13% and it is estimated that aviation contributes another 3.5% of global warming with estimates up to 15% by 2050.
After carbon emissions caused by humans, deforestation is the second major cause of global warming effected by CO2 release into the atmosphere. It is estimated that deforestation is responsible for 25% of all carbon emissions in the atmosphere by the burning and cutting of approximately 34 million acres of trees each year. By devastating the rain forest (millions of acres annually), we are releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. By cutting these forests down, not only are we releasing more CO2 into the air, but also we are radically decreasing a major source of CO2 absorption. The temperate forests alone account for the absorption of 2 billion tons of carbon annually ( 10) and vigorous, new forest growth takes in more CO2 than older forests.
Places and things that absorb carbon when it leaves the atmosphere are called “carbon sinks.” All living things are carbon sinks as are the rocks and earth under us. Scientists, over the last decades, have been monitoring where all the CO2 from fossil fuel burning goes by tracking CO2’s unique chemical signature as it circulates around the earth. The major carbon sinks are the oceans, great absorbers of CO2. The cyclic changes in sea surface circulations and temperatures caused by global warming, however, are increasingly affecting the waters’ abilities to absorb CO2 (Flannery, 33-34). The increase in greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, creates what is called a “positive feedback loop.” This increase in CO2 effluvia creates an overall global warming which in turn affects the temperature of the oceans (warmer oceans absorb less CO2 than colder ones) thereby decreasing the oceans’ abilities to absorb CO2 at the very time CO2 is accumulating at a faster rate into our atmosphere (Flannery, 34).
Mitigation of global warming is the alleviation or reduction of the causes of global warming. First on the list of immediate solutions to CO2 emissions is the call for a radical reduction in fossil fuel usage through conservation. Energy conservation, on a large scale, must be at the energy policy international level. The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international treaty on climate change. Its objective is to cut the global emissions of green house gases. As of April 2006, 163 countries have ratified the agreement, notable exceptions being the U.S. And Australia. China and India, two of the largest carbon producing countries, although ratifying the protocol, are not required to reduce their CO2 emissions.
Another important mitigating action in reducing CO2 emissions is to shift from carbon-based fossil fuels to alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power, and photovoltaic cells, i.e. To “decarbonize” the power grid” (Flannery, 267). There are many countries, already, who have begun making the switch to wind and solar powered grids, reducing their CO2 emissions by over 70% and still are experiencing economic growth, thus “unmasking” the scare tactics by the oil and coal conglomerates that continue to foster the myth that it is too difficult or too expensive ((Flannery, 268).
One immediate solution, that would have a profound impact on CO2 emissions, is to raise every citizen’s awareness to implement changes in over-consuming lifestyles and encouraging a willingness to undergo a few comfort-zone adjustments in our habits and living environments. While government agencies and special interest groups remain gridlocked with debating special interests, consumers, with their power over the free market, can make changes that could result in the 70% reduction called for to rebalance the earth’s climate. This could be done in a few months rather than the fifty years allowed for by government nations (Flannery, 303). A single phone call to the electricity provider can determine whether a “green power option” is available and if not than change of electricity providers in order, or a lobbying of authorities to change to a more free market choice in one’s area. Limiting hot water usage can have a profound effect on CO2 emissions, since roughly, one-third of emissions are created from domestic power, and one-third of each household’s usage is in hot water generation. Switching to solar heating would make a profound change, for heating and hot water can be heated freely and cleanly from the sun. By switching to energy efficient heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration, the greatest power users, consumers could have a huge impact on emissions. Changing to hybrid, fuel-efficient cars, public transportation and walking, when feasible, would have a profound impact on human-created carbon emissions. Penalizing and rewarding consumers and businesses through tax incentives and rebates could be very effective. One proposal that could go into immediate effect would be to put a surcharge on the purchase of gas-guzzling SUV’s and Hummers that would in turn convert to a rebate for consumers purchasing hybrid cars. This would encourage car manufacturers to increase their production of hybrid autos (Jeep Grand Tragedy, 6-7). Insurance companies could switch to a Pay as you Drive (PAYD) auto insurance replacing premiums based on amount of mileage driven, rather than lump-sum premiums ( 8).
Other proposals researched and being implemented are carbon “capture and storage” strategies and geo-engineered carbon sequestration. These strategies have not yet proven cost-effective or solution-effective. Seeding the oceans with iron or chalk to increase carbon sink efficiency, for example, has proven expensive and polluting in the circumscribed areas where it has been tried (Flannery, 250).
Certainly, supporting political candidates that have a plan to convert our country to alternative energy sources would have an immediate impact on governmental policies. The main reason that politicians do not vote “green” is that they do not believe their constituency cares. They are mostly concerned with votes and contributions, particularly from powerful lobbyists such as Exxon-Mobile, who along with their coal- producing colleagues seem determine to keep the public misinformed about the critical period we are in such that waiting, until it is too late, will have catastrophic results for the global community. We can no longer afford the laissez-faire economic policies of the last three generations that believe that our hyper-individualism and excessive consumerism in the pursuit of our own happiness and comfort would ultimately contribute to the world. We are quickly witnessing the fallacy of that kind of ethical blindness in the face of Nature’s response. The United States, instead of being behind other countries, should be leading the way in energy alternatives.
The U.S. already has the most varied weather patterns of any country on earth and it is experiencing the extreme effects of climatic change due to global warming with intense hurricanes and flooding of coastal regions and its current drought conditions in the West. The U.S. is already paying the price for its excessive CO2 emissions. Australia too is suffering the effects of climate change. It is ironic that these are the two nations still resistant to even the relatively moderate long-term reductions proposed by the Kyoto Protocol.
Causes of Global Warming.” Online posting. EcoBridge. June 6, 2006 http://www.ecobridge.org/.
Flannery, Tim. The Weathermakers. New York: Atlantic Monthly
Jeep Grand Tragedy.” The New Republic. Vol. 234. Issue 4,766. May 22, 2006: 7.
Johansen, Bruce E. The Global Warming Desk Reference. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
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