Climate Change Update (22 Feb 2007)

As I mentioned in my previous Update, so many effects of human-induced climate change (that is, global warming) are now appearing in the scientific literature that it is too difficult for me to keep up posting them here; I’ll point out a few that caught my attention.

Carbon dioxide levels continue to rise; this January saw a new record high at 390 parts per million. And according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this past January was the warmest January on record. Of course, global warming refers to changes in climate; it is quite possible that a month or even a year may be cooler than the preceding one; the warming trend is significant over years and decades, however. And fast-moving rivers of water are flowing under West Antarctica’s ice sheet, contributing to rapidly changing lakes; this could have major implications for the stability of the ice.

As we’ve seen, climate change will have (and is having) major impact on Earth’s ecosystems. A new study suggests that a species of turtle would see significant population losses.

But before I go further, I would like to address a common misconception. People sometimes express doubt that we could “destroy the Earth” through global warming or any other such process. The Earth has been through major changes before. And as a Live Science article discusses, they’re right. Life on Earth has created some pretty hefty changes in the past. But the problem is, a significant amount of life did not survive those changes (and much of those species that survived were able to do so because they could adapt and evolve to the slowly changing conditions). As I’ve pointed out before, the Earth will survive global warming just fine. It is human civilization or our species itself that is at risk.

The good news is that while isolated individuals still express skepticism or even denial over the existence and ramifications of global warming, not only are scientists united, but also governments are as well. There does not seem to be any major governmental opposition remaining. Indeed, there appears to be broad agreement by governments around the world regarding these problems, as evidenced by the IPCC summary (which I discussed in a previous post). David Biello at Scientific American writes, “The IPCC summary for policymakers definitively proclaimed the globe to be warming as a result of human activity; now the science shifts to impacts and solutions.” And as New Scientist points out, the report was approved by officials from 113 countries and was backed by the White House.

French President Jacques Chirac issued a call for an international environmental body to address these issues. As Live Science reports, forty-five nations attended, but notably absent were the United States, India, and China. And even though U.S. President George Bush has finally admitted that global warming is real, he has still resisted efforts to address the issue. Fortunately, though, Congress has taken the initiative. CNN reports “Corporate moguls, policy experts and U.S. senators spoke with one voice about global warming Wednesday, telling a world forum the United States must take a lead role in cutting greenhouse gases if it wants to encourage China and India to do the same.” New Scientist commented on this as well, writing, “There’s a climate of change on Capitol Hill. On 14 and 15 February more than 100 legislators and officials from 13 countries met within the walls of the US Senate to discuss the future of international climate policy. At the close of the meeting they issued a statement setting out the components which they say will be essential for an international agreement on climate change when the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012.”

Europe, of course, has been leading the world on changing climate policy. The European Union has decided to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below its 1990 levels by the year 2020, though the decision still awaits individual governmental approval. The EU is also considering mandatory carbon dioxide emissions limits; the proposal would require that by 2012, new cars would produce less than 120 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer (the current average is 163). Mandatory emissions limits for other areas may face enforcement challenges; for instance, UK companies have not been reporting their full carbon emissions. A New Scientist article discusses other challenges in making a transition to sustainable energy sources.

One (controversial) strategy is to bury carbon dioxide; researchers are planning a large burying experiment to investigate leakage. And a new study suggests that offshore wind farms could provide significant power.

Other players have been entering the arena. Major corporations, including “GE, Ford, Toyota, Goldman Sachs, Alcoa, and Wal-Mart” backed carbon dioxide caps. And in a surprising development, China has announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, though the reduction would be modest and some are skeptical China will adhere to the proposal.

Some high-profile publicity for global warming is in the works. Richard Branson has offered a $25 million prize to anyone who can devise a way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in significant amounts. Though we are quite far from such a lofty goal, this will surely help bring attention (and research) to global warming. And as CNN reports, “Environmental activists led by former Vice President Al Gore announced plans Thursday for a 24-hour pop concert across seven continents in July to mobilize action to stop global warming.”

So what can we all do? I would suggest that one of the most important things to do is to get the word out. Educate your family, friends, and colleagues. Write to your government representatives. And make changes in your lifestyle. Live Science has a great, comprehensive list of lifestyle changes to consider.

So what can we do? One of the most important things to do is to help get the word out, to educate your friends, family, and co-workers.


5 thoughts on “Climate Change Update (22 Feb 2007)

  1. I’ll go first. The long term trend (ten years or so) I have noticed where I live is the seasons seem to start later than they used to. In the short term, there is a snow deficit so far this winter and February has been the coldest February so far here.

  2. → Polyann Well, I can’t really say that I’ve observed changes myself, but I’ve only lived in my current city for a couple years. The winters have certainly been milder than usual, but naturally, I can’t take one or two years as evidence of a long-term climate change. Ask me again in ten years 🙂

    → Fluid I agree. In fact, that plays a role in Star Trek’s “Prime Directive”; specifically, forbidding provision of advanced technology to cultures that have not reached that stage of development themselves. The idea is that such well-intentioned interference would at best, significantly alter a society’s natural development—but more likely, it would be disastrous to receive technology when so ill-equipped to deal with the consequences.

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