The Earth’s climate is continually changing. Variations in solar radiation, plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions and other natural phenomena all play a part in fluctuating temperatures and weather events.
What concerns scientists is a recent trend in global warming. Over the past century, the planet’s average temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Based on current patterns, it is projected to rise another 2 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.
Human Impact on Climate Change
In fall 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that: “It is extremely likely [95 to 100 percent] that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been releasing large quantities of gases into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons. A large portion of the carbon dioxide comes from the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels such as coal and oil. These gases linger in our atmosphere, blocking the planet’s heat from escaping into space. We are, in effect, creating an artificial greenhouse effect.
During the past decade, evidence of our contribution to global warming has continued to mount. For example:
- The IPCC reports that levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide rose faster from 1995 to 2005 than they did since these levels were first measured in 1960.
- According to NASA: “All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s.”
Effects of Rising Temperatures
If the earth’s heat cannot escape into space, it must disperse itself elsewhere. Trapped by greenhouse gases, it is most frequently absorbed by our oceans. According to numerous scientific reports:
- The top 2,300 feet of ocean indicate a gradual warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
- The breadth and thickness of sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic has decreased significantly in the last few decades.
- Globally, sea levels have risen 6.7 inches in the past century.
In addition, the IPCC warned in a 2014 report that sea levels could rise as much as three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at their current pace.
Heat dispersal is not the only issue: The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the ocean is increasing by an estimated 2 billion tons per year, which in turn is increasing the ocean’s acidity. Since the Industrial Age, the acidity of ocean waters has risen by approximately 30 percent.
As a result, our climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Scientists point to record high and low temperatures, more frequent extreme weather events, significant changes in microclimates and increased coastal flooding.
Climate Change Skepticism
Organizations such as the Heartland Institute and the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) argue that these issues have been blown out of proportion. For example, in 2014, the NIPCC issued a rebuttal report to the IPCC. It concluded that the human effect of global warming is likely small relative to natural variability, and that whatever small warming may occur will produce benefits as well as costs.
In addition, climate change scientists admit to a number of uncertainties concerning the magnitude human impact on warming, the rate of rising sea levels and the likelihood of plant and animal extinction.
Mitigating Global Warming
Nevertheless, the overall scientific consensus is that global warming is real and dangerous. If we wish to have a sustainable society built on sustainable energy resources, governments and businesses need to take direct and immediate action on climate change.
- Investment in Low-Carbon Energy: To meet climate targets, the 2014 IPCC report suggests that annual investment in fossil fuel power plants will need to decline by approximately 20 percent in the coming two decades; investment in low-carbon energy will need to double.
- Taxing Carbon Emissions: Wealthy countries are often sluggish about reducing high carbon emissions and many developing countries are still building coal-fired power plants; high taxes on carbon emissions may be the only way to spur action.
- Higher Efficiency Standards: The more energy we save, the less we have to create. Stronger efficiency standards for items like vehicles, buildings and consumer goods contribute to reduced emissions.
- Reforestation: Forests and woodlands act as terrestrial carbon sinks, soaking up atmospheric carbon dioxide. Efforts are underway across the world to combat industrial deforestation.
- Individual Action: There are plenty of steps that individuals can take to reduce carbon emissions, including limiting vehicle use, purchasing energy-efficient products and switching to renewable energy sources.