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Global Warming: Issue Analysis

Introduction

Global warming is a term commonly used to describe the consequences of man- made pollutants overloading the naturally-occurring greenhouse gases causing an increase of the average global temperature, the subject of great debate and concern worldwide. According to all peer-reviewed scientific studies, if the amount of greenhouse gasses being pumped into the air by factories, power plants and automobiles is not severely curtailed and soon, the earth and its inhabitants will suffer cataclysmic consequences in the near future. Switching to alternative forms of electric power and fuel but we must employ the quickest fix possible to avert a disastrous consequence.

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Opposing View

Many misconceptions of the current global warming crisis have been perpetrated by large corporations such as oil and auto companies which believe they will be the losers if limits to CO2 emissions are legislated in the U.S. According to their propaganda, the planet’s climate is experiencing a normal cycle of change. Television commercials in the U.S. distributed by the oil and gas companies demonstrate how CO2 is an essential component of the economy and an integral element of the cycle of life itself and therefore should not be regulated (Hopkins, 2006). A disconnect exists between what is commonly accepted by the scientific community and public perception of global warming. Because of the massive misinformation campaign in the U.S., some believe there are two legitimate scientific explanations for the observable current climate changes. That is strategy of the oil and gas companies, to have the public believe there is a debate on the issue when there is none.

Cause of Global Warming

The Natural Way

Greenhouse Effect

Essentially, the greenhouse effect functions in the following manner. When sunlight pierces the atmosphere and hits the earth’s surface, not all of the sun’s solar energy is absorbed. Approximately a third of it is reflected back into space. Specific atmospheric gases serve in much the same way as does the glass of a greenhouse, thus the terminology. These gases allow sunlight to penetrate then trap some of the solar energy which heats the earth (Breuer, 1980). It is a delicate balance and because these greenhouse gases have been artificially augmented by man-made sources, more build up in the atmosphere has occurred thus trapping more of the sun’s energy and reflecting less back in to space. This occurrence is causing the earth to warm.

The Unnatural Way

Deforestation

Trees absorb CO2 and when they die, CO2 is restored to the atmosphere. The clearing of forests by mass burning, which is happening at a phenomenal rate in the tropical rain forests, is decreasing the amount of CO2 that is absorbed and increasing the amount that is added to the atmosphere. CO2 supplies about half of the total gases that create the greenhouse effect (Breuer, 1980). Although deforestation is contributing heavily to the excess of CO2 in the atmosphere, a larger portion is caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Fossil fuels are burned by factories, vehicles and electricity-producing power plants to name a few sources. The vast majority of this excessive fuel consumption and its poisonous, pollutant and greenhouse-enhancing byproducts are located in the U.S., Europe and Russia (Breuer, 1980). Other greenhouse gases include methane, which is released when vegetation is burned during land clearing, during oil exploration activities and the coal-mining process; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which is the substance that cools refrigerators and provides the propulsion in aerosol cans and nitrous oxide (N2O) which is the lesser cause of CO2 (Breuer, 1980). It is generated from both man-made and natural processes. It is estimated that man-made influences represents about half of the CO2 output.

Carbon Dioxide

The rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are becoming increasingly disconcerting. “The concentrations of CO2 in the air around 1860 before the effects of industrialization were felt, is assumed to have been about 290 parts per million (ppm). In the hundred years and more since then, the concentration has increased by about 10 percent.” (Breuer, 1980, p. 67). Eighty percent of the world’s population accounts for just 35 percent of CO2 emissions while the United States and Soviet Union combined are responsible for generating half. Worldwide, “carbon dioxide emissions are increasing by four percent a year.” (Miller, 1990, p. 450). Motor vehicles are a major cause of air pollution as is fuel burned for the heating of homes and powering industry along with the toxins emitted from stacks at coal-burning power plants. “Vehicles produce high levels of carbon monoxides (CO) and a major source of hydrocarbons (HC) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), whereas, fuel combustion in stationary sources is the dominant source of sulfur dioxide (SO2)” (Breuer, 1980, p. 70).

Acceleration of Greenhouse Effect

If the balance between the CO2 levels in the ocean and atmosphere is disturbed by interjecting increasing amounts of CO2, the oceans would continually absorb higher concentrations than it does naturally. The subsequent warming ocean waters are less effective in their ability to absorb CO2 and when the oceans can no longer keep pace with the intrusion of this naturally equalized cycle, then more CO2 will remain in the atmosphere. Increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is expected to result in a warming of the Earth’s surface accelerating the greenhouse effect. “Currently carbon dioxide is responsible for 57 percent of the global warming trend. Nitrogen oxides contribute most of the atmospheric contaminants” (Miller, 1990, p. 498).

The scientific community agrees that global temperatures are rising due to the burning of fossil fuels which are damaging the protective atmospheric Ozone layer by changing its composition. Human pollution is changing the climate of our earth and has increased global warming in the past half century. The effects are being felt worldwide, not just in the U.S. where most of the CO2 emissions are generated. In the UK., for example, four of the five warmest years for more than three centuries have occurred in the last 10 years. Scientists predict that in 50 years, annual temperatures in the south east of England could be at least three degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer, on average, than they are now (Climate Crisis 2000). Global warming is further evidenced by the well-documented melting of glaciers along with thermal expansion of the oceans, which have contributed to an increase in sea level over the past century of about six inches in that country. (Trenberth 1997).

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Consequences

Studies have been conducted by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) has demonstrated that the past decade has been the warmest on record. At first thought, especially during the cold winter months, a little warming wouldn’t seem to be such a bad thing. Several varieties of fruits and vegetables could be produced in northern climates that today only grow in warmer climates. Warmer seas are likely to be attractive to more species of fish to the colder habitats as well. This is not to mention additional tourist currency to what would be the warm, sandy beaches of Canada or England (Climate Crisis 2000). However, as in everything, there is a downside and in this case, one of horrific proportions. Studies in the UK have found that warming could increase rainfall by more than 20 percent during the winter by the 2080’s and decrease it by the same amount during summer months in the southern half of that country. This would cause severe droughts in some regions but areas such as East Anglia, a very low-lying region on the east coast of England, could very well be under water altogether.

One would have to wonder what enormous problems this will cause not only to people and property but to the health of the global economy as a whole. Entire sections of various countries will be forced to abandon their homes and businesses. The process will be a slow and torturous one. Scientists also worry about the effects of a changing climate on the Gulf Stream, a massive ocean current which acts to warm the continent of Europe. “Ocean currents transport large amounts of heat around the world: climatologists call it thermohaline circulation (THC)” (Climate Crisis 2000). If it slows down or moves further south as a result of Greenland melting, Europe could end up with a climate more like that of present-day Greenland. A BBC-produced television program documented recently that Greenland is in fact melting at an alarming rate providing photographic evidence taken in the 1970’s in contrast to photographs taken in the present day.

It’s no Myth

This leads one to wonder if forces act to warm the climate yet at the same time cool it too, will these things balance each other to then have a neutral effect? Wishful thinking does no harm. Yes it does. That’s what much of the world leaders have done for thirty years. That’s how long we have known about the greenhouse effect, why it happened and what the results would be, but we have done little to avoid this calamity. Although science has identified a radically changing climate as the result of human activity, many will not admit it to themselves. “A parallel here is trying to link lung cancer to smoking. There are always some people who smoke who do not get lung cancer, and some who get lung cancer who do not smoke. Yet the evidence is compelling that there is a link. Still there are always people who do not want to believe and justify their beliefs by feeding on the legitimate uncertainties that exist” (Trenberth 1997). This is, essentially, the same faction of those who think that change is inevitable, that our advancing technologies will enable us to adapt to climate change as it happens. In other words just ignore the problem by continuing to pollute for economic reasons and the problem will just go away. That doesn’t work for any other type of problem and won’t with this one either.

Solutions

Power from the Sun

Solar power is widely used and is projected to be becoming a prolific energy source for the future. Today, solar energy supplies electric power to hundreds of thousand of people worldwide. More than ten thousand are employed in the solar energy market that produces revenues of at least $1 billion dollars. The advantages of solar power are obvious. It is an abundant, non-polluting and free energy resource as long as the sun shines. The sun provides the earth with 10,000 times more energy than its people consume, however, this resource remains essentially unexploited. At present, its expense is prohibitive for most consumers but this is changing with time. “Solar power is a prime choice in developing an affordable, feasible, global power source that is able to substitute for fossil fuels in all climate zones around the world” (“Solar Generation”, 2003).

We Need a Quicker Fix

If the people and nations of the world seriously want to end the burning of fossil fuels and halt the acceleration of global warming, renewable energy and alternative fuels must be quickly employed on a much larger scale. However, these two forms of energy alone will not be able to supplant coal and oil as the prevalent power sources and the levels of CO2 will continue to rise. Scientists have warned that if drastic steps are not taken now, the effects of global warming will soon become irreversible and the global temperatures will continue to rise regardless of future steps to reduce harmful emissions. Therefore, nuclear power facilities should quickly be built replace coal burning electric plants. “Nuclear energy is a clean, safe, reliable and competitive energy source. It is the only source of energy that can replace a significant part of the fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) which massively pollute the atmosphere and contribute to the greenhouse effect” (Comby, 2006).

Nuclear plants could provide all the electricity that would power all businesses and residences and will also provide the power for electric cars. Nuclear power is the only viable substitute that could replace the massive power needs of the planet and could be built in time to save the planet. The environmentalists who oppose nuclear power plants should realize that this may be the only way to avoid the looming affects of irreversible global warming. The concern primarily revolves around the disposal of nuclear waste. “Nuclear waste is to be deposited in deep geological storage sites; it does not enter the biosphere. Its impact on the ecosystems is minimal. An intelligent combination of energy conservation, and renewable energies for local low-intensity applications, and nuclear energy for base-load electricity production, is the only viable way for the future” (Comby, 2006). Some point to the potential deaths resulting from nuclear plant accidents. To date, only the Chernobyl melt-down caused deaths. Compare the safety record of nuclear power plants to the safety record of coal mines. If protecting the environment from nuclear waste is the concern, consider that oil tankers spill millions of gallons of oil into the seas every year. Clearly, nuclear power is the best and may be the only option for curtailing global warming, if it is widely employed very soon. Nuclear energy has been proven safe and waste is negligible. “Nuclear energy produces no CO2 and the volume of nuclear waste produced is very small, a typical family’s use of nuclear energy over a whole lifetime produces vitrified waste the size of a golf ball” (Comby, 2006).

Conclusion

The opponents to the regulation of greenhouse gasses including the former Bush administration has claimed this action would be too costly to business therefore hurt the economy. Auto companies in particular lobby against regulating automobile emissions claiming that it is not economically feasible for them. This is simply untrue because countries such as Japan, Korea and China have much stricter emission standards than the U.S. yet these country’s car sales are up while U.S. automakers are down. The economic consequence of doing nothing is far greater than solving the problem through legislation. If ‘we’ choose not to do anything or to insist a problem does not exist, there will cease to be a ‘we’ as weather patterns become overtly hostile and air, water and food supplies will either become non-existent or too poisonous to sustain life. If the earth cannot sustain human life, the automakers will not make any money. Maybe that is an argument they can understand.

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Works Cited

Breuer, Georg. “Air in Danger: Ecological Perspectives of the Atmosphere.” New York: Cambridge University Press. (1980). Web.

“Climate Crisis: All Change in the UK?” BBC News. (2000). Web.

Comby, Bruno. “The Benefits of Nuclear Energy.” TNR Editions. (2006). Web.

Hopkins, Rob. “A Review of An Inconvenient Truth.” Transition Culture. (2006). Web.

Miller, G. Tyler. “Living in the Environment: An Introduction to Environmental Science.” Belmont: Wadsworth. (1990). Web.

“Solar Generation Report.” Greenpeace. (2003). Web.

Trenberth, Kevin E. “Global Warming: It’s Happening.” National Center for Atmospheric Research. (1997). Web.

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