Climate change is one of the hotly contested and controversial issues of contemporary times. Specifically, the role of human activities in causing climate change elicits a deeply divided debate from various quarters of society. On the one hand, the supporters of climate change hold that human activities, especially the emission of greenhouse gases and other related aspects, are the main contributors to this phenomenon. On the other hand, the critics of climate change maintain that human activities do not play any significant role in the various climate changes that have been happening over the last few decades. As such, it is important to understand this issue from an objective perspective by considering the claims of both the proponents and opponents of this phenomenon. This paper discusses the issue of climate change by considering the arguments presented by both the proponents and opponents based on ethical principles and sources of moral value, specifically on the role of human activities in causing and exacerbating climate change.
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Proponents of Climate Change
The supporters of climate change point to the overwhelming scientific agreement that human activities are the primary culprits in causing climate change. A synthesis of the available peer-reviewed literature on this issue shows that over 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is primarily an effect of human activities (Cook et al., 2016). Additionally, some underlying ethical and moral concerns surround the issue of climate change. For instance, one of the troubling ethical issues associated with the emission of greenhouse gases is the question of who bears the responsibility for such acts. The idea of a carbon tax whereby polluters of the environment are taxed points to the admission that human activities contribute to climate change. From a moral standpoint, organizations should not be allowed to continue polluting the environment simply because they can pay for such acts.
Additionally, pro-climate change adherents hold that human activities have been directly contributing to the unabated and unethical release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which in turn creates the greenhouse effect that eventually traps heat in the atmosphere leading to rising earth temperatures, hence global warming. Humans have been burning fossil fuels unprecedentedly for different reasons, such as heating homes, running factories, and as gasoline for motor vehicles among other related activities. In the process, various greenhouse gases including methane and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere and they trap heat leading to global warming and devastating climate change patterns.
Similarly, the proponents of climate change argue that the unprecedented rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over the last century is caused by human activities, as it has occurred at a rate faster than what could be attributed to natural climate changes. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (2021), climate change has been occurring naturally; for instance, over the last close to over 600,000 years, seven cycles of glacial retreat and advance have occurred. However, since the civilization of humanity, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been rising unprecedentedly, which underlines the argument that human activities are responsible for these changes.
Another argument linking human activities with climate change is based on the nature of carbon dioxide produced. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2020), the carbon dioxide responsible for climate change and the greenhouse effect is different from that which occurs naturally by looking at specific isotopic ratios. Naturally-occurring carbon dioxide comes from volcanic activities, oceans, and other natural sources, and the levels of such gases in the atmosphere are not alarming. However, the carbon dioxide isotopes in the atmosphere responsible for global warming are mainly associated with human activities (EPA, 2020). Therefore, it suffices for climate change proponents to argue that human activities are the major causes of climate change.
Finally, the average increase in atmospheric temperatures over the last century cannot be accounted for by natural climate changes. According to NASA (2021), the current warming trend “is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia” (para. 8). The available evidence in scientific literature shows that atmospheric temperatures have been increasing steadily over the last 100 years at a rate higher than the rest of the earth’s history, and this phenomenon could be explained by human activities.
Opponents of Climate Change
The opponents of climate change also have evidence to prove that human activities do not contribute significantly to climate change. For instance, a 2010 report shows that more than 1000 scientists refute the anthropogenic causes of climate change (Climate Depot, 2010), which counters the claim that scientists have agreed that human activities are responsible for climate change. In another study, it was found that 47 percent of climatologists are skeptical of the idea that human beings are responsible for climate change, with 37 percent of them believing that this phenomenon is caused by a combination of various factors including natural causes (Prokopy et al., 2015). Therefore, the claims of climatic scientific consensus on the causes of climate change are inaccurate.
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Additionally, the critics of anthropogenic causes of climate change argue that the earth’s climate has always warmed and cooled over the years and the changes being witnessed from the 20th century are within the normal natural temperature fluctuations. A study from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows that the 20th century is not the hottest or climatically unique period in the last millennium (Soon & Baliunas, 2003). Temperatures during the Medieval periods were higher than what has been experienced in the 1900s. Therefore, the claims that human activities are responsible for the temperature rise in the 20th century are unfounded and untrue.
Similarly, critics of climate change argue that the rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels do not necessarily lead to global warming or climate change. According to a study by Caillon et al. (2003), over the last 240,000 years, climatic patterns show that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere naturally increase to herald cycles of global warming, and these occurrences happen independently of human involvement. Similarly, another study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showed that over 460 million years ago, the earth experienced intense glaciation periods at a time when carbon dioxide levels were five times higher than they are contemporarily (Vandenbroucke et al., 2010). Therefore, it suffices to argue that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are a natural occurrence, and it could lead to glaciation, as opposed to warming, as it occurred 460 million years ago. This assertion negates the popularly held claim that human activities are responsible for the rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the subsequent global warming patterns.
Additionally, while critics agree that human activities release carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, these gases are reabsorbed by various carbon sinks, such as oceans and forests, which then negates the associated effects of climate. A study by Monroe (2013) found that recent estimates have “calculated that 26 percent of all the carbon released as CO2 from fossil fuel burning, cement manufacture, and land-use changes over the decade 2002–2011 was absorbed by the oceans” (para. 2). Therefore, the carbon dioxide coming from human activities does not contribute significantly to climate change as alleged by proponents of this phenomenon.
Based on the evidence provided by the two sides of climate change, it suffices to argue that human activities are responsible for climate change. The evidence presented in this paper is clear that the majority of climatic scientists directly associate human activities with the unparalleled climatic changes being witnessed in modern times. Additionally, the greenhouse effect has been proven scientifically and shown to directly contribute to the rising earth’s temperatures, hence global warming and ultimately adverse climate changes. While the opponents of climate change raise some valid points, there is overwhelming evidence that human activities are the primary causes of climate change.
The debate on climate change is far from over because each side has allegedly irrefutable evidence to prove or disapprove that human activities contribute to this phenomenon. For each point raised to support the role of human activities in climate change, there is an opposing argument to refute such claims. However, a close look at the available evidence points to the view that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, have directly contributed to climate change in one way or another as argued in this paper.
Caillon, N., Severinghaus, J. P., Jouzel, J., Barnola, J. M., Kang, J., & Lipenkov, V. Y. (2003). Timing of atmospheric CO2 and Antarctic temperature changes across Termination III. Science, 299(5613), 1728-1731.
Climate Depot. (2010). More than 1000 international scientists dissent over manmade global warming claims. U. S. senate minority report presented to the United Nations climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico.[PDF document].
Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, S., Lewandosky, S., Skuce, A., Green, S., Nuccitelli, D., Jacobs, P., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., & Rice, K. (2016). Consensus on consensus: A synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters, 11(4), 1-7.
EPA. (2020). Greenhouse gas emissions: Overview of greenhouse gases. Web.
Monroe, R. (2013). How much CO2 can the oceans take up? Web.
NASA. (2021). Climate change: How do we know? Web.
Prokopy, L. S., Morton, L. W., Arbuckle Jr, J. G., Mase, A. S., & Wilke, A. K. (2015). Agricultural stakeholder views on climate change: Implications for conducting research and outreach. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 96(2), 181-190.
Soon, W., & Baliunas, S. (2003). Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years. Climate Research, 23(2), 89-110.
Vandenbroucke, T. R., Armstrong, H. A., Williams, M., Paris, F., Zalasiewicz, J. A., Sabbe, K., Nõlvak, J., Challands, T. J., Verniers, J., & Servais, T. (2010). Polar front shift and atmospheric CO2 during the glacial maximum of the Early Paleozoic Icehouse. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(34), 14983–14986.