The Controversy of Climate Change

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Climate change may be one of the biggest issues of our time, and still, there is some disagreement. This is especially true when discussing climate change opinions between American political parties, specifically in relation to the significance of climate change and whether it is happening. There is almost complete agreement among climate scientists that climate change is beginning to take place and that we have only begun to experience some of its ramifications. The reality and facts of climate science are clouded by political agenda, skepticism, and daunting scientific dialog that bores its readers and has led to misunderstanding and uncertainty among some of the American public. The understanding and acknowledgment of the causes of climate change, the global impacts, and solutions, begins with mutual agreement and perspective on the climate change problem.

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Skepticism has also stemmed from the previous verbiage of “global warming” to the more inclusive term “climate change”. The original use of the term global warming made people believe that the only repercussion of greenhouse pollution would be warmer weather. This made the public assume that there would be a decrease in weather variation with less or nonexistent cold weather occurrences.

According to surveys of climate experts and peer-reviewed scientific journals and research approximately 97% of climate scientists agreed that climate change was occurring and that it is an anthropogenic problem (Myers, Maibach, Leiserowitz, & Peters, 2015). Although there are disagreements on the long-term consequences of the environment, there are a few impacts that scientists agree are the most probable. These include a rise an average global temperature, sea-level rise, increased occurrences of wild fires, damage to ecosystems and biodiversity, water shortages, ocean acidification, and human health implications. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration- Climate, 2018) (Oppenheimer & Anttila-Hughes, 2016). With rapidly changing climates, human and animal populations as well as systems of food production and clean water production, must advance and adapt at rates far quicker than they are now.

In many instances climate is often confused with weather. Climate is the long-term conditions of a region, including weather conditions, humidity, precipitation, air pressure, cloudiness, and sunshine. Therefore, climate change is the change of the average temperature globally and this is where some confuse short-term weather anomalies with climate change. In the Winter of 2017 President Trump tweeted, “…Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming.” During a period that the Northern U.S. was experiencing record lows. Unfortunately, these occurrences of extreme cold temperatures do not necessarily mean that the climate is not changing, and that global warming is not happening, as there are always natural variations of weather and temperature all over the world.

As climate change impacts progress, scientists study the future of climate change to estimate climate impacts around the world by using sophisticated computer models called atmosphere-ocean general circulation models or AOGCMs. In a scientific journal, The Science of Climate Change, Michael Oppenheimer & Jesse Anttila-Hughes discuss a multitude of climate circumstances that these computer models draw out with varying degrees of impact. The computer model that paints the picture of a severe scenario states that by the year 2100, researchers expect to see a global average temperature change of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius or 5.4- 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Although that may be a time frame far beyond our lifetimes, the decisions we make about climate change today, will impact the lives of our children and our children’s children. By the year 2080, our future descendants could experience an average global temperature higher than any human has experienced in the past several million years. With these computer models, we have a variety of scenarios and possibilities, but precise science is extremely difficult due to the many different aspects that will affect future climate including but not limited to sunlight, Earth’s rotation, future chemical composition of the atmosphere, and natural water vapor in the air. These models do give us approximate forecasts and most models reach agreement about the large global changes that will take place over long periods of time, both in moderate and severe circumstances (The Science of Climate Change. Oppenheimer & Anttila-Hughes, 2016).

In 2014, 35 billion tons of inorganic carbon dioxide emissions are emitted into the atmosphere (CO2Earth, 2014) and the total CO2 in the atmosphere has risen 40% since the start of the industrial revolution (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration- Climate, 2018). These carbon emissions then settle in the atmosphere along with other greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and natural occurring molecules of water vapor. This is where the greenhouse effect begins its role. When sunlight reaches Earth’s atmosphere it is either reflected to space or reaches some area of our lower atmosphere where the light energy can be absorbed, stored, or sent back out into space via reflectivity also known as albedo effect. These greenhouse gases cause the atmosphere to trap more heat energy in the atmosphere, warming the surface of the Earth. The equilibrium of energy stored here in the lower atmosphere and the energy that is released back into space is what has made our plant habitable and enabled life to flourish. In the past, without human interaction, the gains and losses of greenhouses gases has balanced aside from occurrences such as volcanic activity and variations in the sun’s activity. Today, these excess greenhouse gases have begun to trap the sun’s energy causing warming and overall change in weather and climates. With carbon dioxide’s long life span, scientists expect that 25% of today’s emissions will remain in the atmosphere for a millennium (Oppenheimer & Anttila-Hughes, 2016).

The first of many impacts we will discuss, sea level rise, is a concern for researchers, especially in relation to people and wildlife that live in close proximity to the ocean or on small islands. Caused by the melting of glaciers and sea ice, as well as thermal expansion of the ocean, sea level rise causes long-term land loss resulting in mass migrations and increased risks of beach erosion. In addition to these impacts, many cities such as Miami that are at a low sea level will need additional infrastructure including sea walls and drainage systems. Some of these infrastructure modifications have already begun with the current 6-8 inches of global sea level rise that has been observed (Oppenheimer & Anttila-Hughes, 2016). It is predicted that by the end of this century, there could be multimeter sea level rise resulting the in the disappearance of small isolated islands and their unique native species.

As the ocean absorbs approximately 30% of carbon dioxide from the lower atmosphere, it results in carbonic acidic production (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration- Climate, 2018). This acid dissolves calcium-based shells and bone structures of organisms such as coral reefs, snails, and other animals with shell like structures, threatening many forms of life and ecosystems. This ocean acidification effects more than ½ of all fish species and the entire food chain of the ocean from zooplankton, the foundation of the ocean’s ecosystem, to whales. The ocean’s absorption of thermal energy also prolongs the timeline for consequences of climate change to appear as it stores carbon dioxide. So, although the ocean may be absorbing a large amount of the carbon dioxide emissions, the long-term effects of this will be seen many years down the road as oceanic ecosystems are lost and possible sea life extinctions take place (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration- Ocean Acidification, 2018)

On land in areas of rapid and extensive population growth, water shortages are already a reality. In the future, where climate change has taken hold and there are global shifts in precipitation patters with increased variability in severe wet and dry periods, this issue will only deteriorate further and affect far more inhabitants. Many mountainous areas such as the Himalayas and Rockies that rely on mountain glacier runoff in the spring, will experience shortages of spring runoff that now supply water for agriculture and irrigation, reservoir replenishment, and water stowage for summer, due to glacier melt (Oppenheimer & Anttila-Hughes, 2016). These impacts consequently can increase the cost of water supply and limit many population’s access to clean water. In addition, drought can lead to higher probabilities of wild fires due to dry regions and brittle plant life as well as landslides due to more intense rains.

These changes in precipitation patterns, temperature, and weather can also affect entire ecosystems. Biodiversity is the foundation of an ecosystem and makes an ecosystem more resilient. Plants that will be unable to grow in areas they currently reside due to changes in precipitation will impact entire food chains. Animals that typically rely on the seasons in their region as a que for mating seasons can lose their natural mating season, resulting fewer offspring and less biodiversity among species resulting in the possibility of higher rates of extinction.

Concerns of wellbeing affected by climate change extend well into human life. The World Health Organization has named pollution as the #1 health risk. But, not only do we have to worry about pollution problems such as the ones that have engulfed many cities in China, changes in animal and insect migration due to changing ecosystems can also affect human health. When insects such as mosquitos migrate, they bring diseases such as malaria and migrating birds can bring pandemic influenza.

More intense weather circumstances can also be expected. Circumstances such as hurricane Harvey, which produced more than 60 inches of rain, approximately 15% higher than past hurricane averages, resulted in substantial flooding in Texas in the summer of 2017 (Trenberth, Cheng, Jacobs, Zhang, & Fasullo 2018). Studies done prior to hurricane Harvey in the Gulf of Mexico show that the ocean heat content (OHC) of the Gulf of Mexico was the highest on record both in the Gulf and globally. This abnormally high OHC caused record-breaking rainfall during the storm and made the storm sustain itself for longer after reaching land and further intensified the storm. Experts believe that Harvey could not have produced as much rainfall without anthropogenic climate change and that storms with severity and damage like that of Harvey will occur more often. These powerful storms are not limited to hurricanes and typhoons as climate change effects weather patterns, more severe rainfall, heat waves, and even winter storms are expected to increase in brutality.

To study and compare the rates of change with past climates of the Earth, researchers study periods between ice ages, known as an interglacial, and their frequency as well as longevity. Today, we are currently in an interglacial period and the entirety of human civilization and introduction of settlement and agriculture has taken place in the most recent interglacial event. Previous climates can be observed in many ways. One is by studying air bubbles trapped in ice that froze a thousand or more years ago by calculating the number of molecules of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas molecules. We can also study paleoclimates by observing tree rings that paint an image for scientists of growing seasons and their conditions. Another way is by capturing and studying microscopic fossils, buried under the ocean floor, and using radioactive isotopes to predict age and other information about the time of which the plant or animal of the fossil lived. By comparing these paleoclimates to today’s climate, researchers have found that temperatures have never risen as fast as they have since the beginning of the industrial revolution, which is .89 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although there are natural variations in weather, such as El Nino that occurs every 3-7 years that produces droughts and heavy floods though out the world, events like this under climate change may happen more frequently and cause more extreme conditions. A single drought, heat wave, or occurrence of extreme and unexpected weather does not mean that the climate is changing, but the long-term weather anomalies are what symbolize climate change. In the article The Science of Climate Change, it is stated that “In no place will the climate remain unchanged”. This is a global problem, with the largest conceivable scale, with the distribution of carbon in the atmosphere all over the world.

With political divides, the United States is now the only county in the world that is not involved in a resolution for climate mitigation under the Paris Climate Agreement. The Nicaraguan government and civil war-stricken Syria are the last countries to state they will join the agreement, leaving the United States as the only county undedicated to climate restoration. The Paris agreement’s goal is to keep the average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius and as the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases following China, we have decided to derail the progress and ignore one of the most substantial problems humanity has come face with. With the defunding of the EPA and other actions taken by the American government, policy makers have not considered scientific findings that have possible extreme outcomes. To fight further climate impacts, one of the largest obstacles, especially here in the U.S, is finding an international agreement of cooperation with a policy that must satisfy corporations and other participants of the global economy that will show benefits for many years.

The future of climate may sound like doom and gloom, but many are working towards potential solutions. Companies such as Tesla have long-term solutions for global energy sources that will reduce CO2 pollution and offer energy storage options. Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO has stated that 100 Tesla of Gigafactorys, which can mass produce lithium ion batteries, can supply and store enough energy for the entire plant’s consumption. Other forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric can be replacement forms of energy for non-renewable energy sources such as the burning of coal, natural gas, and oil. There are other anti-climate change ideas that offer alternative solutions such as “waste management” of carbon dioxide emissions. This solution is described in an article featured in the journal “Issues in Science and Technology” (Vol. 33 Issue 3, p83, 6 p. by Klaus Lackner and Christophe Jospe). They suggest alternatives to the typical climate argument that require lifestyle changes and suggest new energy technologies that would involve atmospheric “clean up” solutions via geological storage of CO2 and instruments that would capture and dismantle CO2 molecules and release clean air back into the atmosphere. Although there are many different ideas of ways we can either reduce the production and emissions of greenhouse gases, completely rid modern society of these forms of energy and find new-clean energy sources, or do mass atmospheric clean up, there is one bottom line.

To begin the process of stopping the advances of climate change here in the U.S, government implementation of policies and regulations are needed to sanction the technological advances and government programs like the EPA that will propel processes and eventually solutions forward. Changes in greenhouse gas output must take place in days gone by, as time has run out to argue over a unanimously recognized scientific issue.

Works cited

  1. Myers, T. A., Maibach, E. W., Leiserowitz, A. A., & Peters, E. (2015). Simple messages help set the record straight about scientific agreement on human-caused climate change: The results of two experiments. PloS one, 10(9), e0138212.
  2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration- Climate. (2018). Causes of Climate Change.
  3. Oppenheimer, M., & Anttila-Hughes, J. K. (2016). The science of climate change: What we know and what we don’t. John Wiley & Sons.
  4. CO2Earth (2014). Global CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning, cement manufacture, and gas flaring: 1751-2014.
  5. Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, J. S., Lewandowsky, S., Skuce, A. G., Green, S. A., & Nuccitelli, D. (2016). Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental research letters, 11(4), 048002.
  6. Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Howe, P. (2013). Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in April 2013. Yale University and George Mason University.
  7. Zickfeld, K., Solomon, S., Gilford, D. M., Robiou-du-Pont, S., Kriegler, E., Hall, J. W., & Allen, M. R. (2017). Meeting Paris targets necessitates NETs. Nature Climate Change, 7(4), 272–274.
  8. Climate Interactive. (n.d.). En-ROADS Climate Solutions Simulator.
  9. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Global Warming of 1.5°C.
  10. The United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2022). Climate Change Indicators in the United States: Greenhouse Gases.

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