Author Note: This paper is intended to provide a concise yet thorough overview of the cause and effects of climate change and what steps we should be taking now to address the issue. This paper, written to inform and encourage discussion among thoughtful high school students, is being submitted on December 18, 2017, for Mrs. Reed’s Expository Writing class.
A lone polar bear perches on an iceberg, surrounded by frigid and seemingly endless water. This has become the primary image associated with the topic of climate change; it is the picture that comes to mind whenever we hear those two words. But we need to look beyond simple associations and baseless claims surrounding the topic. Climate change, also known as global warming, is generally a well-known phrase, but the concept itself is often not thoroughly understood. People may know that air pollution has overall negative effects on the environment, but our changing climate in reality means so much more. The issue we face is a pattern of inaction, as our heavy dependence on nonrenewable resources blinds us from realizing that the effects of climate change are not reserved for the future – they are already in motion. Scientific studies continue to indicate that we are already on a worrying path towards serious environmental and economic consequences as surface temperatures and sea levels, in addition to our atmospheric pollutants, continue to rise. Therefore, climate change is not something that can be pushed to the back burner while other hot political topics move to the front. Global warming is and will remain a serious issue, and we as a society need to decide how to universally address it. The approach we should take can be broken into three main steps: awareness, analysis and action. In other words, we must understand what climate change actually is and how it is occurring, look at what a warming climate realistically means for us now and in the future, and find both individual and global solutions that will reduce the impact of climate change and preserve our health, economy and environment for years to come.
The complexity of climate change as a whole cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, that complexity should not prevent us from simply having a general comprehension of the topic. Basically, our planet has gone through cycles of fluctuating temperatures throughout its history. Currently, we are on a trend of increased global temperatures, but the difference with the warming taking place now is that it is reaching unprecedented levels. Climate research conducted at the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) has found that this most recent spike in temperatures has only occurred since the Industrial Revolution, citing a surface temperature increase of “about 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century” (Global Climate Change, 2017). More concerning is the acceleration of this increase in the past thirty-five years, with “sixteen of the seventeen warmest years on record occurring since 2001” (Global Climate Change, 2017). This evidence suggests that we are the primary cause of warming of this magnitude, and “over 97% of published climate scientists agree that it is extremely likely (over 95% chance) that human activity is causing the recent spike in rising temperatures” (Global Climate Change, 2017). Furthermore, the recent acceleration in warming means that the severity of climate change is increasing. If we are responsible for this change, then we are equally responsible for its fallout. If we mean to address, and ideally reverse, this trend, we need to understand the background of what is, in fact, occurring in and below our atmosphere.
The “human activity” referenced by NASA primarily refers to an increase in “greenhouse gases” that we have pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. NASA climate research explains that the burning of “fossil fuels” such as coal, natural gas, and oil releases gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide, into the atmosphere. These gases trap entering heat from the sun, preventing its warmth from radiating out. The warmth then causes the planet as a whole to warm (Global Climate Change, 2017). However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of over 1,300 independent climate scientists working under the United Nations, finds that warming surface temperature is just one result of greenhouse gas emissions. In its fifth official report published in 2014, the IPCC found that “about 40% of these emissions have remained in the atmosphere; the rest [are]… stored on land (in plants and soils) and in the ocean” (Climate Change, 2014). This means that in addition to surface and air temperature increases, these greenhouse gases cause pollution and warming at the surface as well. In short, carbon emissions and other gases are affecting every aspect of our planet, which means that the resulting effects will be widespread and difficult to contain.
While it is important to be aware of the direct changes to the earth itself that result from greenhouse emissions such as rising sea levels and surface temperatures, it is arguably more important to recognize the ensuing effects on weather patterns, changing ecosystems, and the economy. We are already experiencing the aftermath of some of these changes, but a National Geographic article (2014) cites the IPCC, which claims that the “more dire consequences [are yet] to come” (Clark). For example, the third National Climate Assessment Report (2014), released approximately every five years, affirms that warming temperatures are already affecting our weather by causing longer heat and drought spells, fluctuating precipitation levels, and higher storm intensity. Warmer ocean waters are causing glaciers to melt at the poles, sea levels to rise across the board, and the probability of severe hurricanes to increase. While these changes are not the same everywhere, we are faced with a new era of uncertainty, in which a changing climate makes these extreme weather scenarios harder to predict with high precision. We can, however, prepare for an increased likelihood of these changes occurring and people of different regions should be ready to adapt accordingly.
Weather is not the only natural phenomenon affected by climate change, though. Environmental conditions have also seen noticeable effects on ecosystems. Oceans, for example, retain nearly a quarter of the total CO2 that is emitted. This directly causes an increase in ocean acidity that can inhibit the growth of foundational food web members such as zooplankton, corals, and shellfish, throwing marine food chains out of balance (Third National, 2014). On land, animals are forced to either adapt to changes in their habitats, or perish. Researchers from National Geographic (2017) have tracked several species that face both paths. They have found that some species of small mammals such as foxes, and insects like butterflies have been forced to relocate northward to find cooler areas. Others, however, particularly those native to colder regions such as the poles, do not have a choice. Penguins and polar bears, living on opposite ends of the earth, both face harsh foot shortages as a result of melting ice (Effects of Global Warming, 2017). The Adélie penguin population, for example, has been diminished “from 32,000 breeding pairs to 11,000 in 30 years” (Effects of Global Warming, 2017). Many of these animals most significantly affected, like the polar bear, are endangered, and if something does not change soon, they may face extinction. Unlike humans, these animals are unable to adapt to changing climate conditions through technological and economic advances such as electrical cooling systems and high-speed transportation to relocate to more moderate areas. They are defenseless against changes that we are causing. We are therefore responsible for resulting destruction of habitats and diminished numbers of wildlife populations.
Though we may feel a moral obligation to preserve our environment, human history has demonstrated an overall prioritization of self-preservation over environmental protection. However, even if we were to ignore the environmental toll that climate change has already taken, we cannot ignore direct effects on our own lives. If greenhouse gas emissions are left unchecked, not only could the effects on the environment and weather worsen, the United States could face damaging socio-economic problems. An article from the National Public Radio (2017) cites economists who analyze the potential hits to the economy as a result of climate change. Overall, the article finds that economic changes will vary based on region; some areas may even see economic benefits from longer growing seasons and warmer weather. Yet overall, scientists and economists agree that “warming will likely bring economic pain to the U.S.” (Joyce, 2017). Southern and western regions would be hit particularly hard and could see serious damage to agriculture. Those same regions would see increased costs in cooling and water supply as temperatures rise and droughts occur more frequently. Coastal areas could see massive amounts of flooding, and many areas with less economic stability could see devastating property damage as a result. While cooler regions may respond positively to the heat, warmer regions could see huge drops in economic growth, and businesses and citizens alike may be forced to embark on “mass migrations away from the areas” as a result (Joyce, 2017). Hits to the economy will directly affect our lives, and these risks cannot be ignored. We are at a point right now where increased regulation on burning fossil fuels would be expensive, but we have to consider the long-term future costs if we do not slow the current rate of greenhouse emissions.
Critics argue that these severe projections are too premature to make accurately, and that there are too many unknown factors involved to take such expensive action. The same article from NPR (2017) also cites analyst Ted Nourdhas from the Breakthrough Institute, an environment and energy group. Nourdhas argues that these projections are not definite and do not take into account our ability as a society to adapt to changes in climate. He argues that, “Over a century, [economic growth] could make up for all the losses from anthropogenic global warming and then some” (Joyce, 2017). Some economists share this skepticism and additionally argue that future predictions are not concrete enough to over-expend resources trying to combat them. Still, we cannot ignore the position we are currently in. Data from the NCA (2014) shows that temperatures have already risen two degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century, but under the most extreme projections, they could rise anywhere from five to ten more degrees by the end of the current century. Likewise, ocean levels that have risen eight inches, could rise upwards of four feet by 2100 if we continue to increase the rate at which we burn fossil fuels (Third National Climate Assessment). This means that the scale of change over the next century could be four times larger than the past one. Relying solely on economic growth and technological advances to deal with a fallout of that magnitude of change would be taking an irresponsible risk. While it is not unreasonable to accept that concrete economic effects are uncertain, it is unreasonable to cite that uncertainty as a cause for inaction.
Instead, we need to find ways to deal with change that has already occurred and reduce our impact on our climate in the future. The Third National Climate Assessment outlines two primary tactics in tackling climate change as mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to actively searching for ways to reduce the cause of climate change, while adaptation focuses on ways that we can alter our own behavior and infrastructure to deal with warming temperatures. Some proposed processes under mitigation would involve attempting to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere or modifying natural systems to absorb greenhouse gases at a faster rate. However, some of these plans could actually have more harmful effects on ecosystems and human populations and are therefore not yet viable solutions (Third National Climate Assessment, 2014). Thus, the most effective course of action is to actively limit our burning of fossil fuels. The report explains that gases like methane and nitrous oxide are broken down in the atmosphere, and curbed emissions would see significant reductions in their concentration. Carbon dioxide, however, is only removed from the atmosphere through natural processes, such as absorption by plants in photosynthesis, and it can take upwards of hundreds of thousands of years to actually remove the nearly forty billion tons of CO2 currently in excess from the atmosphere (Third National Climate, 2014) This means that while it is critical that we reduce our emissions to limit future warming, we have already crossed a threshold in carbon emissions in which future effects are inevitable. Therefore, we have no choice but to prepare to adapt for a changing future.
In carrying out effective climate adaptation, it is difficult to predict specifically which hazards and disasters to prepare for, thus the NCA (2014) states that “the pace and magnitude of projected change emphasize the need to be prepared for a wide range and intensity of climate impacts in the future” (Third National Climate). This includes updating building codes to defend against natural disasters and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria. It also means incorporating more water and electricity conservation into homes. Ideally, we will combine both mitigation and adaptation to both reduce the consequences of the future and prepare for those that are inevitable. The report notes, however, that adaptation cannot be a lone solution (Third National Climate, 2014). Some may argue that if changes are already certain to occur, we have little incentive to work to prevent them. Yet Kelly Levin, a climate scientist at the World Resources Institute, states, “Whether we pick a low-emission or high-emission pathway, we may not see changes immediately, but in terms of a century it is a drastically different world” (Clark). Therefore, even if we face inevitable challenges in the future, we must continue looking for ways to cut back on our carbon footprint because our level of action will directly affect the degree of our challenges in the future.
The National Climate Assessment report outlines the principle steps we need to take as a society to lessen the harm of a climate-altered future, but the challenge is carrying out those objectives. To be most effective, our action has to occur on both an individual and a global level. Many of the broad attempts at scaling back climate change are developed through legislation and regulation from governments around the world. The most widely recognized congregation of independent nations collaborating to reduce climate change in this manner is the Paris Climate Accords, also known as the Paris Climate Agreement. A report from the British Broadcasting Corporation outlines the objectives of the nearly 200 nations involved in the agreement. Essentially, the agreement aims to keep global warming under a two-degree Celsius increase by holding each country involved accountable for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions each year through strict regulations (Briggs, 2017). In addition, richer countries agree to donate money to less wealthy nations to support the reduction of emissions in those areas. This would, in turn, allow both rich and poor countries to shift towards renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and nuclear power, more quickly.
However, while the objectives of this agreement are overall extremely positive, there are many flaws that members of the agreement should address. Some countries, including the United States, a massive producer of greenhouse gases, are pulling out of the agreement. In addition, many scientists say that the goals of the accords are unattainable with the current level of activity. We are already more than halfway towards our objective peak temperature rise, and a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2016) “indicates a 95 percent probability that the world will warm by more than two [degrees] Celsius by 2100” even with the harshest reductions to emissions suggested in the agreement (Dwortzan, 2016). Essentially, the agreement is a necessary step in the right direction and is able to bring world leaders together in this fight, but it is not sufficient in its current form to be the most effective. We need all countries, especially the U.S., to remain committed to the goals of the accords and see more stringent industrial regulations put into place.
Although government policy is necessary when addressing an issue as broad as climate change, combined individual efforts can have significant influence. As individuals, we possess an ethical responsibility to do our part as a global community to reach the goals outlined by climate scientists. We need to accept responsibility for each of our own contributions in these changing conditions and commit to working to fix them. First and foremost, we need to look at what we can do in our everyday lives to comply with the objectives of the National Climate Assessment report on adaptation and mitigation. We should be prepared to see increased effects of climate change in the future and adjust accordingly. This means updating infrastructure, developing water conservation projects in regions prone to drought and searching for more energy efficient cooling systems in warmer areas that are projected to be the hardest hit by high temperatures.
Additionally, we can constantly work to reduce each of our own “carbon footprints” or our contribution to overall emissions. This can be anything from carpooling or biking, to using energy-saving light bulbs and appliances. Yet one of our most effective means of causing positive change will be affecting public policy and legislation through our voting. In addition to pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, an article from the Washington Post (2017) finds the United States has recently sought to “repeal several federal rules aimed at curbing the nation’s carbon output, including ones limiting greenhouse-gas emissions” (Mooney). If we elect officials who are committed to sponsoring legislation to reinstate these regulations and reduce climate change, we can collectively shift our country towards playing a more active role in the global efforts to clean up our atmosphere and create a more sustainable world.
Climate change is a massive and complicated issue, and even when backed by statistical evidence and research, it can sometimes remain ambiguous. The course of events leading from burning fossil fuels, to greenhouse gases, to surface temperature warming and water level rise can be hard to follow. It is therefore crucial, now more than ever, that we take climate change seriously as we reach a tipping point in the progression of the phenomenon. The action, or inaction, that we pursue now will have consequences for years to come. As members of such a fossil-fuel dependent society, we all have a moral obligation to partake in efforts to solve the problem. Melting glaciers, intense storms, and scathing droughts are all of our problems. The “coal is on our hands,” and we all possess the universal obligation of making climate change a priority. We need to be educated on the subject, raise awareness of its causes and effects, and press those who represent us to treat it with equal seriousness. Our planet will not give us a second chance, so to risk irreversible damage as a result of inaction would put our economy, health, and environment at risk. We have to stem our greenhouse gases to slow the rate of climate change, and we are already behind schedule. The world is growing hotter, waters are rising, and we are running out of time to stop it.
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