Climate Change is a Humanity Issue

Reflection on “How Hot Will It Get?” part of the Science at the Theater series, hosted by Berkeley Lab, April 22, 2013.

WARNING: If you are not prepared for the awful truth, do not read further.

On April 22, 2013, Berkeley Lab hosted a talk titled “How Hot Will It Get”  as part of their Science at the Theater series. Four scientists and one economist offered their research and perspectives on the current climate change situation and predictions of the future. It was mostly bad news.

It’s typical of scientists and economists to talk with numbers. Numbers by itself means nothing if they don’t tell a story. The story of climate change is one of fear, tragedies, frustrations, and a bit of hope.

2012 marked the hottest year ever experienced in the United States for the past six decades. However, the heat was felt all around the world. In Australia alone, 123 temperature records were broken in three months. The land was devastated by fires. Airplanes were grounded because the intense heat had buckled the planes’ integrity.

Where did all that heat come from? What do the numbers mean?

In the context of climate change, greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, are to blame for the rise in global temperatures. At the beginning of industrialization, in the late 18th century, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was estimated at 270 parts per million (ppm). Currently, we are close to 400 parts per million, which was what the planet experienced naturally 3 to 5 million years ago. What was life like then? Could humans have survived? It would have been hotter and stickier than today’s sweltering summers. The Arctic was fertile, there were frequent and intense El Niño cycles, tropical and subtropical marine life lived along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. However, this does not mean that planet Earth as we know it would revert back to life 3 to 5 million years ago. It means there will be shifts in ecosystems and topographical changes. Once fertile lands will be devastated by drought. Seaside mansions will be engulfed by the ocean. People will migrate in order to survive.

The scientific community accepts the correlation between carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures: the higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, the higher the temperatures. If we continue business as usual, meaning if environmental policies are not implemented and if there is still demand for fossil fuels, carbon dioxide concentration may increase to 700 ppm. Earth has not experienced 700 ppm of carbon dioxide since 34 million years ago. It will mean a +8℃ (+46.4℉) of global mean temperature change. Life will change drastically.

In order to preserve our planet, we need to reduce carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere to below 350 ppm (www.350.org). Most scientists and policy makers believe that current infrastructure and societies can cope with up to +2℃ (+35.6℉) in average global surface temperature. Here’s the bad news…

we’re on track to surpass the +2℃ limit and heading towards a +4℃ (+39.2℉) and it’s too late to stop the increase unless carbon dioxide in the atmosphere miraculously disappears.  Whether or not environmental policies are implemented, or the fossil fuel industry cuts their emissions, there will hardly be any difference in climate change trends in the next twenty years. The damage has already been done. However, by curtailing carbon emissions now, our great-great-grandchildren may not have to live in a drastically different world where famine is prevalent. When people are starving, violence ensues.

Just when you think things can’t get any worse…

Pictures of melting glaciers and stranded polar bears have been strewed all over the Internet for several years now. These pictures tell a story of loss. Well, there’s more loss to come. Permafrost, or subsurface frozen soil, are beginning to thaw, releasing the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. This is because organic material, stored in permafrost from thousands to millions of years ago begins to decompose, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, when the soil thaws. Then it becomes a vicious cycle…well, the scientific term would be a positive feedback loop: released greenhouse gases from the thawed permafrost causes an increase in temperature, melting more permafrost, releasing more greenhouse gases.

On the flip side, the warmer it gets in the Arctic, the more vegetation the land will have. Shrubs will be able to grow higher than normal and expand into new territories. Since plants absorb carbon dioxide, there will be a cooling effect. At the same time, since warming increases decomposition rates, there will also be a warming effect. Which side will win? Will there be a balance of cooling and warming effects? We don’t know.

What about the trees? Can they save us?

50% of emitted carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere

25% of emitted carbon dioxide are absorbed by forests

25% of emitted carbon dioxide are absorbed by oceans

Given the current carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, trees alone will not save us. Climate change has brought about devastating hurricanes, floods, and other catastrophes. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the southeastern United States. The hurricane “severely damaged about 320 million trees. The carbon in those trees, which would eventually be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide as the trees decompose, was about equal to the net amount of carbon absorbed by ALL U.S. forests in a year.” Hurricanes cause increases in carbon dioxide emissions, causing a warming climate.

Warm climates bring about droughts, meaning there will be and increase in dry fuel in the forests, causing intense and frequent wildfires. Wildfires release carbon dioxide.

Warm climates also bring pests into forests, causing widespread mortality of trees. The dying trees release carbon dioxide, adding to climate change woes.

A silver lining is that despite the increase of carbon dioxide in recent years, the ratio of carbon dioxide absorption by the atmosphere, forests, and oceans remain stable. Will the ratio hold in the future? We don’t know.

Okay, there’s plenty of doomsday talk here. What can we do to save our planet?

There is no panacea for climate change. The best thing to do is to keep carbon in the ground. That means no more fossil fuels. Is that practical in the society that we live in? Absolutely not.

Current carbon management includes:

Cap and Trade: a cap on the amount of certain pollutants that are allowed to be emitted is placed usually on a national level. Firms can buy permits, which are allowances to pollute. If the firm needs to pollute more than what the permits allowed, the firm can buy permits (trade) from other firms that did not fully utilize its permits.

Carbon tax: charge carbon tax on imported goods especially goods from countries without carbon regulation.

Emission standards: if you emit beyond a certain amount of carbon dioxide level, you pay a fine.

There have been small successes here and there with current carbon management tools. The real problem is that climate change is a global issue where everyone needs to do something to lower carbon emissions. There are approximately 200 nations that have tried to negotiate a global agreement but has failed multiple times. Instead of working with 200 nations, we should start with 20 nations, the G20 nations (those with major economies and predominately the main polluters). Have the G20 nations agree to charge a significant carbon tax to non-compliers. This will create incentives for other countries to adopt a carbon policy, opening up negotiations, and hopefully reducing carbon emissions worldwide.

There is still hope for the future of humanity. As a global community, we need to act NOW, to preserve humanity for the next century. As individuals, you can support the climate change research and policies. Policies are driven by the demands of the general public. So demand environmental policies that will mitigate climate change. Demand and support more research and technology to curb carbon emissions. Keep talking about this issue, do not fall into “climate silence” because we can’t afford to lose time.

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