Global Warming

I must admit this discussion of global warming has caught me off guard. My usual opinion is that people don’t really care about the environment, especially when debates turn political. Of course we all like fresh air, beautiful forests, and smog-free cities, but when push comes to shove most people would rather have an SUV than a Toyota hybrid. Changes to the environment seem too long term to attract much worry.

Having said that, it seems clear that the environment is warming up. The September 2004 issue of National Geographic contains a series of reports on global warming. The average temperature has increased steadily since the early nineteenth century. And the temperature increases are most extreme at the poles. On Antarctica’s Western Peninsula, for instance, the average temperature has risen by 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and 4.5 F degrees for the rest of the year.

At the same time, the five hottest years on record have all occurred in the last decade (1: 1998; 2: 2002; 3: 2003; 4: 2001; 5: 1997). Glaciers are melting, the ocean water is becoming less salty (proving that more fresh water in melting into the oceans), and flowers are blossoming earlier.

The real question, then, is why is this global spike in temperature happening?

Many scientists cited in the National Geographic articles point to the recent rise in carbon dioxide emissions as evidence that humans are affecting the climate in a negative way. They track a steady rise of CO2 emissions (a rise of 100 parts per million) from the 1860s when global industrialization began to the present day. During the same period, the average temperature has risen by over two degrees at the Earth’s poles. According to these scientists, the CO2 produced by our factories, cars, and other industrial activities are greatly affecting the temperature of the planet.

Some people, however, think it is vain to blame the sudden increase in temperature on humans. Long-term data show that the earth has repeatedly undergone cycles of warming and cooling every 100,000 years for the last 400,000 years (before that the cycles lasted about 41,000 years). Moreover, during each temperature fluctuation there is a corresponding rise in carbon dioxide emissions. According to these data, temperature changes have (much) more to do with the Earth’s orbit around the sun than human industrialization.

Clearly, there are at least two interpretations about what happening to our planet. The problem, of course, is that we just don’t know enough to blame the situation on one cause. Humans weren’t polluting the air with their horse-drawn SUVs 100,000 years ago, and yet the temperature shot up then just as it has today. At the same time, if the Earth keeps warming up like it is presently, humanity could be in for a steamy situation. So what are we to do?

The 1998 Kyoto Protocol, a UN sponsored meeting, called on the industrialized nations to slash greenhouse admissions. In typical UN fashion, however, the Protocol was biased, lame, and ineffectual. The Protocol asks nations to control their greenhouse emissions based on 1990 data. The problem is that Kyoto sets different (and unfair) targets for each country. The European Union is asked to cut 8% of its emissions; the United States must cut 7%. All of this would significantly impact these countries’ economies through taxes and industrial cleanup. Other countries like Russia and China would feel almost no effect from the treaty, however. Under the treaty, Russia would be required to cut 0% of its emissions, which is no problem considering its economy – and CO2 usages – has dropped significantly since the fall of the USSR in 1991. China, meanwhile, an early signer of the treaty, is under no obligation to cut any of its emissions by any date. So of course they signed the treaty. But how is this fair?

Problems with the Kyoto Treaty are further compounded by the fact that there is no date on when these emissions must be curtailed. Nor is there any punishment for nations that fail to comply with the treaty. Finally, most scientists agree that even if nations complied with the Kyoto standards it is unlikely it would have any major change on the planet (China and India would be producing CO2 admissions while everyone else tries to cut back). Clearly, this treaty is ridiculous. And even our distinguished former president, Bill Clinton, was not foolish enough to send this Protocol to the Congress.

If humans are going to get serious about the environment, therefore, we first need to study the situation better. We’ve got to know what is causing the rise in temperatures. And we’ve got to answer some tough questions: How much economic growth are we willing to give up to stop CO2 emissions? If we stop polluting will that really make a significant difference in the Earth’s temperature? How much of a difference will it make? What will happen if the temperature continues to rise? Are we willing as a planet to sign a treaty limiting CO2 emissions?

Any agreement humans come to must produce a resolution that encompasses all nations. It is foolish to penalize the United States and Europe and leave the Chinese to pollute all they want. Furthermore, a treaty on global warming should have dates when emissions should be reduced, and it should have punishments for nations that do not comply.

Obviously, such an agreement is a long way off. In the meantime, I suspect people will be more concerned with a less serious topic: Does that SUV look better in black or red?

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