Monday 24th July, 2005

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Feeling the heat

Al Gore got some unusually good press recently for his movie An Inconvenient Truth. The movie is about the greenhouse effect and global warming, issues that had long been a cause with Mr Gore, and made him the butt of much humour, as the preoccupation of oddballs like himself.

A turnaround in public conviction is underway, and it’s even more striking in the scientific community. There was a time when the science surrounding global warming was said to be too uncertain to form any basis for policy decisions, either in science itself, business, or government, but that is all changing. The research is now in, and it shows a strong consensus that an artificially warming world is a real phenomenon that poses real danger.

But first, a few words about the meaning of “the greenhouse effect” and “global warming” for non-scientific readers like myself.

The greenhouse effect is the rise in temperature that the Earth experiences because certain gases in the atmosphere (eg, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane) trap energy from the sun.

Greenhouses, as we know, are small glass houses used to grow plants, especially in winter. They work by trapping heat from the sun. The glass panels let in light but keep heat from escaping. This causes the greenhouse to heat up, much like a car parked in sunlight, and it keeps the plants warm enough to live through the winter.

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere behave much like glass panes in a greenhouse. Sunlight enters the Earth’s atmosphere, passing through a blanket of such gases. As it reaches the Earth’s surface, air, land, and water absorb the sunlight’s energy. Once absorbed, the energy is sent back into the atmosphere. Some of it passes back into space, but much of it is trapped by the concentration of gases, and global warming is the result.

The consensus now is that climatic change today is largely due to emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities (not natural causes), including industrial processes, fossil fuel combustion, and changes in land use, such as deforestation.

Temperatures at the Earth’s surface have increased by an estimated 1.4 degrees F between 1900 and 2005. The last decade was the hottest of the past 150 years and perhaps the last millennium. The hottest 22 years on record have occurred since 1980, with 2005 being the hottest year of all. Projections of future warming suggest an increase of 2.5 degrees F to 10.4 F by 2100.

The global scientific community today agrees that these facts represent accurate scientific conclusions.

In 2003, the American Geophysical Union and American Meteorological Society both declared that signs of global warming had become compelling.

In 2004, the American Association for the Advancement of Science said there was no longer any substantive disagreement in the scientific community on the issue.

In 2005, the (American) National Academy of Sciences joined the science academies of Britain, China, Germany, Japan and other nations in a joint statement that there was now strong evidence of significant global warming.

Global warming means that the Earth’s surface, temperature, and seas are getting warmer. Greenland glaciers are vanishing, spring is coming sooner, and rainfall patterns are changing. But other possibilities pose more serious risks to the global economy and the global environment.

Suppose, for instance, that precipitation shifted away from breadbasket regions, sending rain clouds instead to the world’s deserts. Poorer countries will be far less capable of coping with the effects of such changes. In an interdependent world, it would mean global disaster.

Some people do not regard the warming trend as wholly bad. In their view, a warmer world would reduce or moderate the global demand for energy, also open up vast areas of Alaska, Canada, and Russia for development. This is a possible scenario, but in a warmer world such benefits will be offset by equally unwanted possibilities.

The National Academy of Sciences predicts in the coming century, sea levels may rise by as much as three feet, tropical storms may continue to increase in number and fury, and diseases now confined to equatorial regions may spread farther North and South.

The scientific consensus is a wake-up call for all societies. In 1997 the UN adopted what many now view as a shaky Kyoto Protocol (amending the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change). The protocol targeted six greenhouse gases, including the big three: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, that signatory nations committed themselves to curbing. The problem with Kyoto is false reporting, especially by the bigger, more industrialised nations.

Global warming should be everyone’s responsibility. A host of ordinary activities in their own way contribute to it—and can alleviate it. All uses of electricity release greenhouse gases into the air. Habits of conservation curb them. So does recycling, and efforts at reforestation. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas contributor to global warming.

The main form of reduction, of course, would be to lessen emissions from fossil fuel (coal and oil) combustion. This is the challenge, and it’s not impossible. Society has brought other environmental threats in the past under control.

Take smog, for example. We do not hear as much about this as we used to. Similarly for acid rain. There was a time when a new, devastating “Silent Spring” was thought to be imminent from unchecked acid rain. We no longer hear much about this either. Even Aids itself has shown what’s possible when a grave issue is recognised for what it is, ie not just a slight blip on the radar of society’s concerns, but a matter of global menace.

Global warming is such a threat today. It’s not simply a cause for environmentalists, but something much more fundamental, threatening economies and lives everywhere. Taking it seriously is an imperative, not just another option.

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