What is Global Warming, what are the effects, and what are we doing about it?
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Global warming is a term used often in the media, naturally accompanied by images of the Arctic ice melting and warnings of environmental devastation, but what does it really mean? and what are the consequences of it?
Global Warming is the term used to describe the temperature of our Earth's surface increasing due to increased levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. It was originally hypothesised in 1896 by Nobel Prize winning Professor Svante Arrhenius in his report; On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.
The Earth's temperature affects all life on Earth, ours included. The environment is linked in a perfect cycle and so a change in temperature affects everything, from the acidity and future of our oceans to the production of crops.
Earth undergoes cycles of warm and cold weather, with consistent changes of cold periods following warm periods and we can see this happening over history. We are now at the highest GMST, or Global Mean Surface Temperature in history and it is rising.
To give us a better understanding of the speed of our rising temperature consider 1884, when the Earth's global temperature was relatively cool. For context, 1884 was the year that Paris unveiled the Statue of Liberty to the US, the first ever image of a tornado was taken and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published.
The temperature during this time was considered neutral, on our scale, it is neither hot nor cold.
Since then we have seen an increase in temperature at an unprecedented rate, excluding the cold drop in 1991.
In 2018, the average global temperature was way above average.
Every year we have seen an increase in temperature, but the far more concerning fact is the rate at which it is increasing. Whilst the Earth is used to changing cycles, it is not able to withstand the rate at which our cycle is forcing the environmental changes to occur. Evolution requires hundreds to thousands of years, and the life on the planet today, is threatened by the rate of change.
It can seem misleading when you hear of warnings towards a 2 degree temperature increase, as it is easy to mistake this as common temperatures in your area, where it can be 18 degrees Celsius one day and easily 20 degrees Celsius the next. This is a common mistake, and GMST, Global Mean Surface Temperature actually relates to the mean average across the globe, taking into account countries with very different environments.
The GMST is calculated by taking the average temperature of the Earth's countries and dividing it by the number of countries involved in the equation.
How does global warming occur?
Imagine that the Earth is a car, with all of the pieces and parts moving together. With one alteration to any mechanical component, the entire system corrupts. Every aspect of the Earth functions in a particular manner and everything within its system from wind direction to the whales in the ocean maintains the synergy.
Global warming occurs mostly through anthropogenic (human) interaction and in fact, our impact on the Earth has been so massive that the era we are in now is coined the Anthropocene. The IPCC determined in fact that since 1950 100% of global warming is due to us.
Global warming occurs from the increase in Greenhouse Gases (GHG), in particular Carbon Dioxide or CO2.
Carbon Dioxide exists for many years, unlike other greenhouse gases. In fact, it can live between 300 to 1000 years, meaning any Carbon Dioxide that is released today, will have drastic effects on the Earth in the coming years. Whilst Carbon Dioxide is crucial to the mechanisms of the planet we are producing far too much, too quickly.
CO2 is produced during decay and respiration naturally. It is stored in organic materials such as fossil fuels including; wood, coal, peat, and petroleum, as we burn these matters, CO2 is released. It is a byproduct of oxidization and fermentation. It occurs in groundwater, rivers, glaciers, and seawater. It is a by-product of all aerobic organisms; which is an organism that can survive and grow in an oxygenated environment.
CO2 is literally everywhere and used in everything. It is an acid regulator in food production, the carbonate in drinks, it is used in the slaughter of animals for meat. It is used in food production to kill off pests and for refrigeration, it is used for medical applications and as a solvent.
The majority of the production of CO2 is from deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are the natural oils derived from plants and animal fossils from millions of years ago.
How do these greenhouse gases, such as CO2 affect the Earth directly?
You may be familiar with this principle, it is termed The Greenhouse Effect and is vital to sustaining life on Earth.
Solar radiation from the sun enters through our atmosphere where most of this radiation is absorbed by the Earth's surface and ocean. Some radiation is reflected back up towards the atmosphere where it is released into space or it collides and reacts with the greenhouse gases, causing it to disperse across the Earth's ozone.
Where CO2 reaches the Earth, it is stored in our oceans and other organic matter. Plants use Carbon dioxide by breaking up the carbon, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, and incorporating the carbon into new plant tissue. Due to the increase in CO2, oceans and other natural processes and matter absorb excess carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide resembles glass in a greenhouse, allowing sunlight to pass into the 'greenhouse,'. Some of the infrared radiation is emitted towards the atmosphere, where small amounts can escape but where much of it is absorbed and reemitted across the surface of the atmosphere, raising the Earth's temperature.
Imagine a layer of dispersed ping pong balls, some are H20, some N20, some CO2, and some CH4, all of which are greenhouse gases, now add more ping pong balls, and what happens? The layer becomes denser; or heavier, filling up any gaps that stop the pollutants from exiting out of the atmosphere, acting as an insulator, and retaining heat provided by the sun.
Methane is another greenhouse gas. Methane is capable of trapping 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide and is produced during flatulence, from rotting organic waste and during the production of coals and oils.
Nitrous oxide, whilst less in abundance, is capable of trapping 300 times more heat than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, (Syed and Khan, 2008).
How much CO2 is there in the atmosphere?
In 2005 there were 378.21 parts per million CO2 which describes the concentration. In November 2019, we were at 412.26 parts per million. We are currently at a point where levels should drop again but we are instead off the charts. CO2 emissions began increasing around the 1950s where coal, oil, and gas use were accelerated; often referred to as The Great Acceleration.
CO2 is measured using the Keeling Curve, which measures the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory. It was developed by Charles David Keeling in 1956 and remains the longest-running measurement of CO2 in the World. At the time of this article, the latest CO2 reading detected we were at 416.26 parts per million. Ice core data shows that 100,000 years ago, we were at 230 parts per million (The Keeling Curve, 2020)
Effects of Global Warming
As the planet warms and the system is altered changes become more and more visible. Coral reefs are a large indicator of global warming, where rising sea surface temperatures have triggered unprecedented mass bleaching of corals (T, Hughs, et al,. 2017). In 2016, only 8.9% of 1,156 surveyed reefs had no signs of bleaching, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has such extensive bleaching that only the southern, offshore reefs remain unbleached.
As the Earth warms it is likely that the environment will become more humid as a result of water evaporating from the oceans. This increased humidity will also increase rainfall. Flooding risks are staggeringly higher. A study completed by Myles Allen of the University of Oxford determined that climate change, caused by humans had almost doubled the risk of extremely wet weather (Q, Schiermeier,. 2011).
Sea levels will rise due to the expansion of water when heated and glacier ice will melt. Again, this is commonly spoken about but there isn't much information on what this actually means.
IPCC scientists predict a rise of anywhere between 9cm and 88cm. To put this into perspective, a 100cm rise could submerge 6% of the Netherlands, 17.5% of Bangladesh, and most or all islands, (Syed and Khan, 2008).
We are more susceptible to diseases and sickness with an increase in temperature, face challenges in food production and our groundwater will be jeopardised.
What will happen to other species that inhabit the Earth? Species may be prone to migration where they look for areas more suitable for their required environments and physical evolution can occur over a long time such as body size, and even changes in behavior can occur (T, Root, et al,. 2003). Any of these changes challenge the survival of an ecosystem and a collapse in one can have dire consequences across the Earth.
Deforestation has a multitude of effects on the global temperature. Take for example the recent burning of the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon is often likened to the lungs of the planet, through plant respiration it stores carbon and releases oxygen much in the sense of breathing lungs. When the trees are burned and the land excavated for agriculture the stores of carbon are released and oxygen reduced.
The reduced trees affect wind direction causing loss of biodiversity as seeds no longer disperse, soil erosion and eutrophication occurs through loss of tree canopy, and animals and tribes are forced out of their homes.
Natural disasters are also likely to occur more often.
In 2018 there were 315 natural disasters; affecting the lives of 68 million people and killing over 11,500 people.
The reliefweb natural disasters report for 2018 shows the impact of these aggressive weather changes. However, it is important to note that this is the Earth's natural reaction to our actions.
What are we doing about it?
International response to global warming has so far been positive, in that more leaders are aware and are taking action to make changes. Most countries have committed themselves to the challenge of reducing global warming by signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or the (UNFCCC). Much of the approach, however, is in adaption, rather than mitigation. Simply put, this means that development to withstand the effects of global warming are often put in place, rather than policies to stop it.
Changes such as increasing physical infrastructure and increasing the flexibility of potentially vulnerable systems are such plans, (M, Syed, M, Khan,. 2008).
COP21, which stands for Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC is the formal meeting used to assess the progress in dealing with Climate Change. In 2015, it hosted 196 countries and agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would prevent global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees above the temperature benchmark. The goals and decisions of the agenda are extensive but some include: strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and disasters, improving education, and minimizing the impacts of ocean acidification.
So far, many of the goals have not been reached such as goal 12.4, that by 2020 there will be environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle. Goal 15.5 is to take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species (SDGsSustainable Development Knowledge Platform, 2020). This goal, like many others, has not been reached.
There absolutely needs to be a change, from the consumer to the market and the government. This is a matter of Worldwide emergency and it needs to be not only talked about but acted upon. Begin with small changes in your home, but advocate for changes in government, support sustainable and eco businesses, reduce your meat consumption, and educate yourself and others. The science is there. The data is there. It is up to us to ensure we are not ignorantly blind to it.
Thank you for reading
- The Climate Corner
Arrhenius, S., 1897. On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Earth.Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 9, p.14.
Hughes, Terry P., et al. "Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals." Nature, vol. 543, no. 7645, 2017, p. 373+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A485686521/AONE?u=tou&sid=AONE&xid=43682da1. Accessed 22 Apr. 2020.
Root, Terry L., et al. "Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants."Nature, vol. 421, no. 6918, 2003, p. 57+.Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A187578337/AONE?u=tou&sid=AONE&xid=6803ee6f. Accessed 22 Apr. 2020.
Schiermeier, Quirin. "Increased flood risk linked to global warming: likelihood of extreme rainfall may have been doubled by rising greenhouse-gas levels."Nature, vol. 470, no. 7334, 2011, p. 316.Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A250033124/AONE?u=tou&sid=AONE&xid=1e2e68f6. Accessed 22 Apr. 2020.
Sustainabledevelopment.un.org. 2020.Sdgs .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. [online] Available at: <https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs> [Accessed 22 April 2020].
Syed, M. and Khan, M., 2008.Encyclopaedia Of Global Warming. Mumbai: Himalaya Books Pvt. Ltd.
The Keeling Curve. 2020.The Keeling Curve. [online] Available at: <https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/> [Accessed 22 April 2020].
For the full reliefweb report on natural disasters: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/CREDNaturalDisaster2018.pdf
For annual total emissions
For NASA's interactive slider in Global Temperature: