Sunday, January 10, 2010

Global Warming Means Colder Winters? Yep.

While I get the hypocracy of my love for snow coupled with my extreme distate for cold feet, I'm really wishing is wasn't quite so cold right now ... but it does make me laugh at those who insist this very cold (so far) Winter is solid proof global warming is yet another scam the ubiquitous "they" are trying to perpetrate against "us". So here's me, sharing thoughts on the impacts of global warming and suggestions as to how to contain further ecological damage due to said global warming.

The greenhouse effect encompasses those atmospheric occurrences that allow the Earth to maintain an average temperature to sustain life. In a nutshell, the Earth’s atmosphere deflects approximately 30% of the incoming solar radiation back out to space, while absorbing the rest. Some of what gets through is stored short-term, while the rest is generally put to use as energy of one kind or another (i.e., heat, photosynthesis). Much of the work converting solar radiation to Earth-friendly energy is done by, or with the help of, the element of carbon.

Carbon is the main element that contributes to life on Earth. It is found in everything from plant and animal life to fossil fuels; which makes sense, since fossil fuels themselves originated as both plant and animal life forms. Prior to the advent of human technologies, there was a natural balance between the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, in the form of carbon dioxide, and the amount in life forms on the planet’s surface. That balance contributed to the Earth’s ability to maintain life-sustaining temperatures.

The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is one of the gases that are able to temporarily store the converted solar radiation as heat. While the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is on par with that on the surface, there is a balanced energy exchange. For instance, photosynthesis allows plant life on the surface to absorb the carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. Surrounding wild life absorbs the oxygen and expels carbon dioxide, while also consuming the plant life. This cycle utilizes the stores of energy in the atmospheric carbon dioxide, making room for the atmospheric absorption of additional solar radiation to perpetuate the cycle.

With technological advances that have allowed mankind to figure out how to obtain fossil fuels and burn them for energy, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere than is natural or healthy to maintain a “normal” average temperature of approximately 57 degrees Fahrenheit. These higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in turn hold more heat energy, contributing to rising temperatures world wide.

Some examples that Nature has noticed the change: 1) in 2002 an Antarctic ice shelf the size of Rhode Island took a mere 35 days to brake off and disintegrate – something that would normally take years; 2) home ranges of various wild life are shifting toward the poles at a steady rate; 3) springtime wild life rituals such as mating and migrating are beginning earlier in the season; 4) the 10 hottest years recorded have been since 1990; 5) more people are dying of heat-related causes yearly; 6) species populations are declining and/or falling victim to increased birth abnormalities; and 7) disease vectors are changing.

Anticipated effects of unchecked global warming include melting glaciers, rising sea levels, rising ocean temperatures, eroding coastlines, disappearing islands, and changing weather patterns (i.e., drought, storms) that could significantly impact all life on Earth, be it plant, animal, or disease. Although those glaciers that are in the seas would not contribute to rising ocean levels, those on land would. All glacier melt will impact land and ocean temperatures, specifically because the sun’s rays would then be absorbed, as opposed to reflected.

Rising sea levels will significantly impact the geographical outlines of the continents, while seriously endangering those islands that are too small to spare much coastline, or are currently near sea level as it is. Changing weather patterns do not apply only to where and when storms or droughts may take place, but also to the strength involved. Heavy rainfall can erode the top layer of soil, so necessary to plant growth. Heavy drought can ruin growing seasons for many years while the land recovers.

Much of the early research into global warming due to the greenhouse effect predicted larger impacts than have currently been seen. One hypothesis was that the changes due to warming were having an effect on the Earth’s oceans, but these changes, if any, have been difficult to measure until recently. Results of years long studies have confirmed the oceans are warming noticeably, so now the concern is when said warming will spread to the land masses, and at what speed? Currently the Earth’s plant life and oceans have been able to absorb the increased carbon dioxide levels, but for how long?

So who is most impacted by global warming? All life on Earth, but speaking from a strictly human perspective – everyone. Regardless of which nations have contributed the most, all will feel the impact of unchecked global warming. There are three major stumbling blocks to a global solution: money, education, and indolence. There are multiple suggestions to curtail global warming on personal, national, and international levels. From the international perspective, the creation of a world wide quota system for allowable carbon dioxide emission levels, allowing inclusive nations to trade quotas, provides a maximum limit to world wide emission levels, and the nations involved benefit from an additional trade option. A second international suggestion would be to have wealthier nations subsidize less wealthy nations that are damaging the ecology in the name of progress (i.e., the U.S. pays Bolivia to spare a potion of the Rain Forest, in effect leasing it). Two examples of international efforts are the Montreal Protocol of 1989 and the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer successfully sought to progressively limit the manufacture and sale of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). It was successful in part because the final decision was not left to the “common man”, but rather the corporations that signed on.

The Kyoto Protocol sought to decrease greenhouse gas emission levels of the developed nations back to those of the early 1990’s, while allowing less developed nations to maintain higher levels while ramping up their industries. It failed spectacularly. Adhering to the Kyoto Protocol would mean the U.S. would have to cut automobile emissions by 20%, decrease diesel consumption (whereby crippling the construction and shipping industries), and update emissions controls/technology for all coal burning plants nationwide. It would have major impacts at every economic level.

It would be extremely difficult to get multiple nations to buy into world wide restrictions while there remains an aggregate of lifestyles anyway. For any nation that is perceived to have everything to suggest another nation of lesser means should take heed to environmental impacts is naïve at best. Advising others to “do as I say, not as I’ve done” rarely works on any level, and attempting to force compliance opens whole new avenues of discord (e.g., U.S. embargo of Cuba).

On a national level, taxing emissions has been suggested, as well as subsidizing eco-friendly activities. This would give businesses and individuals added incentive to keep ecology in mind. The huge stumbling block, at least in the United States, would be the perceived assault on people’s rights. We are a nation of people who want the government to stay out of our business, but who wonder where the government is when times are rough. We are a nation of contradictions.

Is it constitutional for the government to dictate the size house one buys, or the vehicle one drives, or the supplies one uses? Can the government force one to opt for less than one desires, simply because one can no longer afford it? Will the government “grandfather” those who cannot afford to make the changes that would lower their taxes, but also cannot afford the new taxation? Although an intriguing alternative, if it were not closely monitored and regulated, the opportunity for fraud on many levels is astonishing.

The obvious conclusion is that something has to be done about global warming. The suggestion that “all greenhouse gas-emitting operations be closed down immediately and not be permitted to start up again until they could prove that no substance for which they could be held responsible would damage public health or the environment, now or in the future” is painfully naïve. This is a situation requiring immediate action, but action that starts at Step 1, not action that wishes to begin with Step 17.

The various stakeholders in the issue are sizeable: there are the individual people, the small businesses, the large businesses, the global conglomerates, the nations, and the politicians to take into account. Perhaps the first move on a global playing field should be for the “haves” to help the “have nots” realize economic independence by subsidizing eco-friendly activities. Maybe the U.S. could start by leasing the Rain Forest after all. Since we have to start somewhere, and it is up to those who can to do, it stands to reason that the U.S. could take a leadership role to guide without force.

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