A Second Thoughts column published in The Camrose Booster
Humans have always burned carbon, whether in the form of wood, coal, natural gas, or oil. Our human population has grown from one billion in 1800 to over seven billion today largely because we learned how to extract and burn vast quantities of carbon, especially in the form of oil. Oil is the basis of our modern civilization, and it’s doubtful we could sustain global industrialization and transportation without it.
Without oil, we would not have the plastics and pharmaceuticals that undergird modern medicine, the ability to refine steel and other metals, and energy to develop and apply the fertilizers and pesticides needed to feed our growing population. We have become a species almost entirely dependent on carbon combustion, and are now scrambling to sustain ourselves as supplies dwindle and demand grows.
Yet now an immense, unanticipated, problem has arisen to our atmosphere and all living things on the planet: burning carbon, no matter the kind, releases gases, which, depending on the life form encountering them, may have good or bad effects.
For example, plants use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis to produce sugars and oxygen, which we need. However, in large amounts, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide are deadly to us. The majority of gases from combustion (from industrialization or volcanic eruptions) are absorbed by plants, lakes, rivers, and oceans, but the life-sustaining balance between gases emitted and gases absorbed has been altered.
Since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, scientists have known that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat in our atmosphere. Without these gases, our planet’s temperature would be about -18°C, which is approximately 33° C colder than present. Even though nitrogen and oxygen make up the majority of the earth’s atmosphere, carbon dioxide, along with methane and nitrous oxides, are the key gases that trap heat, as do our lakes and oceans. Such heat absorption makes life possible on our planet. On the basis of analyses of air bubbles trapped in glacial ice, we know that in previous eras, when the amounts of carbon dioxide were high, our planet was very warm, and when the amounts were low, we were in an ice age.
However, the last ice age, in which glaciers covered about 30% of the planet, occurred in a global climate about 5°C colder than today. Given current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists predict that our temperature in 2100 will be 2-3°C higher than in 2000. These temperature changes will be most evident in continental polar zones. These increases will significantly contribute to higher sea levels, more intense storms, receding glaciers, reduced sea ice coverage, and changes in precipitation and ecosystem patterns. Undoubtedly, this will affect our livelihoods connected to agriculture, forestry, fishing, tourism, or health. Some regions may benefit economically, but most will suffer. These changes are not still to come; they are happening right now, as the first wave of climate change refugees flee from low-elevation island nations in the south Pacific that are inundated from rising sea levels.
Sadly, most of the effects will be felt by developing countries that are poorly equipped to adapt.
How do people react to these sobering predictions? In Canada, 80% of people believe the science of climate change, and 65% expect the government to play a role. In the USA, these numbers drop to 58% and 43%, respectively. Our specific reactions can vary considerably. According to a different survey, 18% of Americans are alarmed about climate change, while 33% are concerned, 19% are cautious, 12% are disengaged, 11% are doubtful, and 7% are dismissive.
Regardless of what most people think, 97% of papers written by atmospheric scientists agree that humans are causing global climate change. These authors are the people who are scientifically trained to measure, explain, and predict our past, present, and future climates.
How will we respond, as societies and as individuals, to this growing evidence of human-caused climate change? Most of us earnestly wish, despite the overwhelming evidence, that climate change was not happening, or that scientists will discover some fanciful technological solution to reverse these changes. However, the truth is getting more difficult to ignore and technological solutions often have other unintended, negative effects.
The sooner we accept humanity’s significant role in climate change, the sooner we can take steps to reverse the trends. These efforts will have to take place on a multitude of scales and levels, but must include a significant and coordinated international response to be effective.
Glen Hvenegaard, Environmental Science and Jack Waschenfelder, Religious Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta.
Please join Dr. Hvenegaard and Dr. Waschenfelder for a “Lunch and Learn” discussion of this issue on Tuesday, March 18, 12– 1 pm, in the Dr. Roger Epp Conference Room, Augustana Campus Forum
$5 Admission: Lunch included for those who register email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 780-679-1626.