The issue of global warming has been stirring emotions on Capitol Hill and city streets for years now. While many people, including some scientists, cite humans as the cause for the increasing average global temperatures, others believe this cannot be so.
Many argue the case that Earth has been warming ever since the end of the Ice Age 11,000 years ago and that we are merely experiencing a subsequent natural warming cycle. Yet, others proclaim the climate change seen in the last few decades has been rapid and well beyond natural speed. Thus, it is argued, the cause for these drastic changes must be rooted in anthropogenic factors.
The global warming debate has increasingly claimed an international spotlight since 1988, when James Hansen, a NASA scientist, spoke before the United States Congress and suggested, based on his studies, that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are contributing to the warming of our planet.
Over the ensuing decades, his theories and others like his have been heralded by many in the scientific community and embraced by people across the world as explaining the causes behind the melting Arctic ice cap, receding glaciers, and collapsing ice shelves all over the world.
However, not everybody agrees that Hansen’s theories are accurate. While most scientists and many other people do acknowledge an overall increase in average global temperatures and agree the Arctic ice cap is trending smaller each year, there is a major disagreement as to why these events are occurring.
Dr. Joanne Simpson, another NASA scientist, stated in 2008 that she is “skeptical” of the claims that human-generated carbon dioxide emissions are the cause of global warming (Heritage).
The global warming debate boldly reached a new level of awareness within mainstream social circles when former vice-president and global warming activist Al Gore brought his film, An Inconvenient Truth, to the international masses in 2006. Gore’s film profiles several theories and projections about what global warming may bring to the planet in the coming decades.
The film, most alarmingly, paints a graphic picture of spreading deserts, significant rises in ocean levels, and subsequent destruction of coastal cities and towns. However, some of the prediction models used in Gore’s film are said to be factoring the most extreme possibilities; for example, while An Inconvenient Truth depicts a possible 20-foot rise in ocean levels, recent models predict much lower rises in ocean level during the twenty-first century (Rettner).
GLOBAL WARMING VERSUS CLIMATE CHANGE: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
Activists, politicians, everyday Joes and Jolenes, and even some scientists toss around the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” as if they are seemingly synonymous. However, each term has specific meanings.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines global warming as “the increase in Earth’s average surface temperature due to rising levels of greenhouse gases.” The agency says climate change is “a long-term change in the Earth’s climate, or of a region on Earth.”
Which term is the most accurate in describing the current state of our planet? While climate change is perhaps the most suitable for addressing any and all possible long-term alterations over large areas of Earth, global warming directly refers to the overall increasing temperatures noted in recent years.
Before Hansen’s 1988 landmark global warming speech, Wallace Broecker used the term global warming in the 1970s when he suggested carbon dioxide emissions would contribute to increasing temperatures (Fletcher). Still, as NASA reminds us, climate change has long been the most accurate catch-all term when describing the full body of alterations and modifications made to our environment – including any long-term cooling.
Global warming, while in many respects a scientific matter, has largely become a political issue in recent years. Those claiming an anthropogenic basis for climate change have several political and social benefits to gain:
Investment in “Green” technology (Mechanisms that make little to no impact on the environment and products made from renewable resources)
Protection of wildlife – literally a pet cause of many activist groups
The banishment of oil rigs and other forms of mining and industry in and near environmentally sensitive regions, particularly in and near the Arctic region
Sociopolitical treaties with foreign nations and international governing bodies
Those who deny theories that global warming is caused by humans generally have these political and economical motivations in mind:
Industrial and corporate companies, contracts, and development
Oil companies eager to drill in and near the Arctic circle
Opening of the Northwest passage in the Arctic Ocean, which would aid trade between nations
Development of trade in emerging nations like India and China which would not now transition well to initiatives aimed to curb climate change
Global warming, as in nearly every other sociopolitical issue, clearly has at least two distinct groups of stakeholders.
This is seen on Capitol Hill and in the voting booths all across America as people are well divided on this issue. The line is boldly drawn between Democrats and Republicans. To illustrate just how political the issue of global warming has become over the last decade, consider what Gallup has learned about Democrats’ and Republicans’ and their views on global warming:
In 2003, 68 percent of Democrats believed global warming is caused by humans, whereas 52 percent of Republicans shared that view.
In 2008, 73 percent of Democrats thought humans are causing global warming, versus just 42 percent of Republicans who agree with that argument.
What do those numbers suggest? Over the years 2003 to 2008, a few particular events have occurred which could be skewing the beliefs of many along party lines, including:
Al Gore’s well-publicized contributions to the global warming issue during the mid-2000s
The claims that the numerous and severe hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 were sparked by global warming
Numerous massive protests by liberal-leaning individuals and groups against global warming
A weak economy in the United States and other parts of the world which might create some weariness among lawmakers and business owners about changing the status-quo
The Kyoto Protocol is perhaps one of the most important collective efforts among world governments to curb the carbon emissions which are believed by many to be contributing to global warming. However, political, social, and economic motivations played a role in the United States refusal to sign the pact.
Primarily, the reasons the United States twice refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and 2001 was because that the Kyoto Protocol did not extend the same carbon emission restrictions to all nations (which some United States representatives said would provide an “unfair trade advantage”), and there was concern that carbon emission restrictions would hurt the U.S. economy (Hile 275-276).
MAKING GLOBAL WARMING A SCIENCE ISSUE AGAIN
Regardless of any political motivations which may have arisen over the last twenty years in regards to global warming and the broader issue of climate change, if society is truly concerned about the changes which may be occurring, then politics must take a back seat to science. Clearly, even scientists are divided on the causes and effects of global climate change.
Consider these findings according to a recent article in Forbes Magazine:
An overwhelming 97 percent of scientists “agree that global average temperatures have increased during the past century.”
Among those polled scientists, 52 percent think the rising temperatures are due to human activity.
30 percent of scientists think the warming temperatures are due to natural causes.
The rest of the scientists polled are not sure what is causing the rising temperatures.
With scientists, politicians, and the general public unable to come to a collective agreement on the cause of global warming, it is quite possible that the science of global warming is simply still not able to answer all the questions we have about why temperatures appear to be on the upswing – or what those rising temperatures may hold for our future.
While many scientists correlate increasing carbon emissions with increasing temperatures, so can other factors also contribute to global warming: flatulent livestock and decaying plants produce methane gas – which is 25 times more capable of holding heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (Hile 268). Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a non-natural compound of chlorine, fluorine, and carbon used in aerosol cans, refrigerants, and solvents (EPA).
However, despite the fact CFCs have been widely eliminated over the last two decades, CFCs – which can hold 20,000 times more heat as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – remain in our atmosphere and will for years to come.
Clearly, what these facts all mean is that global warming is not caused by just carbon emissions, and humans are not the sole emitters of greenhouse gases.
Are carbon emissions responsible for holding atmospheric heat? Yes – but they are not the only type of greenhouse gas, as science shows.
Will reducing carbon emissions affect the economy? Yes – but there may be opportunities to create new jobs and new markets with carbon emission reductions, as Democrats suggest with Green economy initiatives.
Are humans solely responsible for causing global warming? No – a response to with which most Republicans and many scientists agree.
Are global temperatures, on average, increasing? Likely yes.
But why are these temperatures increasing at the current rate? Nobody can conclusively agree.
CRACKING THE GLOBAL WARMING NUT
Scientists must conduct further, multi-faceted studies on global warming and climate change as a whole. The inclusion of more long-term data certainly would aid the research, but the information may not provide all the answers society now demands. Politicians are necessary agents in legislating and enacting laws, codes, and protocols, but science – and not political expediency – must control the creation of any solutions which may arise.
In the end, what matters most in the global warming debate is not what political figures rise or fall in the global warming debate, whether it is trendy or not to adhere to one side of the debate or another, or how much money companies stand to gain or lose over climate change, but what effects – if any – climate change and global warming may have.
Science is rapidly advancing our understanding of our planet, but we still must continue researching, experimenting, surveying, and – yes – waiting before we can claim to have all the answers about our complex and beautiful home we call Earth.
Clearly, we have much work to do in preserving our planet from anthropogenic climatological upheaval, but we can act effectively only when the government and scientists can provide sound and prudent solutions based on objective – not politically charged – innovation and research.
Anthropogenic: Of or relating to human causes
Carbon Emissions: The release of carbon dioxide gases into the atmosphere, usually referenced within the context of industrial, commercial, and transportation output.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): A compound of chlorine, fluorine, and carbon employed during the twentieth century for a number of commercial and industrial uses, including aerosol spray cans, solvents, and refrigerants. CFCs have seen widespread elimination since the 1980s as world governments moved to ban the use of this type of greenhouse gas.
Climate Change: Any long-term alterations on regional or global scales which may result in cooler or warmer temperatures, more or less precipitation, and a host of other meteorological and atmospheric changes which can affect humans, animals, and plants.
Global Warming: The long-term warming trend of average global temperatures.
Green Economy/Green Technology: The economic segment created and built around jobs and industry mainly concerning the manufacturing and use of renewable resources and Earth-friendly products.
Greenhouse Gases: A collective reference to the gases and chemicals which rise into Earth’s atmosphere and create a type of barrier which traps heat close to Earth’s surface and within the lower layers of the atmosphere, where most weather occurs.
Ice Age: A period when glaciers, ice, and cold temperatures covered much of the globe between 2 million years ago and 11,000 years ago.
Kyoto Protocol: A multi-nation pact aimed toward reducing carbon emissions.
Methane: Methane is a naturally occurring gas emitted from a number of organic origins, including decaying plants, peat bogs, and livestock.
Dunlap, Riley E. “Climate-Change Views: Republican-Democratic Gaps Expand.” Gallup. 29 May 2008. 3 March 2010.
Fletcher, Kenneth R. “Wallace Broecker Geochemist, Palisades, New York.” Smithsonian Institution. June 2008. 12 March 2010.
Hansen, James. “Global Warming Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near.” Columbia University. 2008. 1 March 2010.
Hile, Kevin. The Handy Weather Answer Book. 2nd Ed. Canton: Visible Ink Press, 2009.
Lichter, S. Robert. “What Scientists Really Think About Global Warming.” Forbes. 19 December 2009. 3 March 2010. http://www.forbes.com/2009/12/19/climategate-copenhagen-science-opinions-contributors-s-robert-lichter.html
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “What’s In a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change.” 5 December 2008. 12 March 2010.
Rettner, Rachael. “Al Gore’s Movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ Says Sea Levels Could Rise Up To 20 Feet. Is This True?” ScienceLine. 1 December 2008. 3 March 2010.
“Scientists Make Anti-Global Warming Case.” The Heritage Foundation. 11 December 2008. 1 March 2010.
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Ozone Depletion Glossary.” Ozone Layer Depletion. 14 October 2009. 3 March 2010.