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Global Warming

The issue of global warming was first introduced in academic circles during the 1970s, yet it became more frequently mentioned in the 1980s. Ironically enough, some environmental scientists had been arguing that mankind's industrial activities and the consumption of fossil fuels were going to lead to a new ice age. However, as scientists gathered more data, it became a consensus finding amongst them that global warming was increasing (there was natural global warming taking place). Yet pollution, especially greenhouse gases, were distorting the process of global warming, with consequences that could be devastating for all life on Earth. From the 1980s onward, changes in the global climate have become increasingly detectable, prompting steps to slow down the process yet with difficulty in agreeing upon the methods that would actually reverse it.

Natural Global Warming

Global warming does occur without human consumption of fossil fuels, or as a by-product of industrial processes, yet generally not on a scale to change worldwide weather patterns as much as human activity has done. The world has gone through warm eras as well as ice ages, mainly with changes during thousands of years to take place instead over the space of a few short decades (with the exception of the unknown event that killed off the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago). Furthermore, warm eras and ice ages can decrease or increase the abundance of life on the planet, as changing sea levels and rainfall amounts can make life harder, or easier.

Greenhouse Gases

The main greenhouse gas produced as a consequence of burning fossil fuels is carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to rising worldwide temperatures, and all the environmental changes linked to the process. Now plants in general, and trees in particular are the best at absorbing excess levels of carbon dioxide, and via the process of photosynthesis turning into oxygen, which animals breathe in order to live.

Deforestation

Over the course of many centuries people have cleared most parts of the world's land surface of forests. When the human population was relatively low, the rate of deforestation was also relatively low as well. Tropical rainforests were the most important in terms of recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen, their importance, unfortunately was not fully recognized until after the problem of increased global warming was detected. Conservation groups have spent a great deal of time on awareness of the importance of protecting the Earth's forests and rainforests, in the face of population growth.

However, as the number of people has increased drastically over the last two centuries or so, the rate of deforestation has also accelerated, especially in the post-war era. The less trees there are, the more damage that carbon dioxide can cause. Trees have been uprooted to make way for farmland, homes, and, industrial or commercial uses. Wood is used for fires, furniture, and paper amongst other things, yet until recently, it was rare for new trees to be planted to replace the ones cut down. Attempts to plant new trees have certainly increased in the last three or four decades, yet currently cannot make up for the loss of older forests. New saplings can also take a few decades to mature into fully grown trees, which means that they do not produce anywhere near the same amount of oxygen that the removed trees once did.

Soil Erosion

Removing forests can also be an entirely ineffective means of increasing the amount of land used for agricultural purposes. Trees trap a great deal of nutrients into the topsoil, and once the trees are chopped down, then that top layer can literally blow away in the wind, or wash away in heavy rain. In other words, it can become very difficult for farmers to grow crops, or even grow enough grass to graze cattle, or sheep on their land. When deforestation leads to soil erosion it contributes to some of the worst consequences of global warming. In the warmer parts of the planet, it can make droughts worse as it increases the size of deserts, and can even turn previously productive farmlands into dust bowls. Alternatively soil erosion can make floods far worse, for example, deforestation has made Bangladesh even more prone to flooding than ever before.

Alternative Energy

Besides planting more trees, more efforts have been made to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions and efforts have focused on alternative means of generating electricity such as wind farms, hydroelectric dams, solar panels, and more problematically with nuclear power stations. Efforts to stop using oil based fuels for cars have arguably been less successful thus far. The problem when it comes to reducing emissions is that as the human population grows, there is a greater demand for electricity, and also for cars, meaning that the total amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere will increase overall, even if per person consumption rates start to decrease. Governments do not support the measures that the more radical environmentalists advocate as their belief that such steps would harm economic growth, and lower national wealth levels as a whole. That has yet to be weighed up against the extra damage caused by changing weather patterns, not to mention in the number and intensity of natural disasters.

Nuclear Technology

Originally, environmental groups had emerged in the 1960s to protest against the increased use of nuclear technology, both for civilian power generation, and particularly for its use in making atomic and thermonuclear weapons. Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth contended that nuclear power stations had the potential to cause mass devastation via accidental reactor meltdowns, as was nearly the case at Three Mile End in 1979, and actually happened seven years later in Chernobyl, which was then in the Soviet Union. Even if nuclear power stations are run properly and safely there is still the problem of how to store and eventually dispose of nuclear waste without the risk of leaks. Nuclear weapons were regarded with even greater disdain because if a Third World War ever took place, it would without a doubt wipe out the human race, if not all other forms of life on Earth. Of course, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945, and subsequent nuclear testing above ground undoubtedly led to enhanced global warming, although nobody knew that at the time.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is of course one means of producing electricity that does not add to greenhouse gases, but the concerns mean that there are doubts about continuing its use. Yet it was concerns over the nuclear issue, which led to these pressure groups to have stronger opinions on other environmental issues, which led almost unexpectedly to research that pointed to the acceleration of global warming via human activities.

Acid Rain

Aside from debates about nuclear power, the first environmental issue to gain widespread media and then political attention was that of acid rain. The issue was brought to public attention after trees were killed, and fish were dying in lakes and rivers. The acidic rain was caused by high amounts of sulfur dioxide being released into the atmosphere by coal burning power stations. As a result, acid rain was causing environmental damage in parts of North America, and more notably in North West Europe, especially Scandinavia.

The problem was solved in two ways that were quickly agreed to by European and North American governments. Firstly, by using lower sulfur coal or charcoal, and secondly by fitting filters in the chimneys of power stations. Since then, the use of coal to fuel power stations has declined as it is mined less, and because natural gas is frequently preferred to it. Although the tackling of the acid rain issue had no impact directly on global warming, it did show that concerted action could be taken internationally to protect the environment, and furthermore, that action could be effective.

CFCs

The next environmental issue to gain publicity was a change in the ozone layer that was detected in the early 1980s, more specifically a huge hole that was contributing to global warming. Since the 1950s, CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, had been used in aerosol cans, refrigeration units, as well as packaging. These CFCs were destroying the ozone layer, especially over the Southern hemisphere, and consequently having a detrimental impact on the environment, as it was raising temperatures, and causing increases in the cases of skin cancer as more people suffered from sunburn. International attention was reached relatively quickly in order to stop the hole in the ozone layer increasing in size. To that affect the use of CFCs was phased out, yet the damage already done had without a doubt made global warming worse, arguably aiding the melting of the polar ice caps.

The Impact of Rising Global Temperatures

Rising global temperatures has led to the melting of the polar ice caps, which in turn has made sea levels rise, putting low lying land areas in danger of being submerged under the seas, perhaps for good. For example, much of Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel, and Bangladesh could disappear if the worst predictions about global warming prove to be true. Rising sea levels are contributing to changes in weather patterns that generally will do more harm than good to the majority of the Earth.

Environmental scientists have argued convincingly that changing patterns have brought on more droughts, famines, floods, and stronger hurricanes that could have been expected without an acceleration in global warming. Such events have caused a great deal of devastation, loss of lives, and have proved economically, very costly. Environmental groups have used such events as proof that more needs to be done to prevent the further acceleration of global warming, and that governments need to do more to protect the planet for the present, and also for the future generations to come.

Steps are being taken to protect the environment, as well as to improve sustainability to slow down the rise in worldwide temperatures, both by governments and by individuals. Sustainable measures such as changing to renewable energy sources have been agreed to at a worldwide level, for instance at the Rio Earth Summit, and the later Kyoto Protocol. Targets were set to cut back on the emission of greenhouse gases to attempt to slow down the process of global warming. Since then, there has been a move away from the using of fossil fuels to be replaced by renewable forms of energy.

Besides reducing the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, at some point, more fossil fuels will become exhausted, meaning that there could be severe energy shortages in the future. At the moment, more progress has been made in generating greener energy than in using greener fuels for cars, planes, and trucks. Solar panels, wind farms, and hydroelectric dams are becoming more important as fossil fuels are used less in power generation and as supplies are gradually used up in the next few decades.

What You Can Do To Help

Aside from using greener methods of power generation, the world's ever increasing demand for energy could be partially met by the use of more energy efficient fuels, equipment, and machinery. For example, the use of energy saving light bulbs, switching off all devices completely instead of leaving them on standby could save enough energy to light a major city all year round. Proper insulation, and turning down the thermostat on central heating systems can save the consumption of gas and electricity, not to mention lower people's energy bills and save them money. Recycling materials can also be a useful means of saving energy, as well as conserving limited resources such as precious, or hard to obtain metals. Recycling plastic, paper, glass, and metal saves energy, and in some cases means no need to use chemicals such as mercury to extract gold and copper.

The acceleration of global warming has been caused by human activity, particularly in the last two hundred years or so. To tackle the problem will require a great deal of effort, and possibly sacrifices as the world's climate changes, and most likely, not for the better.

References

  • Eatwell R & Wright A (2003) Contemporary Political Ideologies, London and New York
  • Hobsbawm E (1994) Age of Extremes 1914 - 1994, Michael Joseph, London and New York
  • Sawka R & Stevens A (2000) Contemporary Europe, MacMillan, Basingstoke

Environment | Issues


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