SciTech

Global warming poses threat to environmental stability

“I got the right temperature to shelter you from the storm....” Sean Paul definitely has the right idea: It is getting hot in here! The Earth has not only been plagued with unpredictable climate changes, but also with a flurry of legislation and outcry from activist groups. What could be causing this rapid change and upheaval? Global warming may be the answer.

Global warming is a temperature rise of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels and industrial pollutants. This releases a major pollutant — carbon dioxide — into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect — a phrase for the Earth’s atmosphere trapping the energy from the sun. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane are all partially responsible for this phenomenon. Without these gases, heat would escape into space, and the average temperature of the Earth would be about 60°F cooler, according to an EPA report. Unfortunately, because of the increase in carbon dioxide, more and more heat is getting trapped within the Earth’s atmosphere.

Electricity production is one factor to blame, causing 35 percent of global carbon emissions. The burning of forests releases about two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, or about 22 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon is also emitted from cars, cement production, aerosols, and burning fossil fuels.

Global warming is heating Earth and is causing devastating effects on the environment, said a report by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Glaciers are disappearing, causing water levels to rise in oceans worldwide; soon, many islands and coastlines may be significantly altered and, in rare cases, might disappear from the map altogether. Weather pattern shifts are causing hotter-than-ever heat waves, the spread of disease, and record fatalities all over the world. Numerous droughts are causing prolonged wildfires and the destruction of the natural habitats of many species.

Popular belief is that global warming is an issue that will take years to develop and does not deserve the immediate attention of lawmakers. Some believe that the rising temperatures are due to natural, rather than human, occurrences, such an increase in the sun’s output or volcanic eruptions. Also, the most drastic temperature increase occurred in the first half of the 20th century, not the in the last 20 years like the media have reported.

The evidence, however, is inconclusive. Temperatures and the rise of carbon dioxide have changed drastically over centuries, not decades, as has been the recent trend. Therefore, due to the urgency of global warming, the Kyoto Treaty of February 2005 encouraged reducing carbon emissions to the 1990 level by 2012.

The United States refused to sign the treaty during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The Kyoto Protocol does not apply to developing countries such as India or China, based on the belief that reducing pollution would interfere with their economic development. The treaty argues that the U.S., Europe, and Russia did not have restraints while developing; therefore current developing countries should also not be confined to pollution reduction.

In the U.S. itself, various pieces of legislation have appeared before Congress to prevent global warming, but few have passed. The most important was the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, which would have created unprecedented limits on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, jump-started investment in renewable energy, enacted a flexible emissions program, and put aside funding to help adjusting wildlife. Although this failed in June 2005, the mere fact that the bill was proposed shows bipartisan support for this critical issue.

The two largest insurance companies in the world, Munich Re and Swiss Re, have predicted that the U.S. will have to pay $150 billion a year for the next decade to battle the international crisis global warming poses. The costs would be related to disaster relief and insurance.

There are a multitude of things that people can do to impede global warming. The most important thing is to use energy-efficient technology, such as hybrid cars, fluorescent (as opposed to incandescent) light bulbs, and “Energy Star” appliances. Investment in solar, wind, and renewable energy sources will decrease the burning of fossil fuels. Also check your vehicles regularly and plant trees.