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Air Pollution & Climate Change
Dramatic weather patterns in the past few years are convincing even determined skeptics that something is happening to global climates. Humans have changed planet earth. One of our accomplishments is to extract and burn much of the fossil fuel deposits on the planet. We have increased the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and are now observing the changes in weather patterns and climate that are a result of our actions.
Complex Systems The attempt to understand complex systems has taken a quantum leap in recent years. We have gone beyond naïve linear models and now appreciate that if complex systems such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and land ecosystems change, they may become unstable and more unfriendly. Extra heat will cause more turbulence, and weather patterns will change in unpredictable ways. Unfortunately nature changes in abrupt ways and catastrophes are natural phenomena - volcanic eruptions, storms, floods, earthquakes, avalanches all represent basic patterns of nature. We have to understand that our actions contribute to weather events - the issues loom large when you consider recent climate changes as adverse consequences of human activities that could be improved if humans agreed on a proper course of action. Of course, human have great difficulty reaching agreements and greater difficulty sustaining agreements they have have achieved.
The deepest problem for humans is that we cannot predict the future with any accuracy. Even the best informed scientist with the most recent data cannot know what is going to happen next. When we talk about prudence we refer to our best methods of minimizing risk and preparing to deal with events beyond our control which can injure or kill us. Preparation for accidents and illness consumes a large chunk of our resources. Smart humans notice adverse changes and take action to minimize the risk of adverse consequences. But not all human are smart or prudent.
Differential Effects Most Important Too much attention has been paid to estimating and predicting the average temperature increase of the atmosphere as a whole. Long-term predictions are guesses that may be misleading. The main concern is the effect of extra heat on local climates right now. If you track anomalous and destructive weather over the whole planet, there is already substantial evidence of climate change; there may some benefits, but, overall, the changes look unpleasant and costly.
So far, increasingly anomalous weather and increasing loss of life and property from greenhouse gas accumulation are occurring with small changes in the average temperature of the planet. You can increase the temperature in some areas and decrease in others and you can alternate - the differential effect will drive storms and precipitation in unusual ways. Increased adverse weather events can be explained as an exaggerated differential effect. We built a greenhouse with gases over much of the Pacific Ocean, for example, and put up heat shields in other areas - smoke, other particles and water vapor. The temperature differences increase, followed by more weather extremes. Loss of life and property from adverse weather increases. There is no need to wait until 2050 to find out what is going to happen.
Weather in its simplest form is the expression of heating and cooling effects. When wind blows the roof off a house or a flood carries the house downstream, the energy required was supplied by the sun. The energy may have been stored briefly in the water of a lake or ocean and then expressed through heating of the water and air and evaporation of water. Air moves when there is a pressure gradient, another result of heating and cooling.
The water vapor content of the atmosphere will increase in a warmer world. With more water vapor in the atmosphere and an increase in sea surface temperatures, there will be increased precipitation at times and more vigorous storms and floods. Water is in constant motion in the oceans. Air and water vapor are in constant motion in the atmosphere. When patterns of distribution change, ecosystems change. Humans experience these changes as threats to their comfort and security and ultimately to their survival.
Global warming refers to average temperatures, measured over decades. temperature measurement obviously vary with location and seasons. Warming simply means that the earth retains more of the sun's heat over time. Heat drives weather and increased heat means increased water and turbulence in the atmosphere. The consequences are determined by the distribution of this extra heat and its effect on ocean and air circulation patterns. We can accept paradoxical weather results as the extra heat makes climate systems more unstable. The most obvious effect of warming is the melting of ice in Arctic, Antarctic and high mountain glaciers. Ice monitoring has become an important scientific enterprise. Measurements to date reveal accelerating ice melting. The extra fresh water is added to the ocean, raising ocean levels with important changes in ocean circulation patterns. The redistribution of retained heat depends more on the oceans than on the atmosphere.
A model of heat dynamics that has emerged from a high tech,
multidisciplinary study of the planet is complex. Important players in
atmospheric dynamics are:
Green Developments in the media made "green" the slogan for action to limit the adverse effects of human degradations of the environment. The media often suggested that this is a relatively new consensus that there is an environmental crisis. They excused people who have ignored the effect of greenhouse gases on climates global warming over the past 30 years. Some know what is really going on out there, but most people do not know or know but deny the obvious for selfish reasons.
Green refers to the color of chlorophyll in plants. Human action destroys plants and replaces healthy ecosystems with concrete and asphalt. Another slogan that emerged was "save planet earth." Humans will not save the planet. The task for humans is to stop destroying the environments that sustain humans. If we fail, the planet will do just fine without us.
Greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These gases act like the glass covering a greenhouse, letting sunlight in but blocking some of the infrared radiation from the earth's surface that carries heat back into space. The gases act like a blanket wherever their concentration increases. Local concentrations increase local heat and increased differences between hotter and colder regions drives weather events into more extreme ranges. Over many years, the total amount of greenhouse gases accumulates and the average temperature of the whole planet is increasing. The planet's thermostat had been set at a pleasant average temperature of 59 degrees (F) for the last 10 thousand years or so and is now rising.
UV radiation The reduction in forest biomass and reduction of ocean plankton from heat and exposure to increased UV radiation are also concerns. Ocean phytoplankton supplies 70% of the oxygen we breathe and is a major consumer of carbon dioxide. Plankton do best in cold water. If ocean temperatures increase and other problems such as increased UV radiation from ozone holes kills phytoplankton, the problems we are predicting will accelerate.
Ecosystems are precariously balanced around temperature, pH, oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations. The adaptive range for many organisms is tight and small changes can have big results It may be that we can adapt to the changes that have occurred so far but we may have already gone too far and will encounter the big avalanche. The negative consequences of our actions may escalate beyond our control.
Living on the Edge People in California are specially adapted to the uncertainty of nature - earthquakes have always taken their toll; however when you add the toxicity of air pollution and agricultural chemicals, to soil erosion, floods, fires, failing economy and social unrest you have the formula for an unstable ecosystem that will become less habitable rather than more as the years proceed.
Other comfortable and affluent North Americans are having trouble realizing that they are living on an ecological edge. More of them are seeing homes and businesses under water, on-fire, blown away, crushed by heavy snow or deprived of a supportive infrastructure. We will have more water at times dumped on the land and the consequences can be severe and cumulative. At other times in other places, there will be less water and drought and winds will blow away more top soil. More of the forest biomass will be lost and erosion will continue at accelerated rates. Food-growing lands are in jeopardy; it may be difficult to sustain the level of agricultural productivity we enjoyed in the 20th century. New health hazards will emerge - some predicable; others will be unpleasant surprises. After hurricanes, fires and floods - things are never really the same again.
Insurance companies are either increasing rates, out of business, worried, or refusing coverage for properties at risk Hurricane Andrew was the worst weather disaster in US history causing 16.5 billion dollars in insured loses and bankrupting some smaller insurance companies. The UN panel on climate change has estimated that windstorm damage increased from $500 million in the 60's to over $11 billion in the 90's and the annual bill in the 21st century may be hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Before 1987, storms had never caused insured loses exceeding $1 billion. Hurricane Andrew destroyed over 28,000 homes. Hurricanes Jeanne, Ivan, Frances and Charley in 2004 destroyed 27,500 housing units. The Southern US was attacked by 17 major storms during the 2005 hurricane season., Hurricane Katrina did extensive damage on Sept 19 2005 to the Gulf coast of the US .Early damage cost were estimated at $200 billion, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Hurricane Rita soon followed on Sept 24 and became the most intense hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico but caused less damage, because it made landfall in less populated areas -- no consolation to the people in Texas and Louisiana who suffered a direct hit. Damage estimate was 10 billion.
Political action should swift and definitive, but of course, it is not. Politicians are short-term administrators who tend to be inexperienced and poorly informed. In all fairness to politicians, some of them began their careers with high hopes of improving the world, but discovered as they matured in politics that they could only court the favor of those with vested interests, power, money and influence. The realist might say that the politician can only do what is political expedient and this usually means what is in his or her best interest in the next two to four years. The task of leading fellow Homo Sapiens from a self-destructive path requires an intelligent consensus and leadership from compassionate superheroes who think in terms of centuries, even millenia.
According to Maurice Strong who headed the 1992 Rio Earth Summit stated; "Overall we haven't made the fundamental course of change promised in Rio. The process of deterioration has continued and the forces that drive that deterioration have continued. " At that summit 153 nations signed treaties to reduce global warming, save endangered species and foster sustainable development.
Kyoto 1997 The Kyoto meeting to determine emissions policy for the countries of the world has been a great disappointment and only confirmed our basic understanding that governments are not going to act responsibly and man-made climate problems are going to be with us for decades to come. Disruptions in ecosystems, economic systems, political systems are inevitable.
ICC Dec. 2007 NUSA DUA, Indonesia At the international climate conference, the world’s nations committed to negotiating a new accord by 2009 that cut in half emissions of heat-trapping gases by 2050. While the commitment is welcome, humans remain critical of each other, disputatious and focused on self interest. The negotiations that might lead to an accord will not be a smooth path and even if an accord is achieved, compliance with its terms will not be enforceable.
The climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009 involved 200 nations who failed to achieve enforceable agreements to reduce carbon emissions. If you were an optimist you might value the Accord that was achieved, a five-page document that represented another tentative step toward global action to reduce atmospheric pollution and climate change. A realist would restate our understanding of human nature – that local interests always trump global concerns and local interests are divergent and divisive. US President Obama stated: “I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen. The science says that we’ve got to significantly reduce emissions over the next 40 years. There’s nothing in the Copenhagen agreement that ensures that will happen.”
Limitations of Human Nature
Changes in human behavior must come from all people who sense danger, seek to understand their options and change spontaneously. The same issues come up in personal and public health concerns - constructive change is required. Ignorance and denial obstruct constructive change; wishful thinking and fantasy solutions become more popular. Self-interest and greed dominate the political process. Mother earth shudders and complains...looks like we are staying on the edge.
Discussions of Environmental Science and Human Ecology were developed by Environmed Research Inc. Sechelt, B.C. Canada. Online Topics are developed in several books by Stephen Gislason MD. These can be found in two catalogues, Alpha Education and Persona Digital Books.
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