Science Column: The Case for Climate Change

When we are constantly being inundated with information about the deteriorating state of our planet, it can be easy to tell ourselves that all this talk of climate change is just a load of hype. We may be tempted to dismiss it as political propaganda or the sensationalized worries of some fringe environmentalist zealots hopped up on tofu; however, a lot of people may not realize that there is virtually no debate in the scientific community that climate change is real.

According to NASA’s climate change website, 97 percent of scientists are in agreement that recent shifts in the Earth’s climate are real and have been induced by human activities. As the American Physical Society stated in 2007, “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.”

                Recent shifts in the global climate have largely resulted from greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gases work by absorbing radiation emitted from the Earth and then re-emitting it, which increases the Earth’s temperature. CO2  is produced naturally every time we exhale, but it is also contributed to the atmosphere in massive quantities when we drive our cars and heat our homes. While the CO2 from breathing is part of the carbon cycle, the CO2 emitted from industry is not.  Deforestation only exacerbates the problem; not only are we pumping large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, we are also inhibiting the planet’s ability to offset these emissions.

Our influence on the Earth’s carbon cycle began to get dicey with the start of the Industrial Revolution in about 1760; in 250 years, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have skyrocketed from 278 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm. In the last nine years alone CO2 levels have spiked by about 22 ppm. According to NASA’s global climate change website, the current atmospheric CO2 concentration is higher than data from ice cores indicates it has been in the last 400,000 years.

Further evidence for climate change can be found in the rate at which the glaciers of the Arctic and Antarctic are rapidly melting; NASA has reported that the Arctic sea ice has been losing about 11.5 percent of its size every decade since 1979 and Antarctica has been shrinking in size by about 24 cubic miles since 2002. These colossal quantities of melting ice have caused sea levels to rise by about 3.16 mm/year since 1993.

What’s next for Earth? If current trends continue, scientists say it’s not a pretty picture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization consisting of over 1,300 scientists from around the world, believes that temperatures may rise anywhere from 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years. For a planet with complex and highly sensitive ecosystems like ours, even a difference of a few degrees in such a short period of time could spell catastrophe.

During natural shifts in global cycles, species have time to adapt or migrate, but these changes usually take place over millennia, not a single century. According to the Nature Conservancy, if we don’t take action to correct our mistakes immediately, a jaw-dropping 25 percent of Earth’s species could be on the path to extinction by 2050. During that time, sea levels could rise between 4 and 36 inches, with 36 being enough to flood every city on the east coast.

When I was a child, I didn’t want to clean my room, brush my teeth or eat my vegetables; my ultimate fantasy was to eat Oreos and watch cartoons all day long. Then I learned about consequences. I learned that if I only sought out the immediate gratification of my desires, I was going to end up with a brain full of cobwebs and a mouth full of cavities.

We may still be a young species, but we need to grow up—fast.  Simply learning to consume more responsibly and to consume less would be a step in the right direction; little things like walking or biking instead of driving, remembering to unplug electronics, eating less meat (it takes a lot of energy to produce), and using efficient appliances can make a difference if enough people do them. On a larger scale, we can pressure our local and national governments to make Earth’s environmental future a priority by investing in cleaner forms of energy rather than fossil fuels. Essentially, we need to recognize the consequences behind our actions; if we don’t change the way we interact with the planet, we are going to screw our species over indefinitely (and many, many other species as well).

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