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Familiar Patterns of Man-made Disasters, Part 3 of 4: Climate Change (no Chinese hoax!)
Posted on August 7th, 2017 by Dr. Sina Ebnesajjad in Chemical R&D
This post is the third in a series of four discussing avoidable disasters caused by human beings. Of the four posts three describe examples of disasters created by human beings: 1. Asbestos published July 17; 2. Smoking; and 3. Climate change (August 7). The fourth post (August 21) discusses the common patterns of those three disasters and proposes root causes for all of them.
Disaster has been defined as “a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction; natural disasters; and broadly: a sudden or great misfortune or failure.” Climate change is one disaster mostly of man’s making that can be slowed down and even partially reversed if the right measures are taken globally. Just look at the example of the “Ozone Hole” caused by decades of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions. In less than three decades since stopping the release of CFCs healing of the ozone hole is measurable.
Climate change is about the increase in the average temperature of the Earth over time in contrast to localized short-term weather. A cold snow-laden winter does not count as evidence against global warming. Rather it is part of the variability of the climate. In the recent decades cold winters have become colder and hot summers have become hotter as a result of global warming. An increase of 0.5oC in the average temperature of the Earth may seem small in relation to the room temperature. But that small change can have a colossal impact on the weather of the Earth, leading to extreme heat and cold around the globe, melting of ancient glaciers and polar ice caps, rise in sea levels, storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, typhoons and other events. Every one of these events results in loss of life and property.
Greenhouse effect is defined as trapping of Sun’s energy in the Earth’s lower atmosphere (Figure 1). Visible light of the Sun warms the Earth, which in turn reflects some of the heat back in the form of diffuse infrared radiation. Earth’s atmosphere is less transparent to the infrared light than it is to Sun-rays thus withholding some of the infrared radiation. On the net Earth surface heats up as a result of the trapped energy. According to NASA, 2015 was the warmest year since modern record keeping began in 1880.
Figure 1 The Greenhouse Effect [Source: S. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, Scientific American, August 17, 2012]
Scientists first learnt in the 19th century that atmospheric gases e.g., carbon dioxide cause a “greenhouse effect” which raises the Earth’s temperature. At the beginning of the 20th century the Swedish scientist Arrhenius postulated that some day emissions from industrial activity could cause a global warming. In 1938, G.S. Callendar argued that the level of carbon dioxide was climbing and raising global temperatures. Most scientists refused to accept Callendar’s arguments. Auspiciously, in the 1950s researchers discovered that global warming was a definite possibility. Keeling measured the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in early 1960s and demonstrated that it was rising quickly. Scientists have measured the carbon dioxide content of Antarctic ice-core (Figure 2(A)), indicating the current levels of atmospheric CO2 have been unprecedented in the last four hundred thousand years. Figure 2(B) shows the atmospheric CO2 concentration measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, with average seasonal cycle removed, is steadily rising.
Figure 2 Atmospheric CO2 concentration measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii (Source: Global Climate Change, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, www.noaa.gov, 2017)
Global Warming Potential
After the 1950s findings, interest in research into understanding the role of CO2 in climate change rose sharply. After numerous studies researchers have concluded atmospheric carbon dioxide plays a critical role in climate change. Many other gases have since been found to exceed carbon dioxide’s greenhouse effect by orders of magnitude. A factor called global warming potential (GWP) has been defined to quantify the global warming power of a gas. In this definition the warming impact of CO2 has been assigned a factor of 1. The impact of other gases is defined as how much (GWP) they are worse (or better) than CO2 over a number of years (Table 1).
Table 1 GWP of high global warming potential gases over 20 and 100 years
Climate Change’s Toll
Higher temperatures are worsening many types of disasters, including storms, heat waves, floods, and droughts. A warmer climate creates an atmosphere that can collect, retain, and drop more water, changing weather patterns in such a way that wet areas become wetter and dry areas drier. Drought conditions jeopardize access to clean drinking water, fuel out-of-control wildfires, and result in dust storms, extreme heat events, and flash flooding. Elsewhere around the world, the lack of water is a leading cause of death and serious diseases (Source: Natural Resources Defense Council, www.NRDC.org, 2017 and National Geographic, www.NationalGeographic.com, 2017). Water shortages could even lead to wars among countries such as India and China.
Scientists consider climate change the biggest global health threat of the 21st century affecting everyone’s health – especially children, the elderly, low-income communities, and minorities in direct and indirect ways. In the US alone, hundreds of heat-related deaths occur each year due to direct and indirect effects of heat-exacerbated, life-threatening illnesses, such as heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and cardiovascular and kidney diseases.
Rising temperatures also worsen air pollution by increasing ground level ozone, which is generated when pollution from cars, factories, and other sources react to sunlight and heat. Ground-level ozone is the main components of smog, and the hotter things get, the more of it we will have. Dirtier air is linked to higher hospital admission rates and higher death rates for asthmatics.
As land and sea undergo rapid changes, the animals that inhabit them are doomed to disappear if they don’t adapt quickly enough. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 assessment, many land, freshwater, and ocean species are shifting their geographic ranges to cooler climes or higher altitudes to escape warming. Many still face “increased extinction risk due to climate change.” A 2015 study showed that vertebrate species – animals with backbones, like fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles – are disappearing 114 times faster than they should be because of climate change, pollution, and deforestation.
The Earth’s marine ecosystems are under pressure as a result of climate change. Oceans are becoming more acidic, due in large part to their absorption of some of our excess emissions. As this acidification accelerates, it poses a serious threat to underwater life. Particularly vulnerable are creatures with calcium carbonate shells or skeletons, including mollusks, crabs, and corals with a huge impact on shellfisheries looming.
Polar regions are especially vulnerable to a warming atmosphere. Average temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as elsewhere on Earth, and the world’s ice sheets are melting fast. This not only has grave consequences for the region’s people, wildlife, and plants; its most serious impact may be on rising sea levels. By the year 2100, it is estimated our oceans will be one to four feet (30-120 cm) higher, threatening coastal systems and low-lying areas, including entire island nations and the world’s largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Miami as well as Mumbai, Sydney, and Rio de Janeiro.
How to slow down Climate Change
The single most effective way to counter climate change is eliminating the burning of coal, oil and, eventually, natural gas. This is perhaps the most daunting challenge as citizens of richer nations literally eat, wear, work, play and even sleep on the products made from such fossilized sunshine. And developing nations want and arguably deserve the same comforts, which are largely thanks to the energy stored in fossil fuels. (Source: 10 Solutions for Climate Change, Scientific American, www.scientificamerican.com, Nov 26, 2007)
Oil is the “grease” of the global economy and fundamental to the transportation of both people and goods. Coal supplies roughly half of the electricity used in the U.S. and worldwide. Worse it is expected to grow, according to the International Energy Agency. Coal is the worst fossil fuel because burning it produces the most amount of carbon dioxide and other plollutants.
A powerful remedy is to replace fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy (aka green) such as solar, hydrogen, electricity and wind. Another solution is to re-sequester carbon by underground storage of CO2 in the Earth’s caverns. An incremental approach is to build durable wooden buildings and structures (instead of concrete) as a means to store carbon removed by the trees. Derive chemicals from biomass instead of petroleum. Nuclear power is another alternative that does not emit greenhouse gases but has drawbacks because of radioactive waste it generates. There is no single or perfect solution for reducing dependence on fossil fuels but every bit helps.
The Opposition (fossil fuel lobby)
Unsurprisingly, the fossil fuel industry and its massive lobby in the halls of power have fought against the notion of global warming and climate change. The massive resources of oil companies have allowed funding of studies to counter the existing scientific evidence of climate change, even resorting to disinformation campaigns. According to the Huffington Post major fossil fuel companies and trade groups shell out nearly $115 million a year to oppose efforts to reduce carbon emissions, undermine international climate talks and obstruct government and private initiatives to convert away from fossil fuels. One example is the industry’s legendary battles against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Environmentalists are increasing pressure on oil companies by accusing them of trying to slow the march to low-carbon energy. A cynical tactic by oil companies has been acquisition of green energy companies and running them down by cash starvation and personnel reductions. BP in particular was pilloried for promising to go “beyond petroleum” – then whittling down its alternative energy division. Shell Petroleum used to have a large solar business, but it was scaled down several years ago (Source: T. Mcalister, The Guardian, www.TheGuardian.com May 21, 2016).
Did the fossil fuel and utility industries know about climate change?
Two examples are presented here that show the degree of knowledge and the length of time, the fossil fuel producers and utilities have been aware of climate change. ExxonMobile was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue. ExxonMobil spent decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation—an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public (Source: S. Hall, Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago, Scientific American, October 26, 2015).
But as it turns out, ExxonMobile didn’t just understand the science, the company actively engaged with it. In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched an ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. ExxonMobile spent more than $1 million on a tanker project that would tackle how much CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. It was one of the biggest scientific questions of the time (Source: S. Hall, Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago, Scientific American, October 26, 2015).
The U.S. electric utility industry recognized decades ago that burning fossil fuels would lead to increased warming, yet later opposed efforts to shift away from coal, according to a new report. (Source: Climate Nexus, Utilities Knew, Too, Since 1968, EcoWatch, www.ecowatch.com, July 26, 2017) The lengthy report from the Energy and Policy Institute (www.energyandpolicy.org) uses reams of archival documents to demonstrate that utility industry representatives knew as far back as 1968 that burning fossil fuels could trigger “catastrophic effects” on the climate. The report also claims that, despite continued research and consensus on climate throughout the 1970s and 80s, the industry continued to make investments in coal, joined coalitions and lobbying groups to oppose climate action and fund climate denier scientists.
The future looks promising in spite of the Big Oil efforts to delay climate action. Some 197 countries including China and India have signed the Paris Agreement to mount a global response against climate change. Those countries have remained steadfast in spite of pull back by the United States. To date 158 countries have ratified the Agreement. More promising is the response from the large industries like auto to comply with the Paris Agreement. Large investments in electric cars continue to be made as technology progress and public acceptance have grown. Most significantly people around the world are taking note of the weather extremes and becoming more informed about climate change. Oil related accidents and environmental disasters such as the Deep Water Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico have intensified public interest in the environment. Progress is slow but steady just as it was in the cases of asbestos and smoking disasters.
All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.
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Dr. Sina Ebnesajjad
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