Show of Hands: Who Remembers Global Warming?

Sam Chapin

The words global warming used to mean something. When the term became popular in the early 1990s, it sounded like something out of a science-fiction movie. Today, however, it is thrown around casually and most people seem to have forgotten its implications. (Similarly lost is the significance of April 22 — Earth Day; don’t pretend like you remember.) Of course, there are those dutiful citizens who are doing their best to combat global warming: refusing plastic bags at the bodega; driving under 60 mph with the windows up and the air-conditioner off; and buying recycled paper towels. But the actions of a few have next to no impact on global climate change.


So let's run down a small list of the irreversible impacts (at least, irreversible for the next few hundred years or so) we have had on our planet over the past 200 years.


Climate Change

“A general rule of thumb would be that warm places are getting warmer, cool places are getting cooler, and there’s an increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and drought,” says Matthew Johnson, Policy Associate at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).


Since 1900, the number of Atlantic hurricanes per year has doubled, according to NASA. Droughts are becoming more common, including two in the Amazon region over the past 10 years — an occurrence previously considered impossible. In America, storms that once appeared every 20 years are likely to be seen as regularly as every five to six years by the end of the century (according to the National Wildlife Federation). 


And yes, the earth is getting warmer. In the past 25 years, the earth has been heated at a rate of four degrees Fahrenheit per century — a rate about four degrees per century too high (NASA).


Sea Level

This is the big one. It is common knowledge that the ice caps are melting and the sea level is rising. According to the Climate Institute, during the last century, the sea level has risen 15 to 20 centimeters, or 1.5 to 2.0 millimeters per year. In the last decade, however, it has risen twice as fast. If this rate continues, the sea level will rise 40 centimeters in the next  100 years. That’s one foot four inches.


The worst case scenario would see a seven foot rise in sea level by the end of the century:


“…a number of academic studies examining recent ice sheet dynamics have suggested that an increase of seven feet or more is not only possible, but likely,” write Rob Young and Orrin Pilkey in an article for Yale’s online publication, Environment 360.


This figure is not a prediction, but rather a precaution. We cannot say for sure how ice sheets will react to future warming, but if one sheet were to collapse and fall into the ocean, we could see an instant rise of three feet or more. If the ice sheet covering Greenland were to melt entirely, we would see a twenty foot rise in sea level.



“Every single species is under threat,” says Johnson.


Indeed, if we were to continue consuming energy and decimating habitats at the same rate we are now, 15 to 37 percent of land plants and animals will be extinct by 2050, according to Nature Magazine. The magazine reports that if we were able to rapidly switch to a green way of living, 15 to 20 percent of these species could be saved.


But that wouldn’t undo the damage we’ve already done. The extinction rate of species is currently 100 to 1,000 times higher than that of the expected natural rate, an unprecedented statistic thought by many scientists to rival that of the dinosaurs, reports Endangered Species International (ESI).


Because of reckless overconsumption and thoughtless expansion, humans have stripped the world of countless species that will never be seen again. And with the loss of these plants and animals comes the loss of essential human services: breathable air, clean water, energy, medicines, building supplies, and so on. So if the image of a polar bear clinging to a chunk of ice doesn’t inspire change, perhaps the thought of a world without people will. 



Global Warming is not a new concept. In 1988, the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in an effort to better understand the phenomenon.  (A 2007 report by the panel concluded that, unless drastic limitations on emissions were implemented, we could see "abrupt or irreversible climate changes and impacts.”)


The panel’s initial reports lead to the Kyoto Protocol, which went into effect in 1997 and was adopted by 37 developed countries. Its primary goal is to lower the average greenhouse gas emissions of participating countries by an average of five percent, against 1990 levels, between the years of 2008 and 2012.


The United States is the only developed country not to ratify the treaty. The U.S. is second only to China in gas emissions, and yet it has found itself outside the limitations of the protocol. In fact, it wasn’t until 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are indeed pollutants and fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act, that President Bush even acknowledged global warming to be a genuine concern (according to The Washington Post).


Today, under the Obama administration, the U.S. is finally cleaning up its act, or at least trying to. The president has proposed serious reductions on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, but has been met with strong opposition from many Republicans in Congress. Republicans, reported The New York Times, argue that environmental legislation cuts jobs, and stricter emission standards will put companies, such as cement manufacturers, out of business.


Climate change experts have refuted these statements, arguing that the loss of jobs would be substantially lower, and have suggested that cleaner air and longer lives are worth the cost of a few jobs.


All Is Not Lost

Although many of the effects done to our planet cannot be changed, there are ways people can minimize their impact as much as possible.


“[You] can start learning more about how your choices can affect things,” says Johnson. “Be more aware of how much energy is being used in your living space. Take a look at your utility bill and take a look at how much comes from fossil fuels. Translate that into action.”


Most importantly, Johnson advises, don’t keep your feelings to yourself: “Contact your elected officials and tell them that this problem matters to you.”

not popular
Bruno Furnari, Flickr
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider