Climate Change and our Responsibilities

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Climate change has emerged as one of the biggest problems of the recent times. Current thinking on climate change has gone beyond environmental issues to spiritual and values perspectives. Global climate change is one of the biggest problems of current times. Current concentrations have reached 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2) exceeding the natural range of the last 650,000 years. In the course of the 21st Century, average global temperatures could increase by more than 5°C (UNDP, 2008). Global climate is already warming at a rate unprecedented in the past 1000 years and is therefore inevitably altering the character of local and regional weather around the world (IPCC, 2001b). Around the world people are experiencing the effects of climate change: water and air temperatures are rising at alarming rates, adversely affecting the habitats that sustain life for fish, animals, plants and human beings. Devastation caused both by severe droughts and floods are increasing. Storms and hurricanes are becoming more frequent and intense. New diseases are appearing and old ones are spreading. In overly industrialized areas, the air quality is deteriorating. Climate conditions are affecting people’s health and in some areas heat-related deaths are on the increase. Hunger is predicted to escalate as the climate changes.

Climate Change Challenge – Beyond Environmental Issues

For a long time climate change was considered an environmental issue and was tackled as such. However, current thinking has evolved to see climate change beyond environmental issues. In this regard the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2001a) states, “natural, technical, and social sciences can provide essential information and evidence needed for decisions on what constitutes ʻdangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. At the same time, such decisions are value judgments …”. Climate change is more than just a secular environmental issue. Values play a significant role in climate change debates. How to adapt to climate change hinges on the values underlying people’s perspectives on what the goals of adaptation should be (O’Brien and Wolf, 2010).

While climate change is a complex problem raising issues across and between a large number of disciplines, including the physical and life sciences, political science, economics and psychology, ethics plays a fundamental role. This is because human actions relating to climate change are open to moral assessment. Further, ethical questions are fundamental to the main policy decisions that must be made to tackle climate change. Such decisions include where to set a global ceiling for greenhouse gas emissions, and how to distribute the emissions allowed by such a ceiling. For example, where the global ceiling is set depends on how the interests of the current generation are weighed against those of future generations; and how emissions are distributed under the global gap depends on various beliefs about the appropriate role of energy consumption in people’s lives, the importance of historical responsibility for the problem, and the current needs and future aspirations of particular societies (Gardiner, 2006). Like their values impact, many of the issues discussed also have spiritual undertones therefore, climate change is an issue that goes to the core of faith and spirituality.

Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal

(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.1

Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate.

The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century.2 Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.

Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient, or paleoclimate, evidence reveals that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.3

The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling:

Sea level is rising—and at an accelerating rate—especially along the U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.

Sea Level Rise

Why are the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico hotspots of sea level rise?
  • Global average sea level has increased 8 inches since 1880. Several locations along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico have experienced more than 8 inches of local sea level rise in only the past 50 years.
  • The rate of local sea level rise is affected by global, regional, and local factors.
  • Along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico, changes in the path and strength of ocean currents are contributing to faster-than-average sea level rise.
  • In parts of the East Coast and Gulf regions, land is subsiding, which allows the ocean to penetrate farther inland.
How quickly is land ice melting?
  • Shrinking land ice — glaciers, ice caps, and ice sheets — contributed about half of the total global sea level rise between 1972 and 2008, but its contribution has been increasing since the early 1990s as the pace of ice loss has accelerated.
  • Recent studies suggest that land ice loss added nearly half an inch to global sea level from 2003 to 2007, contributing 75 to 80 percent of the total increase during that period.
Why is there such a large range in sea level rise projections?
  • The long-term rate of global sea level rise will depend on the amount of future heat-trapping emissions and on how quickly land ice responds to rising temperatures.
  • Scientists have developed a range of scenarios for future sea level rise based on estimates of growth in heat-trapping emissions and the potential responses of oceans and ice. The estimates used for these two variables result in the wide range of potential sea level rise scenarios.
How high and how quickly will sea level rise in the future?
  • Our past emissions of heat-trapping gases will largely dictate sea level rise through 2050, but our present and future emissions will have great bearing on sea level rise from 2050 to 2100 and beyond.
  • Even if global warming emissions were to drop to zero by 2016, sea level will continue to rise in the coming decades as oceans and land ice adjust to the changes we have already made to the atmosphere.
  • The greatest effect on long-term sea level rise will be the rate and magnitude of the loss of ice sheets, primarily in Greenland and West Antarctica, as they respond to rising temperatures caused by heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere.

Global temperature rise

The latest evidences show the change in global surface temperature relative to 1951-1980 average temperatures. Sixteen of the 17 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998. The year 2016 ranks as the warmest on record. (Source: NASA/GISS). This research is broadly consistent with similar constructions prepared by the Climatic Research Unit and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.5 Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with 16 of the 17 warmest years on record occurring since 2001. Not only was 2016 the warmest year on record, but eight of the 12 months that make up the year — from January through September, with the exception of June — were the warmest on record for those respective months.

Warming oceans

As climate change has warmed the Earth, oceans have responded more slowly than land environments. But scientific research is finding that marine ecosystems can be far more sensitive to even the most modest temperature change.

Global warming caused by human activities that emit heat-trapping carbon dioxide has raised the average global temperature by about 1°F (0.6°C) over the past century. In the oceans, this change has only been about 0.18°F (0.1°C). This warming has occurred from the surface to a depth of about 2,300 feet (700 meters), where most marine life thrives.

Perhaps the ocean organism most vulnerable to temperature change is coral. There is evidence that reefs will bleach (eject their symbiotic algae) at even a slight persistent temperature rise. Bleaching slows coral growth, makes them susceptible to disease, and can lead to large-scale reef die-off.

Other organisms affected by temperature change include krill, an extremely important link at the base of the food chain. Research has shown that krill reproduce in significantly smaller numbers when ocean temperatures rise. This can have a cascading effect by disrupting the life cycle of krill eaters, such as penguins and seals—which in turn causes food shortages for higher predators.

Shrinking ice sheets

By reconciling nearly two decades of often conflicting satellite data into one format—in other words, comparing apples to apples—the new study, published in the journal Science, made a more confident estimate of what’s called ice sheet mass balance.

That refers to how much snow is deposited on an ice sheet versus how much is lost, either due to surface melting or ice breaking off glaciers.

Between 1992—when polar satellite measurements began—and 2011, the results show that all of the polar regions except for East Antarctica are losing ice, said study leader Andrew Shepherd, a professor of earth observation at the University of Leeds in the U.K.

In that 20-year span, Greenland lost 152 billion tons a year of ice, West Antarctica lost 65 billion tons a year, the Antarctic Peninsula lost 20 billion tons a year, and East Antarctica gained 14 billion tons a year. (See an interactive map of Antarctica.)

“When we did the experiments properly using the same time periods and same maps, the riddles did all agree,” Shepherd said.

According to glaciologist Alexander Robinson, “We’ve had a good idea of what the ice sheets are doing, but it seems this study really brings it all together in one data set that gives a much clearer picture.

“It’s one more piece of supporting evidence that shows there are some dramatic changes happening, and we know that’s being driven mainly by a warmer climate and warmer ocean—but there’s still a lot we don’t know about these regions and how they’re changing,” said Robinson, of the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain, who was not involved in the research.

(Read “The Big Thaw” in National Geographic magazine.)

Extreme events

Global warming is making hot days hotter, rainfall and flooding heavier, hurricanes stronger and droughts more severe. This intensification of weather and climate extremes will be the most visible impact of global warming in our everyday lives. It is also causing dangerous changes to the landscape of our world, adding stress to wildlife species and their habitat.

Ripple Effects
  • Energy Infrastructure – More weather and climate extremes are likely to impact U.S. energy security in ways that have not been adequately considered. Power outages are already becoming more common, oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf region is at risk as hurricanes and tropical storms intensify, coal transport by rail and barge across the Midwest and Northeast will face more flooding disruptions, and electricity generation in the Southwest will be limited by water shortages and more extreme heat.
  • A Disproportionate Impact – More and more Americans will be living in places highly vulnerable to weather and climate extremes as population continues to grow rapidly in cities, along the coasts and in the South. Racial and ethnic minorities will be disproportionately impacted because their populations are concentrated in these places. Furthermore, global warming will add further stress to existing problems in urban areas, in particular poverty, inequities in access to health care, aging infrastructure and air pollution.
  • More Extreme Allergies – Unchecked global warming will worsen respiratory allergies for approximately 25 million Americans. These potential impacts of global warming could have a significant economic impact: allergies and asthma already cost the United States more than $32 billion annually in direct health care costs and lost productivity.

Ocean acidification

Fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes release over six billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. The consequences of these greenhouse gas emissions are often discussed in terms of rising global temperatures, but global warming is not the only threat from increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2). Ocean acidification, which occurs when CO2 in the atmosphere reacts with water to create carbonic acid, has already increased ocean acidity by 30 percent (Doney, 2006). Although the chemistry of this effect is well understood and not much debated, the full consequences of ocean acidification for marine ecosystems and human well-being are only beginning to be revealed.

With the rise of atmospheric CO2 concentrations from the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million to 379 parts per million in 2005 (IPCC, 2007), the amount of carbon in the ocean has increased substantially and rapidly. Global data collected over several decades indicate that the oceans have absorbed at least half of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions that have occurred since 1750 (Sabine et. al. 2004). This carbon dioxide has combined with water to form carbonic acid, which, like all acids, releases hydrogen ions (H+) into solution, making ocean surface water 30 percent more acidic on average. Depending on the extent of future CO2 emissions and other factors, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) predicts that ocean acidity could increase by 150 percent by 2100.

References

  1. IPCC Fifth Assessment Report,Summary for Policymakers

B.D. Santer et.al., “A search for human influences on the thermal structure of the atmosphere,” Nature vol 382, 4 July 1996, 39-46

Gabriele C. Hegerl, “Detecting Greenhouse-Gas-Induced Climate Change with an Optimal Fingerprint Method,” Journal of Climate, v. 9, October 1996, 2281-2306

  1. Ramaswamy et.al., “Anthropogenic and Natural Influences in the Evolution of Lower Stratospheric Cooling,” Science 311 (24 February 2006), 1138-1141

B.D. Santer et.al., “Contributions of Anthropogenic and Natural Forcing to Recent Tropopause Height Changes,” Science vol. 301 (25 July 2003), 479-483.

  1. In the 1860s, physicist John Tyndall recognized the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect and suggested that slight changes in the atmospheric composition could bring about climatic variations. In 1896, a seminal paper by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first predicted that changes in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could substantially alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect.
  2. National Research Council (NRC), 2006. Surface Temperature Reconstructions For the Last 2,000 Years. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page3.php
  3. https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdfChurch, J. A. and N.J. White (2006), A 20th century acceleration in global sea level rise, Geophysical Research Letters, 33, L01602, doi:10.1029/2005GL024826.

The global sea level estimate described in this work can be downloaded from the CSIRO website.

  1. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/indicators/

http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/data/temperature

http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp

  1. https://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/news/20170118/)
  2. Levitus, et al, “Global ocean heat content 1955–2008 in light of recently revealed instrumentation problems,” Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L07608 (2009).
  3. Polyak, et.al., “History of Sea Ice in the Arctic,” in Past Climate Variability and Change in the Arctic and at High Latitudes, U.S. Geological Survey, Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment Product 1.2, January 2009, chapter 7
  4. Kwok and D. A. Rothrock, “Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICESAT records: 1958-2008,” Geophysical Research Letters, v. 36, paper no. L15501, 2009

http://nsidc.org/sotc/sea_ice.html

  1. National Snow and Ice Data Center

World Glacier Monitoring Service

  1. “Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change,” National Academies Press, 2016
    https://www.nap.edu/read/21852/chapter/1Kunkel, K. et al, “Probable maximum precipitation and climate change,” Geophysical Research Letters, (12 April 2013) DOI: 10.1002/grl.50334Kunkel, K. et al, “Monitoring and Understanding Trends in Extreme Storms: State of the Knowledge,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 2012.

    http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/extremes/cei.html

  2. http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F
  3. http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/Ocean+Acidification
  4. L. Sabine et.al., “The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2,” Science vol. 305 (16 July 2004), 367-371
  5. Copenhagen Diagnosis, p. 36.
  6. National Snow and Ice Data Center
  7. Derksen and R. Brown, “Spring snow cover extent reductions in the 2008-2012 period exceeding climate model projections,” GRL, 39:L19504

http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/sotc/snow_extent.html

Rutgers University Global Snow Lab, Data History Accessed August 29, 2011.