Are our political leaders doing something about climate change, or do they plan to? As a custodians of our nation and people, are they thinking ahead about our children and their children?
The established facts include that for three million years, Carbon dioxide (CO2) has been at a concentration of less than 3 molecules per 10,000 in the atmosphere. Analysis of air trapped in ice cores drilled in Greenland and Antarctica confirms this.
The level of atmospheric CO2 over this time was primarily controlled by the seasonal growth cycle of plants – inhalation during growth and exhalation during leaf decay. The balance was absorbed by the ocean and used by algae to build carbonates.
Human activity currently pumps 30 billion tons of CO2 per annum into the atmosphere. Volcanoes contribute less than 500 million tons, thus accounting for less than 2% of total emissions. We can tell because volcanic CO2 has a specific atomic signature.
From 1880 to now, the burning of fossil fuels to power our civilisation has caused the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to increase by 40%.
CO2 is a so-called “greenhouse gas” in that it traps some of the heat radiation leaving the earth, with the result that the air, land and sea get hotter. CO2 is a mixed blessing – too little and the earth would be frozen; too much and it would be a runaway inferno like Venus.
There’s a mistaken belief that if we have a cooler or hotter decade, this says: “No, we don’t have climate change with higher temperatures”; or “Yes, we do”. But the truth is that weather is not the same as climate because climate is the average of weather over a much longer time.
So, then, are we getting hotter over the long term? The answer is yes: a NASA chart starting at 1880 tracking temperatures clearly shows an increase in global temperature; an increase to date of about 1 degree Celsius. The rate of this increase correlates closely with the rate of industrial fossil burning.
We can’t blame the sun. There has been no abnormal change in solar output for more than a century. Moreover, one of the predicted consequences of increased CO2 in the atmosphere is that the earth warms more at night and during the winter. The only reasonable explanation for the increase in heat is the atmospheric CO2 caused by human activity.
Increased heat causes severe environmental problems: heat-waves, drought, famine, wild storms/fires, extinctions, melting glaciers and polar ice, loss of habitable land due to rising sea levels and loss of coral reefs.
There is an observed, positive feed-back loop with polar ice. As it melts, the larger area of ice-free water reflects less solar energy back into space, instead getting hotter, which in turn further melts the polar ice.
In another loop, permafrost areas in Alaska, Canada and Siberia are thawing. The resultant rotting of vegetation could potentially double atmospheric CO2 by the end of the century. It also releases methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.
Such vicious cycles show that our planet’s climate stability is a delicate balance; that we may be approaching a tipping point beyond which the consequences may be disastrous for future generations.
This is a summary of the facts and arguments presented by cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson in his “Cosmos” series.
I ask our elected representatives, if you’re a leader of people and opinion. Are you doing something about climate change, or plan to?
I ask this of you as a custodian of our nation and people, are you thinking ahead about our children and their children?
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