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Effects of Climate Change and Solutions

Introduction

Climate change is has been acknowledged to be a global environmental problem that threatens the security of individuals, societies, and states alike. While there are many causes of climate change, it is a widely accepted fact that man’s Industrialization efforts which have taken place over the course of the last two centuries are the major cause of the climate changes that we are currently experiencing. Scientists affirm that in recent years, Green House Gases (GHGs) are the major causes of global warming as they trap heat from the sun in the atmosphere leading to a rise in temperatures and unpredictable changes in the world’s climatic conditions. These changes have resulted in many severe problems including desertification, acid rain, and the rising of ocean levels. Researcher projects that climate change will continue to affect humanity for the next 50 to100 years (Meehl et al. 2598). The mechanics of climate change can be explained in an elementary manner as: the sun shines on the earths surface and it is reflected in form of infrared heat into space. Climate change is propagated when the infrared heat is prevented from escaping into space by greenhouse gas emissions. While this greenhouse effect is important to maintain the earths temperature, excess Greenhouse emissions are pushing this effect to alarming levels.

Radiative forcing is used in the comparison of human and natural factors that drive climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas of concern and is responsible for much of the climate change experienced. CO2 remains the leading anthropogenic greenhouse gas and the global concentration of the gas in the atmosphere has grown from 280 ppm to 379 ppm cubed in 2005 (Meehl et al. 2598). The increase in COemissions has been greatest in the past decade with emissions averaging 1.9 ppm per year between 1995 to 2005. The primary source of CO2 in the post-industrial revolution era has been fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have been necessary to cater to the increased energy consumption that has resulted from the strong economic growth exhibited by industrialized countries. The second leading source of CO2 has been the change in land use. However, changes in land use are responsible for a significantly small amount of the overall CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels. Other GHGs emitted by human activities include nitrous oxide, methane, carbon dioxide, and halocarbons (fluorine, chlorine, and bromine).

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It was majorly because of the grave threat that GHGs posed to the environment that many nations under the United Nations agreed to be signatories under the Kyoto protocol. This Protocol is an agreement that sets binding targets for the industrialized countries who endorse it to reduce their GHG emissions by specific percentages (Hackett 256). All signatories of this protocol agreed to work both individually and jointly in ensuring that total GHGs emissions are reduced by more than 5 percent below the 1990 levels.

Greenhouse Gases

GHGs are important for regulating the temperature of the earth in the lower atmosphere and without these gases, the radiation from the sun would be lost to space. Muller asserts that if the earth did not have an internal system to maintain the heat from the sun, the results could be catastrophic (66). The GHGs prevent all the sun’s radiation from being lost and the earth is, therefore, able to stay warm even when the sun is not there (at night). While GHGs are essential for survival on earth, their excess presence is detrimental. CO2 is to blame for the increase in GHGs in the earth’s atmosphere. This increase in CO2 is mostly attributed to the over-reliance on fossil fuels as a source of energy in transportation, house heating, cooling, and in industries. Deforestation has also contributed to the increase in CO2 since it has promoted the release of carbon dioxide while reducing its consumption by plants.

Methane has also been highlighted as an important GHG. Its increased emission has been catalyzed by human activities related to agriculture, landfills, and natural gas distribution. Relative to CO2, methane emission rates have not increased as significantly over the past decade (Luterbacher 4). Oxides of nitrogen also have some greenhouse effect. These gases are emitted in Large Combustion Plants when nitrogen and oxygen in the combustion air mix with one another at high temperatures in a flame. They are also emitted when we use fertilizer in our farms.

Another albeit more contained source of GHGs is halocarbons which are associated with human activities in the extensive use of chlorofluorocarbons as refrigeration agents in addition to other industrial processes. The use of chlorofluorocarbon gases has been on a steady decline due to mounting pressure to protect the ozone layer. Another gas that is hazardous to the environment is the ozone, a greenhouse gas that has been continuously produced and destroyed in the atmosphere through chemical reactions. Human activities have worsened the ozone problem through the release of gases like carbon, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide, which react chemically to create ozone (Sturges et al. 612).

Water remains the most abundant yet most useful greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. While water vapor is naturally available in the atmosphere, human activities also influence its percentage. As a result of human activities, the temperature of the globe has risen which has led to increased evaporation and hence higher levels of water vapor in the atmosphere. In addition to this, methane emissions which undergo chemical destruction in the stratosphere result in the production of a small percentage of water vapor (Forster et al. 6).

Historical and current lows and highs in carbon dioxide emissions

Latest data posted by NOAA: November 16, 2011
This CO2Now worksheet was produced using the “Interpolated CO2” column in the “NOAA-ESRL Dataset” worksheet.
Year Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2002-2011 1.92 2.03 2.05 2.06 2.14 2.03 2.03 2.00 1.99 2.02 2.03 2.00
1992-2001 1.55 1.46 1.49 1.56 1.42 1.54 1.50 1.53 1.56 1.54 1.53 1.54
1982-1991 1.60 1.66 1.56 1.54 1.58 1.51 1.55 1.54 1.52 1.55 1.58 1.60
1972-1981 1.28 1.23 1.32 1.27 1.34 1.36 1.30 1.28 1.30 1.29 1.32 1.32
1962-1971 0.86 0.90 0.93 0.91 0.80 0.81 0.82 0.88 0.89 0.93 0.90 0.89
2001-2010 1.88 1.84 1.92 1.85 1.94 1.91 1.86 1.91 1.99 1.90 1.93 1.92
1991-2000 1.52 1.57 1.58 1.54 1.49 1.50 1.53 1.53 1.49 1.51 1.52 1.52
1981-1990 1.67 1.66 1.57 1.66 1.69 1.61 1.64 1.60 1.61 1.62 1.62 1.61
1971-1980 1.22 1.22 1.25 1.23 1.17 1.24 1.17 1.19 1.16 1.23 1.24 1.27
1961-1970 0.84 0.80 0.89 0.89 0.90 0.86 0.93 0.89 0.85 0.85 0.81 0.85

Radiative Forcing

Radiative forcing is used to evaluate the factors that can cause climate change. It measures how the energy balance of the earths atmosphere system reacts to the factors affecting climate change. Radiative forcing uses the change in the rate of energy per unit area of the globe and is measured in watts per square meter. When the relative forcing from a factor or group of factors is evaluated as positive, the earths atmosphere energy system will lead to the warming of the system. On the other hand, when the radiative forcing is negative, the earths energy will decrease leading to the cooling of the system.

Radiative Forcing of Factors Affected by anthropogenic activities

Human activities significantly affect long-life gases like ozone, contrails, water vapor, aerosols, and surface albedo. Positive forcings from all GHGs have led to climate warming that we are currently experiencing. From the table above, it can be seen that CO2 increases in the recent past are responsible for the largest forcings experienced in the history of mankind. While tropospheric increases in ozone have amplified global warming, the stratospheric decreases in ozone have resulted in global cooling.

Radiative Forcing arising from Natural Changes

Human activities are not the only cause of increases in Radiactive forcings. Natural occurrences such as explosive volcanic eruptions and solar changes are also responsible for these changes. Meehl et al document that solar output has been exhibiting variations with fluctuations being recorded in the past two centuries (2602). During the industrialization era, solar output has gradually increased leading to a small but positive radiative forcing. In addition to this, the sun also experiences changes in its radiation cycle. Because solar energy is responsible for the warming of the earth’s surface, it can influence the atmospheric presence of GHGs. Volcanic eruptions can also create short-term negative forcings that last between 2-3 years leading to a short-term increase in the stratospheres sulfate aerosol (Meehl et al. 2598). The last major eruption was in 1991 when Mt. Pinatubo erupted and since then there has not been another major eruption. The stratosphere is therefore currently free of volcanic aerosol.

It can therefore be stated with relative certainty that there is no major difference between the current forcing estimates and those that existed in the pre-industrial era. Variations in volcanoes and solar irradiance are significantly small. However, the differences in radiative estimates that have been as a result of human activities are astonishingly high. As a result, current and future climatic changes will largely be affected by human activities relative to the radiative forcing that are likely to occur from natural processes.

Sources of Energy Advantages and Disadvantages

Fossil fuels remain the single largest source of energy and developed countries make up the major consumers of these fuels. Statistics from the National Energy Foundation reveal that the US alone accounted for 26% of the total world consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas as of 1999 (Luterbacher 4). It is projected that by the year 2030 oil, natural gas, and coal will account for 87 percent of the total worlds energy demand compared to 85 percent in the year 2000.

The reason why fossil fuels are preferred over other sources is that these fuels are available in large quantities, safer to use relative to nuclear power and yield more energy relative to renewable sources. In spite of these obvious advantages, fossil fuels are non-renewable and result in environmental degradation. Alternative sources of energy such as nuclear power do not result in the same kind of environmental degradation but it is more expensive to set up nuclear power plants. Biomass which is a fuel produced through biological processes is environmentally friendly and renewed but it lacks the capability to meet the needs of modern society.

Impact of Climate Change

The impacts of climate change have been acknowledged by governments all over the world. These impacts have been mostly adverse and to make matters worse, there is a common scientific consensus that the negative effects of climatic changes will significantly affect the earths future generations. Forster et al. demonstrate that anthropogenic climate change has the potential to cause both weather changes and destroy natural and human systems (131). The potential damages extend to ecosystems, human settlements, and even political institutions. The fact that climate change as a topic has dominated research subjects in science demonstrates the sombreness with which this issue is regarded.

Climate change has been held responsible for the prevalence of some diseases in the past decade. The IPCC reports that climate changes significantly contribute to the global disease burden and premature deaths. This is because human beings are vulnerable to climatic changes through variations in weather. Indirectly, climate change results in death and diseases by affecting the economy, agriculture, and human settlements. McMichael et al. (333) report that in Australia climate changes have led to the rise in heatwave-associated deaths. Many people have died due to drowning caused by floodwaters which result from the rise in sea levels caused by melting glaciers (McMichael et al 340). There is also a high likelihood that climate changes will create environmental refugees in the most island and coastal regions as sea levels rise. Meehl theorizes that if nothing is done to mitigate global warming, most of the coastal settlements will be uninhabitable by the year 2030 (2603).

In addition to the myriad of health issues augmented by climate changes, the world has experienced a number of major storms and flood disasters in the past two decades. In 1999, 30,000 people in Venezuela died from storm and flood landslides that were caused by phenomenal downpours. In 2003, approximately 130 million Chinese were affected by floods that were related to climate changes in the region (EM-DAT 5). While efforts have been made to reduce the damages and fatalities that arise from climate-related problems, the social and health impacts of weather disasters on human beings are still significant.

A region that has suffered significantly from climate change is the Polar region and as it is, the most noticeable effect of climate change is the significant rise in sea level as the polar caps meltdown at the earth’s poles. Vinje notes that the Arctic and the Antarctic have both been affected by the increase in global temperatures (271). The volume of the sea ice has declined in the Arctic at an astounding 2.9 percent per decade between the period 1978 and 1976. The thinning of the sea ice has brought to a halt the melt days that were experienced every summer. In addition to this, the water flowing from the Atlantic to the Arctic has been warming leading to thinning of the ice cover. Regions within the permafrost have reduced in size and there has been a notable rise in the ground temperatures over the years.

The Antarctic region has also undergone various changes. Vinje reveals that the ice shells, which were a common feature in this area, have largely retreated and collapsed as a result of regional warming (271). It is projected that this warming will continue further in the southern parts leading to the breaking of ice shelves that will have serious consequences for humans since it will introduce exotic animals and plants. In the southern ocean, climate change has altered sea ice extent and is likely to negatively impact the levels of seafood. Marine lives such as coral reefs which are sensitive to heat changes have died off as a result of the rise in seawater temperatures. Equally, the marine birds and mammals which have a culture of breeding in particular sites will be affected by the movements of their foraging habitats and the migration of their prey. Vinje projects that a significant loss of sea ice will occur in the Arctic Ocean due to global warming which will result in new sea routes being opened (265).

Solutions Addressing the Bigger Picture

While the problem of climate change seems daunting and its consequences dire, there are solutions that can be implemented to mitigate the issue. Vehicular emissions are some of the biggest causes of GHGs in the world. A feasible solution is therefore in the form of cutting the metropolitan vehicle distance traveled by every individual. This can be achieved through expanding the light rail lines, expanding the public transport system, levying a certain amount of fees on those who drive, and making the streets friendly to those who ride bicycles and pedestrians. In addition, the government should purchase vehicles, which are efficient to operate in cities for instance those that omit low or no carbon dioxide. Some governments such as Singapore offer Tax rebates to hybrid and electric car owners during purchase.

The second strategy is the promotion of energy efficiency focus is directed towards energy saving and reduced use of electricity, petroleum fuels, and natural gas. Such measures will result in reduced CO2 emissions since the emission of these gases is dependent on the amount of energy that people use.

Renewable energy sources can also be utilized since these sources have a less adverse effect on the environment. It is a fact that modern human civilization is built on and continues to be dependent on large quantities of energy to sustain it. At the present, fossil fuels are the primary source of energy for man. These sources are largely responsible for adverse effects on the environment due to their COemissions. Renewable energy sources can enhance the energy security for many nations as well as mitigate environmental effects caused by fossil fuels.

Trees have long been acknowledged to play a role in controlling the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. An emphasis, therefore, needs to be placed on tree planning and the maintenance of the already existing trees. Governments can come up with laws that require industries and towns to plant trees that act as carbon sinks thus reducing pollution levels. Muller demonstrates the importance that trees play by documenting that in Hawaii, the CO2 levels in summer are low because they are consumed by the plants (65). This is in contrast to the winter periods where the CO2 levels are high since the tree leaves have been shed.

Over the years, it has been demonstrated that new architectural designs and choices in building materials can help retard global warming. With this consideration, governments can come up with laws that stipulate that industries, commercial and residential houses should be built using materials that are eco-friendly (Loper 1). More effective and efficient water and waste treatment methods should also be incorporated in the new buildings to help reduce the carbon footprint.

Major transformations have been witnessed among business leaders over the past decade as they have become increasingly informed on the issue of climate change. There are several case studies that indicate that firms are taking measures to tackle climate change. Dupont and BP 2006 entered into a partnership to manufacture butanol; a bio fuel with greater energy content than ethanol. The companies project that through this project, Dupont will reduce its fossil fuel usage by up to 60 percent. In Japan, Toyota has become a leader in the manufacture of clean-energy cars. For example, Toyota emphasizes fuel-centric cars, electric cars, and compressed natural gas.

To properly address the challenge of CO2 emissions, there is a need to adopt low carbon technology. Several organizations have taken measures towards this, a good example being the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which has promoted clean energy programs in various parts of Asia by shifting towards lower-carbon energy production. By the year 2013, it hopes to double its clean energy investments to $2 billion annually. Many of its programs are in China, Nepal, the Philippines, and Pakistan. In India, two wind energy projects have been set up through the help of ADB. This is significant because the levels of carbon emissions by India and China accounted for 20% of annual global carbon emissions as of 1999.

Changes in the agricultural sector can also aid in addressing the CO2 emissions problem. A report by the IPCC indicates that if farmers in the United States took cost-effective cuts in nitrous oxide, then the total green gas emissions could be reduced by 5 percent (4). On a global level, almost a third of the total GHGs emissions come from agriculture. Grazing land and hay land can be better managed to reduce the impact of climate change. Conant et al. estimate that rates of soil carbon can increase within the range of 0.1 to 3 t/ha in one year under different management improvements (343). There is also a need to adopt land-use changes to increase the amount of soil carbon. This can be achieved by converting agricultural lands into forests. This has the additional advantage of creating woody biomass. Post and Kwon (321) found out that the following afforestation, stocks of soil carbon increased by 0.35 t/ha in one year.

Reasons for Hope

Governments, industries, and the business community have made moves that indicate that they are ready to tackle the climate challenges that pose a risk to our planet. Specifically, climate change issues have taken center stage in many government policies as can be deduced by the recently held Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Nations have come together to deliberate on ways to manage and mitigate the climate changes that threaten the whole of mankind. Through binding agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, nations have set targets on their GHG emissions and strived to achieve them for the good of humanity.

The business community has not been left behind in these crucial efforts. It is estimated that more than 13,000 firms and other non-governmental organizations are engaged in climate-related partnership programs. These companies have invested hugely in the supply of clean energy, energy efficiency, and other initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of climate change. Such efforts have not only benefited the environment and the people but also the companies themselves. A number of companies have indeed proved that from their efforts they reaped value in energy cost savings, increased their operating efficiencies, widened their market opportunities, and enhanced both their brand and corporate reputation.

In the year 2003, a carbon disclosure project was launched to allow institutional investors to collectively endorse a global request through which companies will disclose their green gas emissions to the public. In addition, the companies are required to report their climate strategies. Such a move not only enhances accountability but also sets the standards which if followed universally can reduce carbon emissions with positive impacts on the environment.

While tackling climate change, businesses are benefiting from the opportunities presented by climate-friendly businesses. A case in point is Goldman Sachs, which in the year 2005 acquired the largest wind power developer in the United States. After the acquisition, if financed a $ 60 million project to manufacture rooftop solar systems. Later in the same year, it set aside an additional $ 1 billion to finance the development of renewable energy and projects that are energy efficient. These sources are to act as alternatives to the use of existing oil and natural gas sources.

Companies in the energy and technology sectors are also playing a great role in combating climate change. For example, GE doubled its investments in environmental technologies in 2010 and it is estimated that BP will inject up to $ 8 billion in the generation of wind, hydrogen, and solar power. Other firms like GTE Energy have set up massive recovery programs to reduce the impact of climate change.GTE Energy initiated 29 landfills to recover greenhouse gases across the United States. Through this initiative, it will recover methane and use it to produce steam or electricity after converting it into pipeline quality gas. Through GTE efforts, the amount of global warming reduced equates to an estimated annual emission of four large coal power plants.

Another example that points to the fact that the battle against climate change can be worn is the PG&E Corporation. From the early 1990s, this company has successfully managed to save more than 138 million megawatts of electricity and prevented 80 million tons of COemissions into the atmosphere. Furthermore, its new climate protection program allows its customers to fund CO2 reduction projects by paying a premium over their monthly bills.

Industries have also made positive contributions in the fight to mitigate climate change by adopting energy-efficient means. For example, Alcoa reduced its GHGs emissions by reducing the amount of electric energy required to produce a ton of aluminum. This move not only benefited the company but also saved it millions of dollars. The company has also diversified the aviation and automobile industries with strong but lightweight materials that reduce energy consumption in the latter two sectors. With the ever-increasing pressures for companies to cut greenhouse gases associated with transportation, Alcoa expects its sales volumes to grow significantly.

Conclusion

Over the past two decades, man has been forced to recognize that a fragile balance exists between him and the environment. The detrimental practices such as deforestation and air pollution have resulted in climate changes which pose a threat to mankind’s survival. The current generation cannot afford to use ignorance the issue any further since there is evidence that if climate change is not mitigated, dire consequences will be faced by future generations. The most important reality of our time is the danger that climate change poses to us and the future generation if we do not act. The danger is twofold; first, our own development as human beings is threatened. Though climate change affects all countries, the most affected are those with the least resources to cope. This catastrophe is already unfolding in our society today and if left unattended to it will lead to the reversal of human development gains in the 21st century.

Climate change is a great risk not just for developing nations but for the entire planet. The future of humankind is also jeopardized if climate changes continue to occur unmitigated. Unless actions are taken now, the world is on the course of an ecological disaster of epic proportions. While uncertainties exist as to the speed of global warming and its specific impacts, the disappearance of the great ice shelves, ocean warming, and the disappearance of rainforest systems are real outcomes that everyone can see. Like the current generation, we should take precautionary measures aimed at climate change mitigation.

This paper has noted that while there is no single solution to deal with the climate change problem, one of the most effective solutions is in taking measures to diminish greenhouse gases by lowering the consumption of fossil fuels. We know that at the center of the problem lies the earths capacity to properly absorb CO2 and other greenhouse emissions. The current generation knows enough about climate change and cannot claim ignorance. Lindqvist articulates it best by stating that the current generation has less than a decade not to contemplate on whether to act but to start the shift to low carbon energy systems (4).

Business leaders and governments are already taking a lead in addressing climate change both at the industry level and through policy formulation and implementation. These parties now agree that regulations are necessary to control the effects of GHGs emissions. They agree that if climate policies are properly designed, all businesses will have no alternative other than to be more responsible. Long-term initiatives aimed at addressing climate change are costly but such action by both the political and business leaders and the society as a whole will see results in the form of higher economic prosperity for countries and a safer environment for humanity.

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