Mike Ko Personal Portfolio

 

Home-School Education
2001-2012
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
2014-2017
United Kingdom

University of Sussex

Master of Arts
2017-2018
United Kingdom



Writing - Original

Perspectives on Global Warming

 

                                      

 

                        From my own personal experience, the Earth seems to be getting warmer in the past decade or so. Summer felt increasingly longer and hotter now than when I was younger. In contrast, winters appeared shorter and relatively milder than before. Of course, these are just my subjective feelings, yet they also echo an important phenomenon. Around most of the globe, many are discussing the issue of climate change and its potential effects. Studies suggest that the Earth is continuously warming, and the consequences – while far-off – can be undesirable.

                        However, public opinion on the matter is still quite varied, to say the least. Some are unaware of it, others may even argue against the phenomenon. This can delay the necessary remedial action to alleviate or even reverse abnormal warming and other changes. Yet the supporting data is there; the Earth is actually warming, and that is all we need to know. Still, it may be better to take a closer look at global warming for a clearer perspective.

                        Here we shall first examine the link between global warming and another related term, climate change. We then turn briefly to some supporting data for warming climate and possible points of disputes. Next we shall look into warming’s potential effects, possible solutions and finally our inertia to use them.

Global Warming and Climate Change

                        In recent times there has been much commotion over the terms global warming and climate change. At first glance, both may seem similar to each other, yet they refer to different phenomena. Global warming refers to the recent increase in average temperature near Earth’s surface {1}. In contrast, climate change is a somewhat broader concept. By one definition, it refers to changes in average weather due to human-caused alterations to atmospheric composition. These changes are on top of those due to natural climate variability in similar time scales {2}.

                        While they technically refer to different things, global warming and climate change are related through an obvious link. If the Earth’s temperature increases, it can cause significant, corresponding changes to Earth’s climate. In other words, global warming shall cause climate change, thus referring to one often implies the other. Climate change and other results of global warming can lead to significant and possibly disastrous effects for humanity. Hence it is imperative to determine whether we truly have global warming.

Warming and its Cause

                        By looking at various data, it seems that the Earth actually is warming. In the 100-year period between 1906 and 2005, global surface temperature increased on average by 0.74 ºC. Plus, this warming trend is expected to continue. Relative to the 1980 – 1999 period, surface air temperature is expected to rise by 1.1 ºC to 2.9 ºC by the twenty first-century’s end {3}.

While a several degree temperature increase may seem mild, it can ultimately cause substantial changes. Furthermore, studies suggest that abnormally hot weather is becoming more widespread. Specifically, summertime hot weather anomalies (>3 standard deviations from the norm) covered 4% to 13% of the globe during 2006-2011. In contrast, there were practically no such anomalies during the period of 1951 – 1980 {4}.

                        So the Earth is warming, but what is the cause? As often mentioned nowadays, this trend is partly – if not mainly - caused by an increase in greenhouse gases. Such gases trap heat within Earth’s atmosphere, which is referred by the aptly named greenhouse effect. If the amount of greenhouse gases increases in the atmosphere, more heat gets trapped, and the Earth warms.

                        That is what precisely has happened. Since around 1750, there has been a steady, abnormal increase in greenhouse gases – mainly in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). Estimates show that global CO2 levels has increased to 379 parts per million (ppm) by 2005, compared to 275 - 285 ppm in the pre-industrial (1000 – 1970) period (which corresponds to about a 36% increase) {3}. This increase can be logically explained by human activities.

                        Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have intensively burned fossil fuels and engaged in various activities that emit CO2 (say, deforestation). Such actions are the major cause of increased CO2 emissions, which in turn contributes to global warming. This view is supported by scientists from various fields. In fact, national science academies and societies in various countries have issued several joint statements over the years. These recognize that human activities are increasing greenhouse gases, thus causing climate change, and that remedial action is vital {5} {6}.

Scientific vs. Public Opinion

                        The case for human-caused global warming seems quite sound, if scientists’ opinions are any guide. Besides, even without looking at substantial evidence, our contribution to increasing temperatures through greenhouse gases appears reasonable. In contrast, public opinion (and sometimes a few scientists) on global warming are somewhat different. In fact, a 2009 survey found that more than a third of the world populace is unaware of global warming {7}. However, improving awareness can easily be done through better education of the public. A more important aspect is when people (both laypeople and scientists) reject global warming or some aspects of it.

                        As relevant data trends show that temperatures are indeed rising, outright denial of global warming is irrational by now. However, the actual cause may seem more debatable to some. One possible – and obvious – argument is that global warming is not human-caused. Current global warming and consequent impacts are entirely due to natural factors. A similar line of reasoning states that the true contributing factors to global warming are unknown.

                        Certainly correlated temperature increases and CO2 is not conclusive evidence that the former causes the latter. Yet it is also quite inconceivable that the aberrant greenhouse gases increase has no decisive effect on temperature. As we are the cause of such increased emissions, it is unreasonable to deny human-caused warming.

                        Yet even if (for arguments’ sake) the true causes are uncertain, perhaps human-caused warming critics have other reasons to cease their attacks. For one thing, the bottom line is that the Earth is warming. If nothing is done to alleviate it, resulting climate change shall become a serious threat to humanity. Hence we ought to focus on countering and preparing for the imminent changes. Skeptics, at least, should keep this in mind when rejecting that global warming is due to human activities. Indeed, society really must start considering and implementing necessary measures to deal with global warming’s effects. As we shall now see, these can be quite serious and even threatening.

Consequences of Global Warming

                        One of global warming’s consequence, as mentioned earlier, is climate change. An obvious effect is raised average temperature and possibly more hot weather anomalies, like heat waves. Apart from temperature, warming (even for a few degrees) also affects other climate-related phenomena. For instance, raised temperatures shall increase evaporation, which in turn alters rain and wind patterns. These can then exacerbate associated and undesirable extreme weather events, including flooding from increased precipitation, drought, hurricanes and tornados. Even by themselves, such climate changes are likely to have a negative effect on our lives. Other impacts include hotter living conditions and effects on necessities like water and food supply.

                        Yet climate change is actually just one of the consequences due to warming. Increased temperatures have also been steadily melting the Earth’s arctic sea ice, ice caps and glaciers. Apart from altering Earth’s physical landscape, such melting has another effect. When melted, ice and snow from the above sources ultimately have one place to go: the ocean. This leads to another issue caused by warming: rising sea levels. From 1993 to 2004, total melted ice has contributed to an estimated sea level rise of 0.6 to 1.8 millimeters per year (or an average of 14.4 millimeters altogether). Thermal expansion of water shall also contribute to rising sea levels. Under relatively low emission projections, global sea levels by the mid-2090s are expected to be 0.22 – 0.44 meters above 1990 levels {3}. Rising sea levels is certainly not a good thing. Low-lying areas across the globe – like the Maldives and the Netherlands – shall face issues like decreased land and increased flooding.

                        Of course, all of such changes to Earth’s physical environment shall certainly have a serious impact on nature. The polar bear is a well-known example, with melting ice threatening their foothold in the Arctic literally. However, if warming continues, even more species must adapt in terms of habitats and physiology. At the extreme, those who cannot adapt to new climate or physical conditions shall become extinct. This extinction can then affect other species, causing a ripple effect through entire ecosystems.

                        Note that some may argue that warming in some places can also have beneficial effects. While partly true, this may simply be a redistribution of benefits around different places of the Earth. Certain places might benefit from global warming, but simultaneously other regions shall face its negative consequences. Besides, the gains from warmer weather may not be enough to outweigh the costs.

                        Altogether, the outcomes of human-induced warming can inflict serious costs on humanity and the planet’s stability in general. To avoid these consequences of global warming, human society must confront this significant issue now. This can be done through mainly two approaches: prevent or adapt. Yet it seems that both methods face quite a few hurdles.

Two Remedial Approaches: Prevent and Adapt

                        To tackle global warming, the most direct approach is to act on its main cause: greenhouse gas. If we reduce greenhouse gases emissions – particularly its main driver, CO2 – then we can stop global warming. For CO2, emissions are mainly due to burning fossil fuels for energy. So if we reduce our demand for energy, we can lower CO2 emissions. However, that is easier said than done, given that CO2 emissions comes from various areas of modern society.

                        Two major sources are electricity generation and transportation, both of which burns fossil fuels and hence releases CO2. These two processes themselves are literally the crucial pillars of a functional society. Almost everything we do in this age involves electricity, while transportation is indispensable in this globalised age. Any emission reductions involving these two aspects shall require radical changes, significant innovations, or both. As a result, scaling back society’s energy demand shall be quite difficult, if not futile.

                        Deforestation is also a source of CO2 emissions. Trees can trap CO2 inside their forms, yet these shall be released when the trees are felled. Main causes of deforestation are demand for either the wood or land. However, the latter is likely to be a more significant and problematic factor in the future. This is due to our continuously increasing human populations {8} plus the consequent increase in food demand. More people require more land to sustain them. Considering such factors, it may be hard to reduce deforestation and its consequent CO2 emissions.

                        If lowering CO2 emissions directly proves problematic, perhaps we can do it more indirectly? In other words, we can modify various processes of modern society so that they emit less or even no CO2. A highly touted method is developing renewable energies like wind and solar power. These alternatives for generating energy without CO2 emissions shall effectively prevent further global warming. However, at this stage, such technologies are not effective enough for them to be implemented at large scales. Further developments and innovations are certainly required, but these can rarely be predicted with certainty. Another approach is to raise our daily activities’ energy efficiency and reduce unnecessary power consumption. This may be relatively more manageable for society to achieve. Yet whether we are willing to do so is slightly doubtful, given such measures small or intangible short-term benefits.

                        Taking a step backwards, perhaps we can consider riding out the (heat) wave? Maybe we can adapt our lifestyles and practices to the hotter weather and other changes? Actually, preparing to make these adaptations is absolutely necessary, in the event that global warming continues unabated. Yet there is certainly still time for humans to reduce warming, given that we are its main cause.

                        In direct contrast, some may even ask whether an urgency to alleviate warming is called for. Yet there actually is such a need, as modifying atmospheric components (CO2 in this case) and its effects takes time. Even if society eliminated all greenhouse gas emissions, the planet’s systems need time to respond and reflect such changes.

                        Apparently, most methods aimed at lowering CO2 emissions are a great undertaking, either due to technical or social factors. Yet given global warming’s potential costs, it is in society’s best interest to confront it with a multi-pronged approach. Obviously, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced both directly and indirectly. Outright reduction may involve fundamental changes to our lifestyles, like how we use energy and transportation. Although we may not be willing carry them out, such reductions are ultimately necessary. Technological advances can also lower or eliminate CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, although there are no guarantees. At the same time, we must be prepared to adapt to unavoidable consequences of global warming. By proceeding with this strategy, we can minimize global warming’s undesired effects as much as possible.

                        However, examine society today and the lack of measures to combat or even adapt to global warming becomes apparent. Lack of awareness may be partly to blame, but what about for those who are aware? There are many ways to reduce global warming, yet there seems to be a significant inertia against using them. Of course, each method faces a range of obstacles, a few of which are described above. Yet these are not insurmountable, especially if we are ready to change, say our lifestyle or investment allocations. Yet society is precisely lacking in such willingness to change. Why, then, is society so sluggish and reluctant to deal with a critical, threatening issue like global warming?

Addressing Societal Inertia

                        The major culprit is simply because we have no incentive to change. Global warming’s impacts are relatively mild at this stage, and we have yet to experience the nastier, long-term consequences. For now, Earth’s weather is still reasonably tolerable, there are no mass extinctions, and the Maldives are still above water.

                        Furthermore, most actions done to alleviate global warming incur immediate monetary costs and lifestyle disruptions. Yet returns are only paid back in the long-term. For example, reducing power consumption (hence greenhouse gas emissions) requires changes to society’s various practices and economic expenses. However, the benefit from doing so is the gradual reduction of invisible greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In addition, gains are often overly distributed across society to give appreciable gains. Improving energy efficiency and reducing unnecessary power use probably results in meager reductions to one’s electricity bill. These are certainly not enticing conditions for making both radical and trivial changes to lifestyle or economic commitments. Generally, measures to tackle global warming often appears as short-term lose-lose obligations in economic and social terms.

                        Yet if we do nothing today, the consequences of global warming shall be realized, perhaps by this century’s end. By then, there is nothing we can do effectively do against the altered conditions but adapt (and perhaps suffer). Perhaps our descendants shall bemoan that our short-sightedness has left them with potentially avoidable misery. Although difficult, humanity must now pry its eyes off the short-term and heed the impending problems of global warming.

                        So how can humanity convince itself to prevent and adapt to global warming? Clearly, an important step is to increase our awareness about the impacts of human-caused warming. Through understanding warming’s (mostly undesirable) consequences, we shall be more prepared to accept the alleviating measures’ short-term costs. Green activists and organizations can be vocal advocates in this respect, advertising the effects and solutions to global warming. However, their arguments can sometimes seem insufficiently convincing, dogmatic, lopsided, and mostly aimed at appeasing popular public sentiment.

                        Advocacy for lessening global warming might become more effective if scientists can give impartial and broader analytical perspectives. It is essential that scientists can clearly educate the public about the relevant facts and imminent dangers. Still, it ultimately falls to the public to comprehend the long-term consequences and the need for preventive and adaptive actions.

                        Increased awareness can also come about through gradual increases in experiencing the effects of global warming. That may probably be the best way to convince the public to take action against warming. Of course, humanity may want to avoid this method rather undesirable mode of education as much as possible.

                        With a more sympathetic public, we can then further boost motivation by offering artificial incentives. Carbon pricing is a notable example, which is actually a collection of economic schemes. These can either limit or discourage CO2 emissions, or encourage development of renewable energy. Implementing these and other kinds of supportive initiatives can then further enhance our willingness to halt global warming. Visionary governments can play a vital role in this respect. Yet political reality means that public backing is essential. Otherwise, “green” politicians shall be promptly dismissed by short-sighted constituents.

A Bleak Future?

                        This whole article actually paints a somewhat pessimistic picture about global warming. Consequences can eventually be quite severe, yet society still seems unprepared to deal with the potential future realities. Plus, enacting methods for combating the problem appears beset by a mountain of barriers. Even if awareness of the issue is effectively increased, a supportive public sentiment is by no means guaranteed. Yet society – or a part of it, at least – must move in such a direction regardless of the unfavorable odds. It shall determine the fate of humanity as well as for the whole planet. That is a very large responsibility for one species’ shoulders. Whether humanity’s shoulders and resolve are strong enough to bear it remains to be seen.


                                                                                                                                                                  Mike Ko
                                                                                                                                                                  ( 2,944 words )

Sources:

 

    1. “Glossary of Climate Change Terms“; United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved August 7, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/glossary.html
    2. “Glossary of Terms used in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report”; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved August 7, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr_appendix.pdf
    3. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007” by Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, et all; Cambridge University Press
    4. “Perception of climate change” by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy, 2012; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved August 9, 2012 from the World Wide Web:http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/07/30/1205276109.full.pdf+html
    5. “Joint science academies’ statement: Global response to climate change” 2005. Retrieved August 12, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2005/9649.pdf
    6. “G8+5 Academies’ joint statement: Climate change and the transformation of energy technologies for a low carbon future” 2009. Retrieved August 12, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2009/7871.pdf
    7. “Awareness, Opinions About Global Warming Vary Worldwide” by Brett Pelham, 2009; Gallup, Inc. Retrieved August 12, 2012 from the World Wide Web:
      http://www.gallup.com/poll/117772/Awareness-Opinions-Global-Warming-Vary-Worldwide.aspx#1
    8. “World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision”, Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat

Back to Top