The world's ecological issues have been studied intensely by scientists in various academic disciplines vigorously for many years and have been greatly accelerated in recent decades. The level of understanding about how natural systems on the planet operate has become immensely sophisticated. Although there are still some issues that remain puzzling, on the whole, scientists have a fairly good understanding of the planets natural systems function. In recent years much of the research has been aided the technological advancements in computing power which allows for modeling systems such as the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and land area use. In fact the knowledge base has grown to a point in which scientist can predict with some accuracy the future of how the natural systems will be affected through the natural changes in these systems coupled with the human interactions that work to alter many of these systems.
Climate change, which is also commonly referred to as global warming, is a phenomenon that deals with the alteration of the natural climate systems primarily through human emissions of greenhouse gases. The alteration of the climate stands the potential not only to threaten many species around the world by changing their natural habitats, but climate change also has the potential to alter the climate of the earth making inhospitable to humans as well. Although humans are incredibly adaptable creatures, which are one of the reasons this species has been so successful, the limitations of the planet to support the exponentially growing human population are growing narrower. The limitations of the natural systems to provide resources are becoming increasingly more salient and this field of research has caught the attention of scientists all over the world for many decades. With the world population recently climbing to over seven billion people, many researchers are questioning the natural ecosystem's ability to support the global population (Hanna & Osborne-Lee, 2011). At this pace, humans will reach a point in which the regenerative capacity of the planet will no longer support the physical requirements of the population; if that point has not been crossed already.
Background on Climate Change
The climate, which is largely regulated by the greenhouse gas layer, plays an important role in regulating the energy balance of the Earth. Energy from the sun comes in the way of ultraviolet light which can be either absorbed or reflected by the Earth's surface. Once it reaches the Earth's surface much of it returns to the atmosphere in form on infrared light. Some of this light is absorbed back into the atmosphere by the greenhouse gas layer. The chemical composition of this layer has an interesting property that allows ultraviolet light to pass through but not infrared light and the molecular composition of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases such as methane, are responsible for this phenomenon. The greenhouse gas layer is directly responsible for making the Earth much warmer than it would be without this layer. When the Earth was still going through its planetary evolution and the greenhouse gas layer had not yet formed, the globe was covered in mostly ice.
The greenhouse gas layer is usually spoken of in terms of its carbon dioxide level or CO2; although there are several other gases that also contribute to the same greenhouse gas effect. Other gases are also present such as methane, which is largely admitted into the atmosphere from domesticated cows and their flatulence. However, when people speak of Climate Change they generally refer to the CO2 layer because this serves as a quick reference to the state of the gas concentrations. With the thickening of this layer, it acts to change the Earth's energy balance and traps more heat. This has warming effect on the entire planet on the whole. However the effect of this isn't spread equally throughout and the warming of the planet occurs on an aggregate level. In fact, some regions may get much hotter while others are actually cooler. To help people better understand this phenomenon, many scientists stopped referring to the phenomenon as global warming and began calling it climate change so that it would be less confusing.
Climate change, which is undeniably at least partially due to human activities, poses a threat to the sustainability of the natural systems on the planet. Rapidly growing and exponential increases in greenhouse gas emissions since the pre-industrial era have led to a carbon dioxide concentration of roughly 393 parts per million in the atmosphere (CO2...
The current CO2 concentration is alarming to many scientists because some of the estimates state that earth's highest level of a safe CO2 concentration is somewhere around 350 parts per million (Hensen, Sato, Kharecha, Beerling, & Masson-Delmotte, 2008). The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is another major scientific authority, believes that at 450 parts per million there is roughly a fifty two percent chance that catastrophic climate change will not occur (IPCC, 2007). There are also many estimates that unless drastic action is taken in the next five years, threshold points will be crossed that will make any recovery in the energy balance virtually impossible. Carbon dioxide concentrations stay in the atmosphere for centuries, therefore the decisions we make now, as a species, will affect generations to come indefinitely.
Political Response to Climate Change
The political system, or at least the political will, that has been needed to make necessary adjustments and implement some form of emissions standards has failed to make and significant impact on an international level. One of the last international attempts at an agreement took place in Warsaw, Poland, just over the last few days. Every country in the world had representatives present as well as many environmentalist and activists groups. Although such meetings are held annually, none of them have been effective in reaching any binding agreements. Furthermore, if you were to add up all of the countries commitments that they publically announced (though have not followed), they would still be much too high. Some scientists took these pledges and ran them in MIT's most sophisticated climate model. They estimated carbon concentration in atmosphere in the year 2100 would be 770 parts per million (McKibben, 2009). This level is obviously much higher than the 450 parts per million safe levels given by the IPCC.
The United States has yet to take any meaningful action in regards to curbing its greenhouse gas emissions. Although a few states have made their own agreements, the federal government hasn't been able to create any sort of legislation that addresses emissions. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997, an international agreement on greenhouse gas reductions, was not signed by only two industrialized nations in the world; the United States and Australia. Australia later signed the agreement and leaving the U.S. As the only industrialized non-participant and the U.S. has held roughly the same position ever since. Thus, every other country in the world had agreed to participate in some form; including China. Though China has now become the largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions per year in total emissions, the United States have historically emitted more greenhouse gases than China through the course of its development. This is due to the fact that the United States has been polluting for much longer than China and the emissions from the U.S. per capita is still the world's largest emitter.
There is also an interesting divide among many industrialized nations and developing nations about who is responsible for greenhouse gas reductions. Developing nations, such as China and India, have taken the position that since they were late to develop their economies relative to more advanced economies like the United States and Europe, they are responsible for only a small fraction of the total carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere. Furthermore, they argue that they need to keep developing to fight poverty and improve the quality of life in the same ways that more advanced nations have already done. Therefore, developing countries are looking to the more advanced countries for leadership as well as compensation for not using fossil fuels to power their future development.
However, from the perspective of the United States, especially the younger generations in the U.S., the argument can be made that even though the country was one of the earliest to develop and emitted a bulk of the greenhouse gases, the individuals that were actually responsible for the emissions were from previous generations and at the time they weren't actually aware of the harm that they were causing. Thus, present generations of American citizens shouldn't necessarily have the responsibility of paying for what previous generations of Americans have done. The argument about who should lead the movement to curb emissions is confusing to say the least. Despite this fact, the window of opportunity to mitigate the worst effects of climate change is approaching quickly and it will take a world wide effort, on a scale that has never yet been achieved, to make the necessary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
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