"Top climate scientist James Hansen tells the story of his involvement in the science of and debate over global climate change. In doing so he outlines the overwhelming evidence that change is happening and why that makes him deeply worried about the future." Source: TED Talks | Discuss this at the MarineBio Blog
What is Global Warming aka Climate Change?
Global warming is the increase of the average temperature in the atmosphere and oceans over time due primarily to human influences. Since the late 19th century, scientists have monitored the fluctuations in temperature and studied global warming theories and trends to determine the causes and to assess the extent to which they are due to human activity. The greenhouse effect is largely caused by human-generated carbon dioxide (CO2) and, to some extent, by increases in solar activity, etc. The term "global warming" is used to imply a human influence while "climate change" is most often used in association with changes in climate with no easily identifiable cause, such as the processes that produced the Ice Ages.
Current climate models (simulations) based on estimates of increasing CO2 and, to a lesser extent, by decreasing sulfate aerosols, predict that temperatures will increase by 1.4-5.8°C (2.5-10.4°F) between 1990-2100. This is a somewhat wide range; however, it is difficult to predict CO2 emissions because of the number of variables involved. Some climate studies have shown that, even in the absence of the CO2 emission variable, global climate will increase by 0.5°C (0.9°F) over the next one hundred years due to warming caused just by the ocean. In addition, models predict that sea levels will rise by about 10 cm over the next century.
Evidence of global warming includes decreased snowfall, rising sea levels and changes to weather trends. Precipitation levels, precipitation patterns, cloud cover, severe weather, and other elements will be impacted by the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. "Greenhouse gases" are so named because they trap radiant energy from the sun that would otherwise be radiated back into space.
The Kyoto Protocol was developed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The Protocol was entered into force in February 2005, and signed by countries committed to reducing CO2 emissions and 5 other greenhouse gases. They may also engage in emissions trading, or the purchase of credits from other countries that remain under the limits of greenhouse gas emissions. In this way, countries that may exceed the limits can still comply with the protocol. To date, 141 countries have ratified the agreement. Unfortunately, neither the United States nor Australia have been participating, which has generated speculation as to whether the Kyoto Protocol will successfully reduce greenhouse gases, even if completely implemented by all signed countries. Related news: Ignoring Planetary Peril, a Profound 'Disconnect' Between Science and Doha
Global climate change has been studied on a large scale based on analyses of global temperature fluctuations over thousands of years; for example, since the last Ice Age, which occurred approximately 12,000 years ago, global temperatures have been relatively stable. Studies on a smaller scale, however, show that temperatures in the lower troposphere have increased between 0.08 and 0.22°C per decade since 1979. Still, these modern day changes are not always linear, which has created a source of debate within the scientific community and the news media.
The study of paleoclimatology (ancient climates) is increasingly linked to modern day climate study. For example, the Earth was in an ice age for the last 160,000 years prior to the end of the last Ice Age. Earlier studies of this time period showed little variability in temperatures; however, more recent studies showed the variability to be about twice as great as previously published, indicating that temperature fluctuations are more frequent throughout time than first thought. However, this does not negate the impact of human activity on the current rate of global warming.
Climate change is caused by both natural and external forces, the latter including both human—greenhouse gases—and non-human causes such as changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, solar activity, and volcanic emissions. Science is increasingly pointing to human activities as the reason that global warming is accelerating.
The greenhouse gas theory started in the 19th century when the Swedish chemist and 1903 Nobel Laureate, Svante Arrhenius, determined that increases in greenhouse gas concentration would lead to higher global mean temperatures, while decreases would lead to colder global mean temperatures. His finding was a result of his research on ice ages, and was largely rejected by his peers at the time. A colleague of Arrhenius, Arvid Högbom, was one of the first scientists to study the carbon cycle. Arrhenius used his data to base his assessment that in 1890, emission and absorption of CO2 in the atmosphere were roughly in balance, and that burning fossil fuels would not cause problems. However, this was based solely on the use of coal, not on the use of fossil fuels in the automobile and other industries.
Opponents to the global warming theory postulate that water vapor and clouds will cancel out warming effect of CO2 emissions. However, the warming trends over the past few decades are increasingly negating the cancellation hypothesis. Furthermore, sophisticated computer models of the climate, validated by the scientific community in demonstrating accurate simulations of known climate variations such as El Niño events, have predicted that adding CO2 to the atmosphere will create a warmer climate in the future. The degree to which this warming will occur varies by model, however, and opponents of the global warming theory point out variables that models are not equipped to factor, such as changes in vegetation and cloud cover.
In spite of the dying debate, it is known that coal-burning power plants, automobile exhausts, factory smokestacks, and other waste vents contribute about 22 billion tons of CO2 (6 billion tons of pure carbon) and other greenhouse gases into the earth's atmosphere each year. CO2 levels have increased by about 31% since 1750, about 75% of which can be attributed to fossil fuel burning. The remaining 25% is largely due to land-use change, particularly deforestation.
In their 2006 report, the IPCC stated that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has exceeded levels over the natural range for the last 650,000 years. The consensus is that human activity is, in almost all aspects of global warming, the most likely cause. This is a change from the previous report that stated human activity was merely a likely cause.
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