"Once upon a time, your refrigerator could kill you. Early models used toxic and explosive gases top keep food cold. In 1927, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) replaced those gases. Nevertheless, in 1974, scientists theorized that as CFCs rose into the upper atmosphere, their molecules would be broken down by the sun, releasing chlorine into the ozone layer and setting in motion a dangerous chain reaction. Ozone protects us from the sun's damaging rays. Chlorine would eat away at this fragile protective skin, allowing the sun's ultraviolet rays to stream unimpeded through the atmosphere, thereby causing skin cancer and other problems." Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth.
In the old days, it was CFCs that were harming the planet, and no one knew. For fifty years, we remained in ignorance about a problem that had the potential to cause serious harm to us, to our environment, and to the future of our planet. When we finally came to realize the truth—after damage to the ozone layer had occurred—legislation was enacted quickly to ban the use of CFCs in aerosols and refrigeration.
While we were focusing on ozone layers and CFCs, however, there was another issue with serious consequences involving the environment and our survival that we didn't know about. To some extent we still don't know; the average citizen may have heard of global warming, but he or she is not really aware of what it means. The issue is confused by polarizing debates, controversial data, self-serving agendas, and a necessarily myopic view of Earth's natural cycles. This paper is a discussion of this issue, its causes, its controversy, and the facts that are irrefutable.
Before the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, such problems as global warming could not exist except as a natural Earth cycle. Scientists know of warming periods in the Earth's past, as well as significant cooling periods, referred to as Ice Ages. The relative lengths of these cycles is fairly well known, too. Part of the problem for scientists now is that the Earth ought to be in a warming period, the last Ice Age having occurred about 110,000 years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. These natural cycles are long ones, and it is difficult for us, who have short life spans relative to the Earth's ages, to see or imagine the true extent of an age. If the Earth is warming naturally while at the same time it is affected by man-induced warming, the data sets will be inconclusive to some extent. This is a primary reason for the controversy.
At the same time, it is clear that carbon dioxide emissions from power plants have a role in the greenhouse effect, which is a situation in which the atmosphere, polluted by such emissions, becomes thicker, trapping the sun's heat and causing the planet to warm unnaturally. Scientists believe that the planet Venus an example of a runaway greenhouse effect. There the atmospheric temperatures reach nearly 800 degrees Fahrenheit, and rain falls as sulfuric acid. Those scientists believe that the Earth, if warming is not halted, awaits the same fate.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants in the US contribute 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide gases every year directly to our atmosphere. Automobile exhaust contributes another 1.5 billion tons. But the situation is more complex than that. Scientists are still unsure of the long-term effects of such emissions, but most agree that there are certain consequences which will occur of the trend continues:
- Melting glaciers, early snowmelt and severe droughts will cause more dramatic water shortages in the American West.
- Rising sea levels will lead to coastal flooding on the Eastern seaboard, in Florida, and in other areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico.
- Warmer sea surface temperatures will fuel more intense hurricanes in the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
- Forests, farms and cities will face troublesome new pests and more mosquito-borne diseases.
Disruption of habitats such as coral reefs and alpine meadows could drive many plant and animal species to extinction. Many of these things are already occurring. In the past several years, the Arctic region has lost more than ninety percent of its ice cap due to melting, and the Antarctic region has lost immense ice-shelves, some the size of American states, to warming and ice melt. Hurricanes such as Katrina have shown up with immense power. Sea surface temperatures are rising, the sea level is rising, and coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef near Australia are endangered and have suffered irreversible damage. In 2002, according to the NRDC, Colorado, Arizona and Oregon suffered the worst wildfire seasons on record. In Montana, Colorado and Kansas, drought created severe and devastating dust storms. In Texas, Montana and North Dakota, severe floods caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Snow accumulations have declined 60% since the 1950s, and the winter season is shorter in Oregon and in Washington. The ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1990.
"Politicians often confuse self-interested arguments paid for by lobbyists & planted in the popular press with legitimate peer-reviewed studies published in reputable scientific journals. For example, the global warming skeptics cite one article more than any other in arguing that global warming is just a myth: a statement of concern during the 1970s that the world might be in danger of entering a new ice age. But that article was published in Newsweek and never appeared in a peer-reviewed journal." Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth.
One might be tempted to ask, "If these are the facts, why isn't something being done?" The truth is that many things are being done, but because of the Bush administration's refusal to acknowledge the problem and to act in accord with other world governments, the United States lags behind in correcting the problem or even addressing it. To make matters worse, the United States is the largest producer of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning—coal and oil and gas—of any country in the world. Though we have only 4% of the world's population, we produce 25% of the world's carbon dioxide pollution, more than China, India and Japan combined. We have the technology to address the problem, but continue to refuse to participate in the global solutions that have been proposed. (NRDC).
The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on December 11, 1997 and entered into force on February 16, 2005, is an international agreement climate change that commits the ratifying countries to certain targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). These targets averaged five percent per year from 2008-2012. The Protocol places the responsibility for curbing emissions with developed industrial nations. To this date, 189 countries have ratified the agreement. Detailed rules for implementation were agreed upon in Marrakesh in 2005, and these are known as the Marrakesh Accords. (UNFCCC).
Countries must meet their targets by whatever national measures they decide upon. However, the Protocol contains ways of meeting their targets by three market-based mechanisms: emissions trading, clean development (CDM), and joint implementation. These three mechanisms help stimulate green investment and technologies and help countries meet their targets effectively.
Emissions trading involves selling unused emissions to those countries that are presently over their targets. The country that is the seller benefits by an injection of cash into the general budget, while the buying country is penalized for not doing enough. This is intended to be a motivation to cut emissions. Carbon exchanged in this way is tracked and traded like any other commodity. This is known as the carbon market. (UNFCCC). Additionally, under the trading scheme established by the Protocol, other units can be exchanged, each equal to one ton of carbon dioxide. These other carbon commodities are removal units (land use and forestry that cuts emissions), emission reduction units (units earned under a joint implementation project in which industrialized country A makes a commitment to earn emission reduction units by sponsoring an emission removing or emission reducing project in less-industrialized country B by a reforestation project, for example, or perhaps the introduction of wind or solar energy), and certified emission reduction units generated from a clean development mechanism, which allows a country to implement an emission reducing plan (such as rural electrification using solar panels, for example) in developing countries. All units earned in this way go toward satisfying Kyoto targets. The best part is that it creates and promotes sustainable development in these countries while reducing carbon emissions, slowing the pace of global warming.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, each country's actual carbon emissions have to be monitored and exact records kept so that equitable trades can be carried out. Registry systems have been developed which track and record all transactions under the mechanisms mentioned, and a transaction registry log is kept that verifies transactions. Reports are made at regular intervals to ensure that member countries are keeping their commitments.
The Kyoto Protocol is the first step in global emission reduction, intended to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, and providing a structure for future international agreements on climate change. By the end of this decade, a new protocol will be established which will address even the more strict emission reductions which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified and has indicated are needed.
Of the 189 countries that have ratified and made commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, the United States stands out as the one significantly missing from that list. The list comprises such allies of the US as the United Kingdom, the countries of the European Union, Israel, most of the Arab States, most of the former Soviet countries, most of Asia, and most of South and Central America. In the nineties, during the Clinton administration, the US was headed toward compliance with other countries in addressing global warming, ratifying the Climate Change Convention in 1992. However, as mentioned, the Bush administration refused to go along as rhetoric in Congress ramped up against such a move, based on the false assumptions of the seventies and fueled by self-serving lobbyists of the coal and oil industries. That opposition remains today primarily in the Republican party, which is beholden to corporate interests.
Barring the ratification of and compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, what can we do to reduce global warming and stabilize greenhouse gas emissions? To begin with, we need new laws. Voluntarily reducing emissions has not worked, and has failed to stop the growth of emissions. Even now, leaders of large corporate entities agree that it is necessary for the federal government to enact legislation aimed at reducing pollution. The public supports such legislation, and the recent cap-and-trade discussions are a start. Targeted are America's largest sources of pollution—power plants, industrial facilities, and transportation.
There is now in place a stricter standard for electric appliances. During the Clinton administration, a 30% tougher standard for air conditioners and heart pumps was put into place, eliminating the emission of 51 million metric tons of carbon. That is the equivalent of removing 34 million cars from highways for one year. That new rule survived a Bush administration attempt to weaken it in 2004 when a coalition led by the NRDC appealed to a federal court, which agreed with the standard.
Also necessary is to phase out older coal-burning power plants that produce electricity and replace them with cleaner, more efficient plants. We can reduce our dependence on fossil, fuels by investing in alternative sources which are renewable, such as wind and solar. California now requires that its largest utilities generate 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2017, and New York has pledged to do the same by 2013.
Hybrid-gas electric engines have the potential for cutting global warming pollution by more than a third now; during the past year, with the near-failure of the Big Three automakers, an agreement has been made to toughen emissions standards for all automobiles manufactured in the US, and the auto industry is responding, producing new designs equipped to meet these newer standards.
However, automakers need to do more. They have, in the past, used legal loopholes to lower fuel efficiency on their SUV, minivan and pickup models for decades. These vehicles have generated 20% of the increase in transportation-related carbon dioxide pollution since the early 1990s. Closing the loophole would save 120 million tons of carbon dioxide pollutants a year. They have the technology to do this right now, and if they did so, carbon dioxide pollution would drop by 650 million tons a year as older models are replaced by newer ones. (NRDC).
"Many people today assume mistakenly that the Earth is so big that we humans cannot possibly have any major impact on the way our planet's ecological system operates. That may have been true at one time, but it is not the case any more. We have grown so numerous and our technologies have become so powerful that we are now capable of having a significant influence on many parts of the Earth's environment. The must vulnerable part of the Earth's ecological system is the atmosphere. It is vulnerable because it is so thin." An Inconvenient Truth.
The United States lags far behind the rest of the world in addressing and taking action against global warming. At the same time, the United States is by far the leader in the generation and production of carbon emissions, which are the primary greenhouse gasses responsible for global warming. Nearly everyone by now has heard of global warming and climate change. Already, irreversible damage has been done to some of the Earth's ecosystems, and if global warming is not checked, damage will continue, resulting in a greenhouse effect not seen on this planet before.
There are steps that can be taken, and in the larger global community, these steps are being taken. They are gradual, but they are certain. By another decade, we expect to see a 25% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the 1990 rate in countries which support the Kyoto Protocol. The United States is free to join the Protocol at any time by ratifying its conditions and by engaging seriously with the rest of the world in addressing and taking action on global climate change.
Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Neew York: Rodale.
"Issues: Global Warming." NRDC. n.d.
Kyoto Protocol. UNFCCC.