Climate Change (term Paper) Essay

This essay has a total of 4274 words and 18 pages.

Climate Change (term Paper)


This paper looks at the controversial issue of climatic change. In particular, it develops
the question of if and why earth's climate is changing? The roles of man, naturally
occurring trends, and earth's cycles are considered, and an outlook for what can be
expected in the near and distant future is given.

‘The uneasiness of modern man arises from a rupture between himself and nature that
leaves him homeless within the universe...'

William Barrett


Over the past years most individuals have become acutely aware that the intensity of human
and economic development enjoyed over the 20th century cannot be sustained. Material
consumption and ever increasing populations are already stressing the earth's ecosystems.
How much more the earth can take remains a very heated issue. Here a look at the facts
sheds some very dark light. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people, while today there are
5.8 billion. There may well be 10 billion people on earth before the middle of the next
century. Even more significant, on an ecological level, is the rise in per capita energy
and material consumption which, in the last 40 years, has soared faster than the human
population. "An irresistible economy seems to be on a collision course with an immovable
ecosphere." Based on these facts alone, there is grave reason for concern.

Taken further, it is even more frightening to note that, while man has affected the
environment throughout his stay on earth, the impact has been most intense in the
relatively short industrial era. Since the industrial revolution, and over the past
century in particular, man's ecological footprint on the earth has quickly grown from that
of a child to one of a giant. True, this period is heralded as an economic success story,
which it certainly has been. However, many argue that it seems increasingly likely that
the path to man's success will soon slope downward to his demise. The climate is changing,
and so must we.

This paper will look at the coin of climate change, where on the one side the human impact
on the earth will be shown, and on the other, the impact of earth on man. Such a study is
inevitably somewhat polemical, as it is still open to debate what the precise effects of
man have and will be on climate change, and also what climate change will mean to man. It
will also be quite general in analysis, as a paper of this scope can allow no more. What
will be made clear, nevertheless, is that the relationship between man and earth is
clearly changing. More specifically, man is outgrowing the earth. If the relationship is
to continue—indeed prosper—then a new balance needs to be found. The issue of climate
change holds one important key to this balance.

Man and the Environment
Thomas Malthus is well remembered for his position as a doomsayer. When looking at the
rates of population growth in Victorian England, he saw unchecked growth as leading to a
rapid decline in the living standards of man. He blamed this decline on three main
factors: the overproduction of offspring; the inability of natural resources to sustain
rising human population; and the irresponsibility of the lower classes to prevent their
overpopulation. Very generally, Malthus suggested that this trend could be controlled only
if the family size of the lower classes was regulated so that poor families would not
produce more children than they could support. He predicted that the demand for food would
inevitably become far greater than the available supply of it. This prediction was rooted
in the thought that population, when unchecked, increased geometrically; i.e.,
2,4,8,16,32... while food products, or as he called it ‘subsistence', only grew at an
arithmetic rate; i.e, 1,2,3,4,5,...... He provided only a basic economic reason for this
however, and generally attributed famine, poverty and other catastrophic occurrences to
divine intervention (he was a very religious man, a clergyman, in fact). He believed that
such natural outcomes were essentially God's way of preventing man from being lazy.

The point here is not to provide an evaluation of Malthus, and one might well argue that
he was wrong in many of his predictions; but rather to highlight the posit that man has
long been living beyond his means. Sooner or later, this will have its consequences. As a
species, our success has certainly been impressive, but it has come by turning a blind-eye
to our surroundings. "A prime reason for our success is our flexibility as a switcher
predator and scavenger. We are consummately adaptable, able to switch form one resource
base—grasslands, forests or estuaries—to another, as each is exploited to its maximum
tolerance or use up. Like other successful species we have learned to adapt ourselves to
new environments. But, unlike other animals, we made a jump from being successful to being
a runaway success. We have made this jump because of our ability to adapt environments for
our own uses in ways that no other animal can match."

Whether or not man can continue to adapt to the emerging environment, however, is a
difficult question. In a (literally) rapidly changing world, it is difficult to look back
on past or present to divine the future. But, using Malthus' line of reasoning, one way or
another mother nature will surely ‘take care of us'. "Lack of resources, environmental
degradation, famine and disease will in the painful fashion known by our ancestors cut our
species back. AIDS is the obvious example of a way in which to do it....Conditions already
exist in several African countries for the virus to kill more people than are being
born...However, with its incubation period of as much as ten years or even more, AIDS is
not a boom-and-bust infection like the Black Death. Unchecked it could move on a
time-scale of 200 rather than 20 years. But the effects could be as devastating." It is
thus clear that we can not go on as we have in the past. The questions of ‘when' and
‘how' environmental degradation will catch up with us remain.

In passing, it should be noted that there are several (weak) arguments to be made
suggesting the patterns of climatic change that have, and will still, occur to be quite
beyond the understanding and influence of mortal men. As argued by C. W. Thornthwaite in
1956, "man is incapable of making any significant change in the climatic pattern on the
earth; that the changes in microclimate for which he is responsible are so local and some
so trivial that special instruments are often required to detect them." Another
interesting argument against the severity of global warming, forwarded by Meyer in 1996,
is the "artefact of a transition of stationing weather observatories near cities that have
grown considerably during the same period. And place this curve, with its relatively small
fluctuations, net to one of natural temperature changes over the last 20,000 years, and
one might well despair of hearing any human impacts against so noisy a background." These
arguments bring to light the controversy that surrounds the urgency of global warming and
climatic change. Indeed, standing alone they do make compelling assertions that can only
be countered by the application of theory. As also noted by Meyer, "only by adding a
theoretical explanation of the workings of the climate system, the processes that generate
the events that we experience as weather and the order that we discern as climate, can we
suggest with some confidence what would have been or would be the consequences of
particular human activities."

The Importance of Environmental Viability
Before moving on, it is necessary to highlight the importance of environmental viability.
While this may already be well known, it is equally apparent that most individuals do not
perceive it as an immediate problem. For most, concern with the environment is a distant
long-term problem that does not require today's attention. This has much to do with the
lifestyle that has created the problems in the first place.

In our increasingly interlinked world there is a common strive towards a ‘global'
economy which is characterised by the swelling of liberalised trade and financial capital
flows. Though it is not certain at this point where this will lead, it is very likely that
the result will be increased economic activity and, in turn, increased material and
resource consumption. For many, at least in the developed world, this means increased
prosperity and enhanced standards of living. The glamour of this lifestyle, however, tends
to hide the ugly facts. Consider, for instance, that already at this stage of development,
"rates of resource harvesting and waste generation deplete nature faster than it can
regenerate....As the world becomes ecologically overloaded, conventional economic
development actually becomes self-destructive and impoverishing. Many scholars believe
that continuing on this historical path might even put our very survival at risk." In
contrast to the impressions of many, the environment is an immediate problem.

Though environmental concerns are widespread and many, perhaps the most challenging is the
significant (30%) increase in greenhouse gasses accumulated in the atmosphere since the
industrial revolution. At present rates of increase, these greenhouse gasses will again
double by the turn of the next century. The effects this will have on the earth's climate
remain controversial, but most agree that the earth's equilibrium temperature will be
affected. The argument here remains, how much? This question will be looked at in the
forthcoming section.

Climatic Change
It is not surprising to note at this stage that "fluctuations and changes in climate occur
both spatially and temporally, the causes of which are a source of much speculation and
controversy. What is unequivocal is that the past 2 to 3*106 years (and more) have been
characterised more by change than by constancy. It is equally apparent that climatic
change, whether it is a response to natural or cultural stimuli, is complex. It is not yet
understood which factors, either singly or in combination, create positive feedback, nor
is it understood how they interact." Even further, the indices of climatic and
environmental change over the past 2 to 3*106 years have been proxy records, which makes
the identification of their underlying causes a formidable task. Having noted these
inherent problems, its is possible to objectively evaluate some of the predictions that
have been forwarded over time.

There are several ways by which climatic change can be recorded and understood. Three of
the most well known are quaternary subdivisions based on the terrestrial record, ocean
sediment cores, and ice cores. These methods have been used in isolation and also in
conjunction with one another. Of particular interest here is the growing body of data that
has been collected from ice cores that is contributing to studies of environmental change
and aiding correlations between polar, continental and ocean sediment records. "The polar
ice sheets and those of high tropical mountains are nourished by precipitation from the
atmosphere, the composition of which is thus recorded as successive layers of ice
accumulate. Such records provide information on environmental change over the past ca.
200K years and base line data from pre-and post-industrial levels for the biogeochemical
cycling of metals such as lead."

Over the past century, countless theories about climate change have been advanced and
tested using the above techniques. First to be highlighted are those that look at climatic
change as part of a system of internal adjustments within the climatic system. "Several
have emphasised changes in the quantity and quality of solar radiation, especially in
relation to sunspot cycles...Currie's (1995) identification of the 18.6 year lunisolar
cycle and the 11 year solar cycles in Chinese dryness/wetness indices, for example." Such
phenomena have been associated with floods, draughts, poor harvests, and the like. A 1988
study by Labitzke and Loon made a connection between sunspot maxima/minima and
quasi-biennial oscillation (QBO). "The QBO is an oscillation of the zonal wind component
in the stratosphere above the equatorial region with a periodicity of ca. 27 months."
Their study over a 36 year period pointed out a positive link between "warmer winters
during the Sun's more active periods and between colder winters when the Sun is least
active and when the QBO is in a westerly direction." They found that the reverse
conditions also applied. While this relationship has subsequently been criticised and
generally disrespected, recent polar ice core samples have indeed shown correlations
consistent with the study. Indeed, a 1990 study by Beer et al linked "10Be deposition with
the 11 year sunspot in Dye 3 ice core from Greenland. Beer et al. state that increased
levels of 10Be occur when solar activity declines; and because the intensity of the solar
wind is reduced there is an increase in the generation of cosmogenic isotopes such as 10Be
and 14C." Another 1990 study by Wigley and Kelly not only fortifies but also adds to these
findings. "Not only is there a relationship, albeit complicated by the effects of
precipitation, between the 10Be in the Vostok ice core and temperature change, but there
is also a possible relationship between the 14C concentrations and fluctuations in
glaciers. The nature of this relationship and the way it varies have yet to be determined;
for now, change in solar irradiance, alias sunspots cycles, remain as enigmatic as ever."

Tree ring data has also been helpful in the study of natural climatic change. In addition
to the variables just noted, there are researchers who believe that the quantity and
quality of solar radiation that reaches the earth is mainly affected by dust and sulphate
aerosols, usually concomitant to volcanic eruption. "The dust scatters and partially
reflects incoming solar radiation whereas the aerosols act as cloud-condensation nuclei.
Both cause reduced temperatures for short-lived periods unless the volcanic eruptions are
Continues for 9 more pages >>