Schrödinger's Kitten

Irreverent Science for Everyone

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Global Warming

  • practical
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  • globalwarming

I believe in global warming enough to lie awake at night fearing what will happen when it comes (because I, unlike most of our 'leaders', am young enough that I will see the results). A lot of people do not believe in global warming, or believe in it but are sufficiently optimistic to not worry like I do. This is nice for them, I guess. If you are one of those sort of people, I'm afraid I'm writing this to try and convince you otherwise. I think we need everyone together on this one. You can write to me in return if you like.

There are a lot of disagreements about what global warming will do, and how it will change life here. This is because climate science is complicated; everything is interrelated and feeds back into each other, and there are loads of variables.

What Global Warming Will Do

We know for sure:

  • The ice caps are melting, and the sea levels are rising.
  • Low-lying farmland, coastal cities and sunny holiday homes are going to flood.
  • People will lose property and wealth, opportunities and sunbeds. (Did you see the footage of New Orleans?)

Things we are not sure about the details of:

  • Regional climates will change — maybe not just to warmer summers, but locking some parts of the world in a mini-ice age as the currents that transport heat around the globe now change course.
  • Species will fail to adapt to their changed (hotter, colder or newly underwater) environments, and die out.
  • Natural disasters will become more commonplace as the balance of the Earth's climate is disrupted.
  • The fact that more water will be stored in the seas as brine will mean less drinking water.

This all seems pretty disturbing stuff to me. I conclude that people who don't worry about this are ignoring it and hoping it'll go away, think that it's not happening, or that there's nothing we can do about it.

To those of you who think that it's not happening

A graph of average yearly temperatures since 0 AD, with each different estimate of temperature changes shown in a different colour

I personally believe in climate change because of graphs (I am a scientist after all.) From Global Warming Art, Key can be found here. Yes, the lines do not agree perfectly. But they agree on the general shape of things.

Before you start to say that we clearly don't know what's going on, climate scientist do acknowledge they're not sure of the details. As I said above, it allows for loads of complex factors, and we can't study other planets: we only have one data set. We do know that in the longer term, the Earth's climate fluctuates according to regular cycles. Depending on how circular the orbit of the Earth around the sun is, or at what angle it spins around its own axis, seasonal temperatures and levels of rainfall change, causing changes in the icesheets covering Earth. But then, more white, shiny ice means more light from the sun is reflected back into space instead of heating the planet, so the planet gets colder, altering the climatic patterns again.

You might have heard that volcanic eruptions give off more carbon dioxide than human activities. That's true. But the volcanic eruptions also chuck up dust and particles into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and cooling the Earth. And speaking of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas you've probably heard most about, the amount of carbon that's stored in the sea and in rocks depends on the temperature. But we still need some CO2 in the atmosphere, otherwise we all freeze to death.

So yes, this is very complicated. (Incidentally, this is why I don't study climate science.). However, there are guys who have dedicated their lives to studying climate science, and they conclude overwhelmingly that climate change is happening, it is man made, and it is due to the additional release of gases into the atmosphere. Why don't you trust these guys? You can read their conclusions and their studies if you want, it's all publicly available. A good place to start is the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change here.

I guess that only leaves me with the people who don't think there's anything they can do, or that they don't need to do anything now, since everyone else will have already gone off in a huff. To the guys who trust that everything will be fine, read the report as well. So..

What You Can Do

Individual action only goes so far. For everyone who has read down to here, there's another 5 who don't care enough to not suffer horribly (which is a really impressive level of apathy). This is very good news for lazy people. For those of you who are environmentally conscious already, recycling bags, switching off lights etc, that's very laudable. But you need to recycle/not accept an eighth of a ton of plastic bags to save a barrel of oil. Which is a lot of plastic bags, by anyone's standards. And when you buy the eco-friendly option, you're supporting the eco-friendly companies, which is nice, but you're not encouraging the big boys in the market to change their ways. To make a real change, we need concerted action.

At a national level:

On a personal level:

And if you can suggest anything else to me, I'll be glad to do it.

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