Global warming and climate change are becoming a greater threat the longer we resist doing something about it on a massive scale.Though we’re already seeing its effects in droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, and unprecedented temperature extremes both high and low, it’s not too late to slow it down and mitigate the effects.
What Is Global Warming?
Global warming is known as the gradual rise in temperature caused by the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. These earth-warming gases are comprised of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, tropospheric ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). They allow shortwave radiation from the sun to pass through the atmosphere and warm Earth’s surface. Longwave radiation, the energy that radiates out from the surface of the planet, then becomes trapped by the same greenhouse gases, warming the air, oceans, and land. This process is called “the greenhouse effect.”
The greenhouse effect is not harmful itself. In fact, Earth wouldn’t be warm enough to sustain life without it. It’s the cumulative effect greenhouse gases have in conjunction with fossil fuels that make the effect dangerous. When coal, oil, and natural gas are burned, they release enormous amounts of greenhouses gases—especially CO2, which is the most prevalent. The gases released add up faster than the atmosphere can absorb them, disrupting our planet’s ability to maintain a stable temperature. Combine the previous century’s population growth, expansion of industry, and extensive deforestation—and our planet is seeing levels of gas concentration in the atmosphere never seen before in the 200,000-year history of humans existence.
What Is The Difference Between Global Warming and Climate Change?
Global warming is often mistakenly thought to be the same as climate change, but there are a few distinct characteristics of each that make them different. Global warming refers to the Earth’s rising temperatures, whereas climate change includes not only warming, but the side effects of warming—events such as melting glaciers, heavier rainstorms, frigid cold snaps, or frequent droughts that lead to uncontrollable wildfires.
Another distinction between the two is when scientists or government leaders speak about global warming, they usually mean human-caused warming due to the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from people burning fossil fuels. Climate change, though, can mean human-caused or natural-caused, such as ice ages.
Effects of Global Warming
Regardless of whether you prefer to use the terms global warming and climate distinctly or interchangeably, you are still essentially speaking about the same phenomenon: the buildup of excess heat in the Earth’s system. Both of these concepts have an impact on life on Earth that can cause long-term, irreparable damage. If we don’t put forth efforts to help mitigate global warming, the effects will become more extreme and worsen over time.
As the earth warms up, we’ll experience more extreme weather and climate events such as heat waves and droughts. Over the last fifty years, the U.S. has seen prolonged periods of record-high temperatures, heavy storms, and in some places, both floods and droughts.
While the term global warming might make you assume that the only effect it has on Earth is to—well, warm it, it can also cause extremely harsh cold air to reach into more temperate climes from the fridget poles, a phenomenon known as a “polar vortex.”
A polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the Earth’s North and South poles, and the “vortex” refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that helps keep the colder air close to the poles. As warming reduces the amount of Arctic sea ice, it allows more heat to escape from the ocean, disrupting and weakening the polar vortex and sending that cold, polar air southward.
Heat waves are abnormally hot weather lasting from days to weeks. The number of these have been increasing in recent years—especially in 2011 and 2012, with the number of intense heat waves being almost triple the long-term average.
Changing precipitation and heavy rain is increasing nationally, especially over the last 30 to 50 years. Areas receiving the most increases are in the Midwest and Northeast, but the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are projected for all U.S. regions. Since 1991, the amount of rain falling in heavy precipitation events has been well above average. Extreme events such as these would occur twice as often if we reduce our emissions, but if they continue to increase, extreme precipitation events would occur five times as often from the years 2081-2100.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the temperatures at Earth’s surface will increase by almost 12ºF over the next 100 years. This means snow and permafrost will be lost entirely in many places and sea ice at the poles will keep melting. The amount of sea ice floating in the ocean in the Arctic and Antarctic is expected to decrease even more over the 21st century, which will also lead to rising sea levels.
Rising Sea Levels
Warmer climates cause sea levels to rise by two mechanisms: 1) melting glaciers and ice sheets (ice on land) add water to the oceans and 2) ocean water expands as it warms, increasing its volume and raising the sea level. In the 20th century, the sea level rose about 4 to 8 inches. Thermal expansion and melting ice contributed to about half of that rise. By the year 2100, the sea level is projected to rise another 8 to 20 inches. Thermal expansion of seawater is predicted to account for 75% of this rise. With rising sea levels, we’ll also see more acidic ocean water.
Earth’s oceans act as buffers against climate change by taking up some of the excess heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While this is a good thing in the short run, it can spell disaster in the long run. When carbon dioxide mixes with seawater, it forms a weak acid called carbonic acid. Scientists believe this process has reduced the pH of the oceans by .1pH since pre-industrial times. By 2100, further acidification could be from 0.14 to 0.35, making life for marine organisms difficult.
Animal Migration and Extinction of Species
Of course, humans aren’t the only ones in danger when it comes to global warming and climate change. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that many life-forms are moving north into deeper waters to survive as their habitats change. Some animals will be adaptable to climate change—including weeds and pests and some invasive species such as the Burmese python of Florida. Those facing the most danger will be species which are highly specialized when it comes to what they eat or where they live—those whose habitats may disappear completely.
Some animals have already faced extinction due to global warming and climate change, such as the golden toad that disappeared because of drought and other climatic changes. Up to half of plant and animal species in the world’s most naturally rich areas like the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands could face extinction by the turn of the century if carbon emissions continue to rise. As much as 25% of their species could be lost due to climate change and global warming, even if the Paris Climate Agreement 2ºC target is met.
Researchers have examined the impact of climate change on nearly 80,000 plant and animal species in 35 of the most diverse climate change futures. The report found that the Miombo Woodlands, home to African wild dogs, southwest Australia, and the Amazon-Guianas are projected to be the most affected areas. If there were to be a 4.5ºC temperature rise, the climates in these areas would become unsuitable for most of the plants and animals to live there. This means up to 90% of amphibians, 86% of the birds, and 80% of the mammals could become extinct.
The Amazon could lose 69% of its plant species, 89% of amphibians could become locally extinct in Australia, 60% of all species could go extinct in Madagascar, and the Fynbos in the Western Cape Region of South Africa could lead to an extinction of a third of its species due to drought and water shortages. Many of these species are unique to their regions, so it would be difficult for them to survive migration.
Along with amphibians and mammals, marine life faces threats of endangerment and extinction with the rise in ocean acidity and pollution. Changes in water temperature are affecting environments where fish, shellfish, and other marine species live. According to the EPA’s Climate Change Indicators in the U.S. report, American lobster, black sea bass, red hake, and over a hundred other populations of marine species have already started to migrate towards cooler waters—not by just a few miles, but by an average of 109 miles over the past 32 years. These marine dwellers are going deeper in search of more comfortable waters—105 of these species have also moved about 18 feet deeper into the ocean.
Coral reefs are among the most vulnerable species at risk. With the warming of the ocean, we’re seeing algae disappear, leaving coral reefs to experience severe bleaching which could result in their extinction by the end of this century. Corals can provide vital fish spawning habitats and support for thousands of marine species, meaning if the reefs die, so do a lot of the species that depend on them. Coral cover in Hawaii is projected to decline from 38% to 5% by 2050 if significant global action is not taken on global warming and climate change.
Rising Costs in Coastal Cities
With rising sea levels come rising threats—and substantial costs—for large coastal cities. Low lying places such most of the state of Florida, and the cities of Houston, and Tokyo are finding ways to adapt by building seawalls, pumps, and even floating homes and buildings. Though climate change presents an interesting challenge for designers and innovators to solve, the solutions are often prohibitively expensive, costing tens of millions to billions of dollars to develop. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spent nearly $50 million to relocate just about 100 residents of a Louisiana village, Isle de Jean Charles, that lost 98% of its land to the sea. The state of Louisiana is expecting more communities to be affected as time goes on.
In Japan, they have built tunnels that divert water away from the region’s most vulnerable floodplains, costing them $2 billion for the underground flood prevention system. Houston has also put forth efforts to fight inevitable floods by asking for state and federal funds to help build a new $400 million reservoir to help keep stormwater from destroying downstream neighborhoods.
The Increase of Health Issues and Costs
Global warming also puts human health at risk. Areas that experience wildfires and severe drought conditions suffer from reduced air quality that result in respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations for lung illnesses, bronchitis, and other breathing problems.
Vector-borne diseases are a growing concern—especially in areas where cold climates usually kept pests like mosquitos and ticks from gaining a foothold. Incidence of tick-borne Lyme disease is strongly influenced by climatic factors, especially temperature, precipitation, and humidity. In regions where Lyme disease already exists, milder winters result in fewer disease-carrying ticks dying during the winter. Increasing the overall tick population will increase the risk of contracting Lyme disease in those areas.
Other ways climate change threat human health:
- Severe weather: injuries, fatalities, mental health impacts
- Air pollution: asthma, cardiovascular disease
- Changes in vector ecology: malaria, dengue, encephalitis, hantavirus, Rift Valley fever, Lyme disease, Chikungunya, West Nile virus
- Increasing allergens: respiratory allergies, asthma
- Water quality impacts: cholera, cryptosporidiosis, campylobacter, leptospirosis, harmful algal blooms
- Water and food supply impacts: foot shortages, malnutrition, diarrheal disease
- Environmental degradation: forced migration, civil conflict, mental health impacts
- Extreme heat: heat-related illness and death, cardiovascular failure
Impacts on Agriculture and Food Supply
Agriculture is a significant sector of the U.S. economy, accounting for more than $300 billion to the economy every year. Combine this with food-service and other agriculture-related industries, it adds up to more than $750 billion to the GDP. Agriculture is highly dependent on the climate. Increases in temperature and carbon dioxide can increase some crop yields in some places, but to see these benefits, nutrient levels, soil moisture, and water availability conditions also must be met.
As we experience more severe droughts and floods, agriculture becomes more challenging, threatening our food security. Climate change and global warming will make it more difficult to grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish in the same ways and places that we have before.
Impacts on Energy
Changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level and how often severe extreme events take place will affect how much energy we consume and produce in the U.S. Since we rely on energy so heavily for modern life, it is important that we consider the long-lasting effects that global warming plays on our access to energy.
In a warmer climate, we will use more electricity for air conditioning. If the nation’s climate warms by almost 2ºF, the demand for energy used for cooling will increase by 5-20%, while the demand for energy used for heating will decrease by about 3-15%. This will affect greenhouse gas emissions, but the net effect will depend on which energy sources are used for electricity and heating. A warmer climate might also reduce the efficiency of power for many existing fossil fuel and nuclear power plants because these plants’ equipment need to maintained at certain temperatures to function safely. The colder the water used to cool this equipment, the more efficient the generator will be. So, if higher air and water temperatures occur, the efficiency of these plants converting fuel into electricity will be reduced.
Water Availability and the Effect on Energy
Energy relies heavily on water systems. Hydroelectricity in itself is an important source of power in the U.S. Changes in precipitation, increased drought, reduced snowpack, and changes in the timing of snowmelt in the spring will influence the patterns of energy and water use.
In areas of the Southeast and Southwest, increased competition for water to meet the demands of population might stifle economic growth, especially when also trying to protect natural ecosystems. Due to concerns that water may be scarce in the next couple decades, some local governments have slowed or stopped plans for new power plants that require large amounts of water.
How to Mitigate Global Warming
You may not think that your actions alone can affect the earth’s climate, but most of us generates tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere using the resources we need. Growing
It’s always a good idea to make the better effort in making the world a cleaner place so that you and generations after you can enjoy a healthy planet. Here are some ways you can help.
- Drive Less: choose public transportation, carpooling, or take your bike.
- Switch to a (used) electric or hybrid car: investing in an electric car can not only save the planet but save you money in the long run, too!
- Travel Smart: for every 1600 miles of air travel you avoid, you can save 720 pounds of carbon emissions. Try opting for a greener traveling option like a road trip or take the train.
- Switch to renewable energy: power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse gases. Just Energy offers green energy options in all markets that we serve, so consider sustainable energy when choosing your next energy provider.
- Install solar panels: the sun will continue to shine for billions of years, but today it’s a carbon-neutral source of light and heat. While they might be an investment at first, federal and state governments often offer tax incentives for the carbon offsets created by renewable energy.
- Make your home efficient: use caulk, insulation, and weather stripping to seal air leaks in your home. Upgrade to energy-efficient LED lighting. You’ll save money on your energy bill and reduce your carbon footprint!
- Upgrade to a smart thermostat: smart thermostats allow you to automatically adjust temperature settings in your home for peak energy efficiency. Some state and local governments even offer tax rebates when you install one.
- Get energy-efficient appliances: look for the EPA’s ENERGY STAR label when buying new appliances. If every home in the U.S. used energy-efficient appliances, we could eliminate 175 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and save $15 billion in energy costs every year.
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle: you can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide every year by recycling just half of your household waste.
- Consider carbon offsets: these are something you pay for in order to compensate for the carbon or greenhouse gas emissions that you generate. Programs like Terrrapass fund projects that destroy greenhouse gases and produce renewable energy, countering your carbon footprint.
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