Wide Awake

Issue by issue, I aim to research and discuss major problems with the world today and their impacts on the earth, society, and each of us.


2. The Climate Change "Debate"



"This is new territory we're marching into." - Scott Heron


     The debate over climate change has historically been heated, highly political, and ultimately ineffective. Part of the problem is the very title; climate change is no longer a "debate," and it could be argued that it never was. Climate scientists don't sit behind closed doors and throw sophistic arguments back and forth in attempt to best one another in logic; that's a job for politicians. The science is all but settled, and furthering this illusion of a debatable topic is, in fact, "a disservice to the public," according to Brian Cox, a well-known physicist engaged in work on the Large Hadron Collider. He says:


It can be a way in for people who have an agenda that's not scientific. You're allowed to say, 'well I think we should do nothing.' That's a policy choice. But what you're not allowed to do is to claim there's a better estimate of the way that the climate will change, other than the one that comes out of the computer models. It's nonsensical to say 'we know better', you can't know better. I always regret it when knowledge becomes controversial. It's clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial.[i]


     Cox certainly appears to be correct. With last winter marking the hottest the US has ever seen, and following a similarly record-setting summer, it feels as if that the climate is changing - an observation extensively supported by science. The most recent eleven months of data (up to and including this past March) show the longest unbroken streak of climbing record-setting temperatures ever.[ii] Scientists warn that if we do nothing to curb these changes, the earth will undergo a series of changes as a chain reaction, resulting in forest fires, floods in some areas, droughts in others, uninhabitable heat, the leeching of oxygen from the oceans, and the sifting of the planet's poles.[iii] These are revolutionary, unprecedented issues that could quite possibly be irreversible. By delaying action on doing what we can to ward off the worst of the harm (or that which hasn't yet come into effect, unlike some of the catastrophes), policy makers could debate until it's too late.

     Fortunately, the world has recently come to a tentative agreement in hopes of prolonging the time we have to reverse the ill-effects of climate change. Rather unfortunately, this agreement - the "Paris agreement" signed by 195 countries - states a threshold of allowable global temperature increase of 2° C from the pre-industrial age - a measure which was based on what was politically justifiable rather than scientifically supported. According to James E. Hanson and Makiko Sato of NASA, "[the] paleoclimate data imply that 2 degrees C global warming would be a disaster scenario for much of humanity and many other species on the planet."[iv] The global average for 2016 is predicted to be between 1.1 and 1.5° C, with 1.5° C expected to be temporarily reached this summer. February came uncomfortably close to breaking this threshold, and hitting the "reach" goal of the Paris agreement so soon after its signing is anything but encouraging. [v]

     The Max Planck Institute predicts that parts of the Middle East and Africa will be rendered uninhabitable as soon as 2050 by a 2° temperature rise. With a doubling of summer temperatures, mega-droughts, unbearable heat waves, dust storms, and an increase from 16 to 80 excruciatingly hot days per year, the Paris Agreement's "allowable" level of temperature rise would turn 500 million people into refugees. [vi]Unfortunately, the Middle East and Northern Africa won't be the last countries to be razed by climate change if we continue on the present course.

     However, not all of the impacts of climate change are even as far out as 2050. Some damaging side-effects of global warming are affecting the world in more extreme ways than simple record breaking temperatures. Venezuela has been struggling for years from the effects of severe drought caused by El Niño - not only on their water supply, but also on their energy. When the drought incapacitated Venezuela's largest hydroelectric plant, blackouts became a daily occurrence. After a gradual attempt to cope, the government has just recently shortened the workweek by the most drastic degree yet. Employees are now only supposed to report to work on Mondays and Tuesdays, and are to stay home the rest of the week conserving energy. With many people's livelihoods and basic necessities such as refrigeration crippled, riots, protests, and looting are becoming increasingly common. Quite unfortunately for the Venezuelan people, drought at the hand of El Niño will only worsen with increased global warming.[vii] 

     While humans are naturally self-centered, it's becoming harder and harder to ignore the effects climate change is having on other members of the ecosystem, particularly the oceans. It's simple science that cold water is able to hold more gasses than warm water, but as the ocean temperature rises with the climate, that capacity is diminishing. Not only are the oceans losing their oxygen, but warm water is also less dense, meaning the oxygen that remains isn't being adequately transported from the atmosphere to the deeper parts of the ocean. If this wasn't bad enough, the de-oxification of the oceans isn't a good thing for humans either. Half of the oxygen we breathe is produced by phytoplankton dwelling in the ocean;[viii] without these producers, and with deforestation becoming a major issue, the air we breathe might not escape global warming unscathed.

     One of the other major ecosystems currently taking a major hit from climate change are the coral reefs. The Great Barrier Reef, hailed as one of the most pristine environments in the world, has had its northern section reduced to only 5% of what it used to be. The other 95% have been "severely bleached" as a result of the erosion of their protective mechanisms by climate change. Without protection from the ever increasing heat waves, the extremely sensitive chorals are incredibly vulnerable. It is estimated that 40% of the planet's coral reefs are being exposed to thermal stress, and if the temperature increases to more than 1.5° above pre-industrial levels, the protective mechanisms of these corals (and more) will likely be destroyed forever. What's worse is that scientists have never experienced this before. "This is new territory we're marching into," states Scott Heron in a grim summary of what modern science is facing. With only predictions and estimates to go by, scientists might have no choice but to sit by and observe as the beautiful ocean corals are reduced to an "endless watery graveyard."[ix] 

     At this point, it seems as if the whole world should be scrambling to salvage what we can and reverse future damage - and it is. But is it enough? The science is clear that a 2°C increase is the absolute most we can allow, which would necessitate a peak in global emissions and a decline in the next 5-10 years - not a very large time frame for the changes required. An increase of 3-4°C, William Nordhaus of Yale estimates, "would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species would become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea." [x]

     Granted, this grim account was given in 1970, but it doesn't seem as if scientists have gained much optimism since then. NASA's Hanson and Sato note that the Earth has surpassed Eemian temperatures, and is headed towards Pliocene-like conditions of two to five million years ago. In the Eemian period, the sea level was 4-6 meters higher than it is today. [xi]According to a new ice sheet analysis, we are "on the brink of dramatic and irreversible sea level rise." The melting of the extremely sensitive antarctic ice sheet is predicted to cause more than a meter of rise this century and 15 meters (50 feet) by 2500. This might seem like a far off date, but these figures are for that one ice sheet alone, not considering the countless other glaciers and ice reserves which are also feeling the effects of global warming. A rise of this scale would completely submerge six cities in Florida and two in Louisiana, as well as untold numbers of cities and possibly even countries and small (inhabited) islands across the globe.[xii]

     While it is encouraging that so many countries have begun to take action to limit temperature rise to 2°C (or, more ideally, 1.5°C), it is alarming how relatively little funding is being devoted to climate science, at least in the US. In 2013, the US spent 22 million dollars on climate research, clean energy funding, international climate assistance, natural resource adaptation, and energy tax provisions attempting to reduce greenhouse gasses combined. [xiii]Comparatively, the budget for defense and military funding was a staggering $618 million,[xiv] which has only increased to $829 million in 2016.[xv] Climate denialism in America has become such a large movement with so much political involvement that it has resulted in the halting or delaying of important climate-related bills such as Cap and Trade. Meanwhile, America is one of the highest producers of carbon emissions worldwide. Climate deniers have undermined climate science so successfully in public opinion that, from a political standpoint, it is a volatile issue that few politicians seem willing to address, let alone take a stand on at risk of losing the support of their constituents. Unfortunately, until legislation is passed to force companies to reduce carbon emissions, it seems as if little will be done in this capitalistic society to curb damage to our atmosphere.[xvi] This could spell irreversible damage that we aren't doing the best we can to abate. As Brian Cox aptly put it, "Don't undermine the science just because you don't like the economics."[xvii]

     It's a common conception that industrial manufacturing, transportation, and the burning of fossil fuels are major contributors to carbon emissions and, as a result, global warming. This is indeed true. However, a major source of methane, which has 80 times the short-term warming potential of CO2, is often overlooked. That source is the animal agriculture industry. 100 million tons of methane is released yearly by "ruminants," which include cows, sheep, and goats. This accounts for 20% of methane emissions, and is on a similar level to oil drilling.[xviii] In fact, the methane produced by the animal agriculture industry is roughly 150 billions of gallons of methane per day - more than the entire transportation industry put together. By removing beef from your diet, you can save just as much carbon per year - 1.4 tons, to be exact - as converting your house to solar power.[xix] If the world were to adopt an American rate of beef consumption, those emissions alone are thought to be enough to erase any chance of staying below a 2°C rise. The overall magnitude of heat from human-caused carbon emissions - from any source, industrial to agricultural - is staggering to consider. The heat is equivalent to that released by "400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day."[xx]

     In short, the earth is facing a major crisis in the not-too-distant future. Climate change is no longer a debate; it's a scramble to prevent the global catastrophes that our actions have caused and to do what we can to keep the earth inhabitable for future generations. Whether we will succeed largely depends on the actions of the world in the next few years. So, no pressure.


To learn more about climate change and, particularly, climate denialism in the US, I highly recommend the Frontline documentary "Climate of Doubt" available on the PBS/Frontline website.


[i]. Creighton, Jolene. "Brian Cox: Scientists Give False Sense of Debate on Climate Change."Futurism Brian Cox Scientists Give False Sense of Debate on Climate Change Comments. Futurism, 09 Sept. 2014. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://futurism.com/brian-cox-scientists-give-false-sense-of-debate-on-climate-change/>.

[ii]. "State of the Climate." National Centers for Environmental Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2016. <http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/summary-info/global/201603>.

[iii]. "Two Degrees: The History of Climate Change’'s ‘speed Limit’ - Carbon Brief." Carbon Brief. N.p., 08 Dec. 2014. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://www.carbonbrief.org/two-degrees-the-history-of-climate-changes-speed-limit>.

[iv]. Hansen, James E., and Makiko Sato. "Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change." Climate Change (2012): 21-47. Web.

[v]. Stone, Maddie. "A Key Part of the Paris Climate Agreement Is Practically Obsolete." Gizmodo. N.p., 19 Apr. 2016. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://gizmodo.com/a-key-part-of-the-paris-climate-agreement-is-practicall-1771767422>.

[vi]. Lelieveld, J., Y. Proestos, P. Hadjinicolaou, M. Tanarhte, E. Tyrlis, and G. Zittis. "Strongly Increasing Heat Extremes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 21st Century."SpringerLink. N.p., 23 Apr. 2016. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-016-1665-6>.

[vii]. Person, and Alissa Walker. "Venezuela Shortens Work Week to Just Two Days Due to Extreme Energy Crisis." Gizmodo. N.p., 27 Apr. 2016. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://gizmodo.com/venezuela-shortens-work-week-to-just-two-days-due-to-ex-1773479991>.

[viii]. Stone, Maddie. "The Oceans Are Running Low on Oxygen." Gizmodo. N.p., 28 Apr. 2016. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://gizmodo.com/the-oceans-are-running-low-on-oxygen-1773519808>.

[ix]. Stone, Maddie. "This Is Why the Great Barrier Reef Is Dying." Gizmodo. N.p., 14 Apr. 2016. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://gizmodo.com/why-the-great-barrier-reef-is-dying-1770351739>.

[x]. See iii

[xi]. See iv

[xii]. Stone, Maddie. "Florida Is Screwed." Gizmodo. N.p., 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://gizmodo.com/florida-is-screwed-1767982278>.

[xiii]. "Federal Climate Change Expenditures Report to Congress." FCCE (2014): n. pag. Aug. 2013. Web. 01 May 2016.

[xiv]. Frohlich, Thomas C., and Alexander Kent. "10 Countries Spending the Most on The Military."24/7WallSt. N.p., 10 July 2014. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://247wallst.com/special-report/2014/07/10/10-countries-spending-the-most-on-the-military/>.

[xv]. "What Is the Total US Defense Spending?" US Government Spending. Ed. Christopher Chantrill. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/defense_spending>.

[xvi]. Climate of Doubt. Dir. Catherine Upin. By Catherine Upin and John Hockenberry. Prod. Catherine Upin. Frontline. PBS, 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 5 May 2016. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/climate-of-doubt/>.

[xvii]. See 1

[xviii]. Stone, Maddie. "Heroic Scientists Want to Clean Up Cow Farts to Save the Planet." Gizmodo. N.p., 02 May 2016. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://gizmodo.com/heroic-scientists-want-to-clean-up-cow-farts-to-save-th-1774268265>.

[xix]. Cowspiracy. Dir. Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. Prod. Kip Andersen, Keegan Kuhn, and Leonardo DiCaprio. By Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. 2014. Netflix. Web. 5 May 2016.

[xx]. Gillis, Justin. "Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change." The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2015. Web. 05 May 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/11/28/science/what-is-climate-change.html>.

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