The Science Behind Climate Change

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To commemorate Earth Day and the last installment of my blog, I think it’s apropos to talk about our mother planet.  You see, it’s not like we can relocate to another habitable planet within our solar system.  As a species, we treat our planet like crap.  Over polluted air, total disregard to waterbodies and the rolling back of regulations puts us in a crucial time within our planet’s history and the repercussions of our negligence will affect our children and our children’s children.  It seems we have forgotten that we all play a crucial part in establishing a legacy.  Although most of us won’t find the cure of cancer or some technological breakthrough, our legacy should be the protection of our planet from the ravages of climate change.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  I’m sure every little bit helps.

We may have differing views on what constitutes climate change and I cannot say I have all the answers.  What I do have is an intermediate understanding of the science behind climate change and it is the physical, chemical, and biological background that anyone who gets into Environmental Health or Environmental Engineering must have in order to graduate.  With higher temperatures, more droughts, wilder weather patterns, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels if there was one culprit that we can see point our finger to is rising CO2 levels.  Other scientists will also want to mention methane and I would have to agree, but for the sake of this blog I will just touch base on the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

As a student in the Environmental and Occupational Health program, I am aware of the devastating effects carbon dioxide has on our climate.  When 94% of the scientific community, including agencies and advisory bodies such as NASA, NOAA, USDA, USGS, the EPA, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agrees on the dangers of increased fossil fuel usage, there is definitely a strong positive correlation behind the claims that our climate is changing faster than at any time in recorded human history.  We understand the concept of climate change; therefore, let’s review the science behind carbon dioxide and climate change.

Carbon dioxide keeps our planet habitable, but it is the concentration that causes the most problems.  Back in the 19th century, carbon dioxide was a recently discovered gas.  Scientists realized back then that carbon dioxide (CO2) had an effect of preventing heat generated by the Sun from radiating back into space.  The trapping of heat is what keeps Earth at a hospitable temperature, but the concentration of CO2 is what causes the most concern.

CO2 concentrations have risen dramatically since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  Carbon dioxide is released when fossil fuels are burned and humans are causing a great percentage of the 2.4 million pounds of CO2 being released into the atmosphere every second.  Think about that for a second.  Most of the 2.4 million pounds of CO2 being released every second is from human activities.  That is a staggering number, but what are we doing as individuals to combat one of the most problematic issues of our time?  Let’s come back to this topic later.

Scientists have reviewed the results and they are not favorable.  The Earth’s temperature has risen about 1.4o Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century, but the trend from 1950 on has shown the greatest acceleration.  Global temperatures in 2016 were the warmest on record since 1880, the first year these types of records began.  That is not the worst part.  Prior to 2016, 2015 was the warmest.  Prior to 2015, 2014 was the warmest.  We have been breaking temperatures and setting records 3 years in a row.

Climate change deniers always say, “If the records only go back until 1880, how do we know that 2016 was the hottest year on record?”  The answer lies in ice cores.  Ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica allow scientists to peer back 800,000 years into our climatological past and compare the CO2 levels back then to the CO2 levels present today and guess what they found?  They found that atmospheric CO2 levels have stayed between 170 and 300 parts per million the past 800,000 years.  However, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, around 1750, CO2 levels have soared from 280 to more than 400 parts per million today.  The rise in CO2 levels match up graphically with the rise of CO2 from human activities.

Another argument from climate change skeptics is, “The Earth has ‘natural cycles’ of warming and cooling.  How do we know that current day climate change is not a part of a natural warming cycle?”  By reviewing the facts regarding natural cycles we can find the answer.  One – The time scale that typically elapses from ice ages to warm periods happens over tens to hundreds of thousands of years.  There is no scientific model that explains what has happened over the past 100 years.  Two – Although the Sun’s energy output varies, over the past 100 years it has changed very little and its normal processes do not explain the current climate.  Three – Ice cores have given definitive proof of rising CO2 levels; however, additional scientific evidence has been found in tree rings, cave formations, coral reefs, lake bottoms, and ocean sediments.

With the rising levels of carbon dioxide matching up with the curve of fossil fuel emission from human activities, “the overwhelming evidence shows that carbon dioxide emissions are the dominating factor driving climate change.”

Individually, there are ways we can reduce our carbon footprint.  One of the easiest ways is to incorporate biking and walking for daily, run of the mill errands. The average motor vehicle emits roughly 20 pounds of CO2 for every gallon of gas burned.  Conservative figures equate this to 4.7 metric tons of CO2 emitted per 11,400 miles driven annually and fuel efficiency of 21mpg. Variables such as lower fuel economy and mileage driven will increase these values.  Nevertheless, these tailpipe emissions are something we can control.  If we use these values as a reference measure, making the conscious choice to reduce our carbon footprint becomes that much easier.

For more information on your automotive carbon footprint, visit http://www.fueleconomy.gov and click “Find a Car”.

For even more CO2 saving strategies, visit https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/.

Disclaimer:  “Any opinions stated in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSUN faculty/ staff. Information contained herein has not been verified by CSUN faculty/staff.

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Image source:  https://pixabay.com/

Image source disclaimer:  Images and Videos on Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0. To the extent possible under law, uploaders of Pixabay have waived their copyright and related or neighboring rights to these Images and Videos

 

 

 

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