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The Basics of Global Warming and Climate Change
Despite the impression you may gain from media coverage, the science of global warming and associated climate change is actually well understood. There are still differences of opinion rate There is political disagreement about whether climate change will cause global warming and what we are should do It is about but it does not detract from the underlying physics and chemistry of the issue.
What we know about the climate system and have done since 1824 is that the planet is affected by a “greenhouse effect”, where some of its radiated heat is reflected from the atmosphere to the surface. This effect warms the planet otherwise than would be expected if it were receiving and reflecting energy from the Sun. This extra heat is causing the ice to melt, which will raise sea levels and change weather patterns.
We also know that the strength of this greenhouse effect is enhanced by the concentration of certain gases in the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and halogens, also known as CFCs. Collectively these gases are referred to as Green House Gases, or GHGs for short, and each affects the excess heat that the atmosphere retains.
This effect is related to the chemical properties of the gas and its abundance in the atmosphere. Some gases also have other effects on the atmosphere: for example CFCs were formerly used in refrigerators and as propellants in aerosols. Their presence in the atmosphere was identified as causing a hole to appear in the Earth’s ozone layer, which shields the Earth’s surface from some of the more dangerous wavelengths of the Sun’s radiation. Their use was banned in an international agreement signed in Montreal in 1987 and their concentrations in the atmosphere are now beginning to decline, an encouraging success story that we need to emulate with other gases.
For most of human history, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has fluctuated between 200 and 280 parts per million (ppm). Since the Industrial Revolution, concentration levels have risen sharply and growth rates have picked up in recent years so they are now above 390, about a third above the long-term average.
Many human activities use energy generated from burning fossil fuels and are the primary source of growth.
- By using coal, oil and gas to power our electricity and petrol, diesel and kerosene to power our transport, billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide have previously been released into the atmosphere as fossils.
- Deforestation and slash-and-burn clearance to gain more farmland exacerbated the problem, but fossil fuels produced about three and a half times as much.
- Breeding animals to feed ourselves and dumping our waste to rot in out-of-sight pits has produced millions of tons of methane, another carbon compound that is about 25 times more powerful than CO2 in reflecting heat to the surface, but is still only one of the effects of fossil fuels. Accountable for the quarter.
- The use of oil-based fertilizers releases another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, which many of us have experienced as the ‘laughing gas’ used in anesthetics by dentists and hospitals. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent than CO2 but thankfully is much less abundant in the atmosphere and makes up less than 10% of greenhouse gases even when its excess energy is taken into account.
The simple fact is that the single largest source of increased density is the significantly cheaper, highly concentrated and fairly convenient fuel group; Coal, Oil and Gas.
Once you understand this, it doesn’t take long to understand why people are so eager to deny the existence of global warming. The world’s economy is dominated by companies that produce oil or gas or use its byproducts: it is almost impossible to imagine modern life without fossil fuels. But here is the most fundamental of all errors of logic. Fossil fuels are not the only source of energy available to us. There is enough energy from the sun hitting the planet in one hour to power all human activities for an entire year. The real challenge is how we reconfigure our political and economic systems to harness that power and restore a safe climate for all of us.
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