The 21st century’s most important challenge is the global risk of Climate Change associated with the build-up of greenhouse gases resulting primarily from the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas. There is now conclusive scientific evidence that Climate Change is a phenomenon caused by human activity and one that has already begun to have a devastating impact on our societies and the global biosphere. Inequitably, it is the developing nations, who have the lowest levels of capital to adapt and who are, to date, the lowest contributors to the problem, who will experience the worst effects of global warming.
Global Warming – What is that?
Global warming is the observed increase in the average temperature of the Earth's near surface air and oceans in recent decades and its projected continuation. Models referenced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict that global temperatures are likely to increase by 1.1 to 6.4 °C (2.0 to 11.5 °F) between 1990 and 2100. The uncertainty in this range results from two factors: differing future greenhouse gas emission scenarios, and uncertainties regarding climate sensitivity.
Global average near-surface atmospheric temperature rose 0.74 ± 0.18 °Celsius (1.3 ± 0.32 °Fahrenheit) in the last century. The prevailing scientific opinion on climate change is that "most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations," which leads to warming of the surface and lower atmosphere by increasing the greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases are released by activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing, and agriculture. Other phenomena such as solar variation and volcanoes have had smaller but non-negligible effects on global mean temperature since 1950. A few scientists disagree about the primary causes of the observed warming.
An increase in global temperatures can in turn cause other changes, including a rising sea level and changes in the amount and pattern of precipitation. These changes may increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Other consequences include higher or lower agricultural yields, glacier retreat, reduced summer streamflows, species extinctions and increases in the ranges of disease vectors. Warming is expected to affect the number and magnitude of these events; however, it is difficult to connect particular events to global warming. Although most studies focus on the period up to 2100, even if no further greenhouse gases were released after this date warming (and sea level) would be expected to continue to rise for more than a millennium, since carbon dioxide (CO2) has a long average atmospheric lifetime.
Remaining scientific uncertainties include the exact degree of climate change expected in the future, and especially how changes will vary from region to region across the globe. A hotly contested political and public debate also has yet to be resolved, regarding whether anything should be done, and what could be cost-effectively done to reduce or reverse future warming, or to deal with the expected consequences. Most national governments have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol aimed at combating global warming.
The climate system varies through natural, internal processes and in response to variations in external "forcing" from both human and natural causes. These forcing factors include solar activity, volcanic emissions, variations in the earth's orbit (orbital forcing) and greenhouse gases. The detailed causes of the recent warming remain an active field of research, but the scientific consensus identifies greenhouse gases as the main influence.
Contrasting with this consensus view, other hypotheses have been proposed to explain all or most of the observed increase in global temperatures, including: the warming is within the range of natural variation; the warming is a consequence of coming out of a prior cool period, namely the Little Ice Age; and the warming is primarily a result of variances in solar radiation.
Adding carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4) to Earth's atmosphere, with no other changes, will make the planet's surface warmer. Greenhouse gases create a natural greenhouse effect without which temperatures on Earth would be an estimated 30 °C (54 °F) lower, so that Earth would be uninhabitable. It is therefore not correct to say that there is a debate between those who "believe in" and "oppose" the greenhouse effect as such. Rather, the debate concerns the net effect of the addition of greenhouse gases when allowing for compounding or mitigating factors.
The increased CO2 in the atmosphere warms the Earth's surface and leads to melting of ice near the poles. As the ice melts, land or open water takes its place. Both land and open water are on average less reflective than ice, and thus absorb more solar radiation. This causes more warming, which in turn causes more melting, and this cycle continues.
Due to the thermal inertia of the Earth's oceans and slow responses of other indirect effects, the Earth's current climate is not in equilibrium with the forcing imposed by increased greenhouse gases. Climate commitment studies indicate that, even if greenhouse gases were stabilized at present day levels, a further warming of about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) would still occur.
Attributed and expected effects
Some anticipated effects include sea level rise of 110 to 770 mm (0.36 to 2.5 feet) by 2100,repercussions to agriculture, possible slowing of the thermohaline circulation, reductions in the ozone layer, increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes and extreme weather events, lowering of ocean pH, the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, and mass extinction events.
Increasing extreme weather catastrophes are due to increasing severe weather and an increase in population densities. The World Meteorological Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have linked increasing extreme weather events to global warming, as have Hoyos et al. (2006), writing that the increasing number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes is directly linked to increasing temperatures. Similarly, Kerry Emmanuel in Nature writes that hurricane power dissipation is highly correlated with temperature, reflecting global warming. Hurricane modeling has produced similar results, finding that hurricanes, simulated under warmer, high-CO2 conditions, are more intense than under present-day conditions. NOAA claims that warming induced by greenhouse gas may lead to increasing occurrence of highly destructive category-5 storms.