Climate change (term paper)

Summary:

This paper looks at the controversial issue of climatic change.  In particular, it develops the question of if and why earths climate is changing?  The roles of man, naturally occurring trends, and earths cycles are considered, and an outlook for what can be expected in the near and distant future is given.

 

The uneasiness of modern man arises from a rupture between himself and nature that leaves him homeless within the universe…
William Barrett

Introduction

Over the past years most individuals have become acutely aware that the intensity of human and economic development enjoyed over the 20th century cannot be sustained.  Material consumption and ever increasing populations are already stressing the earths ecosystems. How much more the earth can take remains a very heated issue.  Here a look at the facts sheds some very dark light.  In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people, while today there are 5.8 billion.  There may well be 10 billion people on earth before the middle of the next century.  Even more significant, on an ecological level, is the rise in per capita energy and material consumption which, in the last 40 years, has soared faster than the human population.

An irresistible economy seems to be on a collision course with an immovable ecosphere.  Based on these facts alone, there is grave reason for concern.
Taken further, it is even more frightening to note that, while man has affected  the environment throughout his stay on earth, the impact has been most intense in the relatively short industrial era.  Since the industrial revolution, and over the past century in particular, mans ecological footprint on the earth has quickly grown from that of a child to one of a giant.  True, this period is heralded as an economic success story, which it certainly has been.  However, many argue that it seems increasingly likely that the path to mans success will soon slope downward to his demise.   The climate is changing, and so must we.

This paper will look at the coin of climate change, where on the one side the human impact on the earth will be shown, and on the other, the impact of earth on man. Such a study is inevitably somewhat polemical, as it is still open to debate what the precise effects of man have and will be on climate change, and also what climate change will mean to man.  It will also be quite general in analysis, as a paper of this scope can allow no more.  What will be made clear, nevertheless, is that the relationship between man and earth is clearly changing.  More specifically, man is outgrowing the earth.  If the relationship is to continueindeed prosperthen a new balance needs to be found.  The issue of climate change holds one important key to this balance.

Man and the Environment

Thomas Malthus is well remembered for his position as a doomsayer.  When looking at the rates of population growth in Victorian England, he saw unchecked growth as leading to a rapid decline in the living standards of man.  He blamed this decline on three main factors: the overproduction of offspring; the inability of natural resources to sustain rising human population; and the irresponsibility of the lower classes to prevent their overpopulation.

Very generally, Malthus suggested that this trend could be controlled only if the family size of the lower classes was regulated so that poor families would not produce more children than they could support. He predicted that the demand for food would inevitably become far greater than the available supply of it.  This prediction was rooted in the thought that population, when unchecked, increased geometrically; i.e., 2,4,8,16,32… while food products, or as he called it subsistence, only grew  at an arithmetic rate; i.e, 1,2,3,4,5,……  He provided only a basic economic reason for this however, and generally attributed famine, poverty and other catastrophic occurrences to divine intervention (he was a very religious man, a clergyman, in fact).  He believed that such natural outcomes were essentially Gods way of preventing man from being lazy.

The point here is not to provide an evaluation of Malthus, and one might well argue that he was wrong in many of his predictions; but rather to highlight the posit that man has long been living beyond his means. Sooner or later, this will have its consequences.  As a species, our success has certainly been impressive, but it has come by turning a blind-eye to our surroundings.  A prime reason for our success is our flexibility as a switcher predator and scavenger.  We are consummately adaptable, able to switch form one resource basegrasslands, forests or estuariesto another, as each is exploited to its maximum tolerance or use up.  Like other successful species we have learned to adapt ourselves to new environments.  But, unlike other animals, we made a jump from being successful to being a runaway success.  We have made this jump because of our ability to adapt environments for our own uses in ways that no other animal can match.

Whether or not man can continue to adapt to the emerging environment, however, is a difficult question.  In a (literally) rapidly changing world, it is difficult to look back on past or present to divine the future.  But, using Malthus line of reasoning, one way or another mother nature will surely take care of us.  Lack of resources, environmental degradation, famine and disease will in the painful fashion known by our ancestors cut our species back.  AIDS is the obvious example of a way in which to do it….Conditions already exist in several African countries for the virus to kill more people than are being born…However, with its incubation period of as much as ten years or even more, AIDS is not a boom-and-bust infection like the Black Death.  Unchecked it could move on a time-scale of 200 rather than 20 years.  But the effects could be as devastating.   It is thus clear that we can not go on as we have in the past.  The questions of when and how environmental degradation will catch up with us remain.

In passing, it should be noted that there are several  (weak) arguments to be made suggesting the patterns of climatic change that have, and will still, occur to be quite beyond the understanding and influence of mortal men.  As argued by C. W. Thornthwaite in 1956, man is incapable of making any significant change in the climatic pattern on the earth; that the changes in microclimate for which he is responsible are so local and some so trivial that special instruments are often required to detect them.   Another interesting argument against the severity of global warming, forwarded by Meyer in 1996, is the artefact of a transition of stationing weather observatories near cities that have grown considerably during the same period.

And place this curve, with its relatively small fluctuations, net to one of natural temperature changes over the last 20,000 years, and one might well despair of hearing any human impacts against so noisy a background.  These arguments bring to light the controversy that surrounds the urgency of global warming and climatic change.  Indeed, standing alone they do make compelling assertions that can only be countered by the application of theory.  As also noted by Meyer, only by adding a theoretical explanation of the workings of the climate system, the processes that generate the events that we experience as weather and the order that we discern as climate, can we suggest with some confidence what would have been or would be the consequences of particular human activities.

The Importance of Environmental Viability

Before moving on, it is necessary to highlight the importance of environmental viability.  While this may already be well known, it is equally apparent that most individuals do not perceive it as an immediate problem.  For most, concern with the environment is a distant long-term problem that does not require todays attention.  This has much to do with the lifestyle that has created the problems in the first place.
In our increasingly interlinked world there is a common strive towards a global economy which is characterised by the swelling of liberalised trade and financial capital flows.  Though it is not certain at this point where this will lead, it is very likely that the result will be increased economic activity and, in turn, increased material and resource consumption.

For many, at least in the developed world, this means increased prosperity and enhanced standards of living. The glamour of this lifestyle, however, tends to hide the ugly facts. Consider, for instance, that already at this stage of development, rates of resource harvesting and waste generation deplete nature faster than it can regenerate….As the world becomes ecologically overloaded, conventional economic development actually becomes self-destructive and impoverishing.  Many scholars believe that continuing on this historical path might even put our very survival at risk.   In contrast to the impressions of many, the environment is an immediate problem.

Though environmental concerns are widespread and many, perhaps the most challenging is the significant (30%) increase in greenhouse gasses accumulated in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.  At present rates of increase, these greenhouse gasses will again double by the turn of the next century.  The effects this will have on the earths climate remain controversial, but most agree that the earths equilibrium temperature will be affected.  The argument here remains, how much? This question will be looked at in the forthcoming section.