Guardian Environment Q&A: Climate change

August 1, 2007 at 2:42 pm | Posted in Carbon emissions, Climate action, Climate change, Environment, Global warming, Greenhouse gases, Guardian, High school, IPCC, Kyoto Protocol, Middle School, Nature, Renewable energy, School projects, Students, Temperatures | 2 Comments

Thanks to David Adam, environment correspondent of the Guardian, below is one of the most reasonable, and clearly written, question and answer series I have read recently on climate change. It provides a good quick overview of today’s situation, in my humble view. I am delighted to say his piece is easy for older kids to understand too, and could provide a good starting point for school projects.

Many millions of words are typed on the topic of global warming aka climate change every day. Unfortunately, plenty of blog comments, posts, newspaper articles and popular books turn out to be (by design or accident) either confusing, misleading, misinforming, or too technical for members of the public (MoPs), and especially younger MoPs, to understand.

My own three children have each had middle school projects on the environment that included ‘Internet Research’ at home and school. Although the information that often appears at the top of simple searches on ‘climate change’ has improved considerably in the past year, there are still too many cautious descriptions implying too much uncertainty in scientific areas where we actually do now have enough information upon which to act. (Here’s one from the EPA kids’ page on climate change, for example, and on another page for kids the EPA writes:

What Might Happen? It is important to understand that scientists don’t know for sure what climate change will bring. Some changes brought about by climate change will be good. If you live in a very cool climate, warmer temperatures might be welcome. Days and nights could be more comfortable and people in the area may be able to grow different and better crops than they could before. But it is also true that changes in some places will not be very good at all.

If you have ever taught kids, you will know that they will instantly pick up on the uncertainty projected by adults, and also older children get annoyed when adults emphasise the positive and dodge the negative like that.)

As a result, I am constantly on the look out for up-to-date articles that do not dodge the main questions, are plain-talking enough for kids to follow, and give appropriate weight to current key issues instead of getting bogged down in arguing lesser points and out-of-date urban myths ad infinitum. David Adam’s piece is a good place from which to begin investigating the topic further.

Q&A: Climate change


Daffodils in the snow

Earlier springs are one of the signs that the climate is changing.

Photograph: David Davies/PA

What is climate change?

The Earth’s climate has always varied, so the term climate change is now generally used to describe the changes caused by human activity – specifically, greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane, which build up in the atmosphere and trap heat.

Is it the same as global warming?

As human activity increases the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere far beyond their natural levels, much more heat is trapped. Hence, the term climate change is often used interchangeably with global warming.

Can it be explained by natural causes?

Measurements at the Earth’s surface show that average temperatures have risen by some 0.4C since the 1970s. Scientists are confident this change can be blamed on human emissions because the increase is too big to be explained by natural causes.

Although natural factors such as changes in the sun and large volcanic eruptions are known to have warmed and cooled the planet in the past, these effects are not powerful enough to explain the rapid warming seen recently. Only an increased greenhouse effect caused by higher amounts of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere can explain it.

What is the main greenhouse gas?

Water vapour in the atmosphere produces the strongest greenhouse effect, but it has been in balance for millions of years. Human emissions, though relatively small, tip that balance.

Carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas produced by human activity. It is produced when we burn fossil fuels: oil, gas and coal. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is measured in parts per million (ppm).

Before the industrial revolution, the carbon dioxide level was about 280ppm. It is now 380ppm and rising by 2-3ppm each year. When other greenhouse gases such as methane are included, the total level in the atmosphere, known as the carbon dioxide equivalent, is closer to 440ppm.

What future temperature rise is expected?

Scientists say continued emissions will cause the planet to heat up further. To work out how much, they use computer models based on the programs used to predict the weather.

These models are not perfect, and struggle to simulate some features of the climate system such as clouds. To get around this, the scientists run many different versions and pool the results. The computer models predict that if emissions continue to rise at the present rate, average temperatures will most likely increase by 4C by 2100.

There are uncertainties, though – for example, the planet’s oceans, forests and soils could release their massive stocks of carbon as the world warms, leading to much greater temperature rises than human emissions alone would cause.

Why are warmer temperatures bad?

Most plants and animals have evolved to live in a fairly narrow ecological niche. Some will move to find their desired conditions, others will be able to adapt. Those that cannot move or adapt will perish. Some animals, such as the polar bear, have nowhere to move to.

A warmer climate will affect agriculture and water availability. Increased temperatures are also expected to limit rainfall in some regions and bring more extreme weather events such as storms to others.

Sea levels will rise – gradually at first as the extra warmth works its way into the oceans and makes them expand; more quickly if the gigantic ice sheets in Greenland and west Antarctica start to break up.

How can we tackle global warming?

Scientists say the only realistic way at present is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. How to do that – and where – is a political hot potato.

Because it takes time for the heat to build up in the atmosphere, and because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time, there is a lag in the system, which means the effect of any changes will not be felt for decades. Put bluntly, we are headed for about another 0.5C of warming whatever we do.

What about the Kyoto Protocol?

The world’s only existing treaty to limit emissions, the Kyoto Protocol, has had limited success, and expires in 2012. Politicians are working to develop a replacement that would include countries excluded from Kyoto, such as China, and those that refused to join, such as the US.

Can renewable energy help?

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently said that we already have most of the technology we need to bring down emissions significantly. These include renewable energy sources such as windmills and solar panels, as well as more efficient cars and power stations.

What about carbon trading?

Countries such as the UK argue that binding caps are needed to restrict each country’s emissions and drive the wider uptake of green technology. They also advocate carbon trading, which allows some emissions to be offset by paying someone else to reduce theirs.

Other countries, including the US, resent the idea of binding targets and argue that market mechanisms will steadily make the technology cheaper and more attractive.

What about individual carbon offsetting projects?

Offsetting is controversial because some people see it as an excuse not to change our behaviour. There are also concerns about whether it delivers the promised savings, as much of the market is unregulated.

What about blocking the sun?

Some people advocate new technologies, such as ways to trap the carbon emissions from power stations and store them underground. Others argue attempts to reduce emissions will not succeed and we need to develop large-scale measures to block the sun or suck carbon from the atmosphere.



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  1. Personally, I have been looking for similar information as I am writing a sales page for our employees to assist them with having the knowledge they need.

  2. Dear air conditioning contractor,

    Well, I do hope you team up with a solar or wind energy supply company, or encourage your prospects to sign up for an electricity supply that is sourced 100% from renewables, to provide energy to your air conditioning systems. This will at least avoid making matters worse. Global temperatures will inevitably continue to rise, even if we do reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately and drastically, because of the time lag between emissions and their impacts within in the climate system.
    Glad you found this information useful.

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