Global Warming: Personal Solutions for a Healthy Planet

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Overview

Global warming is the greatest environmental threat facing humanity.

From killer heat waves and increasingly violent weather to the spread of pests and vector-borne diseases, global warming has many effects on our lives. While some are positive, most are negative. People fear potentially catastrophic consequences but there is a disturbing lack of understanding about global warming and what can be done about it. Global Warming breaks through the jargon, offering readers both a clear description of the problem and a practical guide to solutions, from decreasing reliance on automobiles to increased recycling to political activism. It offers hope that each of us can be doing something to solve the problem and encourages us to act--not only for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This is a readable account of global warming with good practical advice about action that can be taken.”
--Sir John Houghton, climate change scientist and author of Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (3rd edition)

“For a long time I have looked for a single book that explained climate change so that everyone -- not just scientists -- can understand. This is that book! Perhaps its greatest strength is the writing style -- clear, concise, with an engaging flair. It makes for an enjoyable and informative journey into one of the most serious threats to face the planet. This book should be read by policy makers, students and the public so that they understand what is happening to our world and what we, as Americans, must do about it.”
--Dr. Pamela Chasek, Head of International Relations, Manhattan College, New York, and author of Global Environmental Politics and The Global Environment in the Twenty-first Century: Prospects for International Cooperation

“Chris Spence has pulled off a rare feat: explaining the problem of global warming in an engaging and accessible manner, yet without sacrificing accuracy and rigor. I highly recommend this book to all those who want to know more about global warming, and how it will affect them and their families.”
--Dr. Joanna Depledge, Research Fellow, Cambridge University, and author of The Organization of Global Negotiations: Constructing the Climate Regime and The International Climate Change Regime: A Guide to Rules, Institutions and Procedures

“This book is ideal for those who want to understand climate change but are intimidated by the scientific language that often surrounds the issue. Chris Spence breaks through the jargon with straightforward answers to questions such as such as, “How will I be affected?” and “What can I do about the problem?” His book is well researched and superbly written – an engaging and entertaining read on an issue everyone should know more about.”
--Dr. Lisa Schipper, climate change scientist, Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, UK

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781403966988
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 7/15/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris Spence is an award-winning journalist and a former political advisor on environmental issues and foreign affairs. He spends most of his time in London, New Zealand and New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Global Warming

Personal Solutions for a Healthy Planet


By Christopher Spence

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2005 Christopher Spence
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8765-7



CHAPTER 1

What Is Global Warming?


"We know that if climate change is not stopped, all parts of the world will suffer. Some will even be destroyed."

—British Prime Minister Tony Blair, September 2002


Global warming. We've all heard of it. Polls show most of us are concerned about it. If Tony Blair is right, we should be downright terrified. But what exactly is it? Is it natural? Should it be happening? Why is it happening? And what, precisely, is it doing?

You might never have thought so, but Bob Dylan was right; the answer is blowing in the wind, or at least, floating in the atmosphere. To understand what's happening with our climate, it's worth bearing in mind that, from a scientific standpoint, you are incredibly lucky to be alive. We all are, actually, and the reason is simple: the planet we inhabit is blessed with some very special conditions that just happen to be perfectly suited to sustain life.

The main cause of this is the Sun, and the heat and light it sends hurtling our way. Seems obvious? Perhaps so, but the irony is that the Sun's energy by itself isn't sufficient to make the planet warm enough for us to live on. Actually, it could easily have been very different here on Earth—and this is where Lady Luck enters the equation.

The reason the Earth is at just the right temperature for humans and other species to develop and thrive is because of a miracle called the "greenhouse effect." It is this phenomenon that keeps temperatures on the Earth's surface averaging a relatively balmy 59°F (15°C). Without it, the mercury would plunge to a rather more bracing 0°F (minus 18°C)—a cold so intense that humanity would never have been able to evolve.


The Greenhouse Effect

The greenhouse effect changes the way the Sun impacts the Earth. Like the other planets in our solar system, the energy that the Sun constantly emits strikes our world, warming the surface. Because the Earth is relatively close to the Sun, it receives a fairly large dose of heat—more than, say, Mars or Pluto, which are more distant. But it is not just Earth's distance from the Sun that makes it an ideal breeding ground for life; the size of our planet also makes a difference, with Earth's gravitational pull making it possible for the planet to sustain a relatively thick "atmosphere" around it.

The atmosphere is simply the layer of gases that can surround a planet like a blanket and that is held in place by gravity. Earth does well in this department—better than Mars, for example, which is too small to sustain a life-giving layer. But even if a planet is the correct size to maintain a decent atmosphere, the gases that make up this protective layer might not be the right ones to support life. Venus, for instance, has a thick atmosphere—thicker than Earth's. But its protective layer is composed mostly of carbon dioxide, a gas that traps heat and holds it around the planet. Because it has such high concentrations of this gas, the atmosphere on Venus retains too much of the heat the Sun sends its way—at least as far as humans are concerned. Combined with its closeness to the Sun, the carbon dioxide levels on Venus send temperatures soaring to a toasty 860°F (460°C). No good for us, even if we were just looking for a beachside resort for our summer vacation (we'd be boiled alive).

It is the ability of gases such as carbon dioxide to trap heat that creates the so-called greenhouse effect. The atmosphere of Venus allows the heat of the Sun to strike the planet—just as the Sun's rays enter through a greenhouse's windows and warm the plants within. And like a greenhouse, an atmosphere with carbon dioxide holds on to heat, trapping some of it so that the atmosphere remains warm. Without it, the Sun's energy would just enter the planet, or bounce off it.

In the case of Venus, there is clearly too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide to sustain life. On Earth, though, this heat-trapping gas makes up only a small amount of what's in the atmosphere—0.03 percent or so. Nearly four-fifths of our atmosphere is made up of nitrogen, while most of the rest is oxygen. Neither nitrogen nor oxygen traps heat like carbon dioxide does. Even when carbon dioxide is combined with water vapor and the handful of other gases that also trap heat, the levels of these substances are tiny compared to those found around Venus.

For us, though, this is providential. The small levels of heat-trapping gases—or "greenhouse gases"—in Earth's atmosphere are enough to heat up the planet's surface without making it too hot for humans to survive. (See figure 1.1.) Fed by the Sun's warmth, this perfect recipe of atmospheric ingredients keeps our planet at a temperature that's neither too hot nor too cold, but is instead "just right" for humans. Goldilocks would certainly have approved.

But what if the mix changed? What if the amount of heat-trapping water vapor in the atmosphere altered, or the levels of carbon dioxide rose, or fell? Would this influence our climate?

The answer is yes. We all know how fast the weather can change (just ask the good people of San Francisco or London). But it's not just the short-term outlook that can alter; long-term climatic conditions are actually quite unpredictable, too. In fact, the climate has already changed, many times. The fine atmospheric balancing act that makes our world habitable also means it is sensitive to even small changes in the gases that maintain our current temperatures. Put simply, it is easy for our planet to become either too hot or too cold for humanity to thrive.

This has happened on many occasions in the distant past. Scientists believe the climate has changed frequently, even in the past half a million years, which is the mere blink of an eye in our planet's four-and-a-half-billion-year history. There are a variety of reasons for such changes, ranging from slight shifts in the amount of radiation sent our way by the Sun, to the impact of a meteorite hitting Earth.

The experts have labeled such natural changes "climate variability." While it's hardly likely to win any sexy catchphrase competitions, natural climate variability is the reason why our planet periodically heats up or cools down.

But what about now? Can the changes to our climate that most scientists say are happening these days be explained by climate variability? In other words, are the current changes simply par for the course on Planet Earth?

If they were, we would still have plenty of reason to worry. While the last 10,000 years appear to have been relatively stable, scientists believe that, further back still, significant shifts in our weather sometimes occurred rapidly, rather than gradually over centuries or millennia. These changes had a huge impact on animal and plant life, and on entire ecosystems—not to mention on our unfortunate ancestors. Sudden temperature shifts could affect plant and animal life across entire continents, driving species out, or killing them off completely. The onset of, say, a sudden Ice Age could mean that a warmer habitat ideal for lions, crocodiles or gazelles might suddenly be better suited to mammoths, bears or other beasts adapted to live in colder conditions. Alternatively, a climate that suddenly warmed up could have the reverse effect. Conditions for our ancestors could suddenly turn hostile, too, if the weather patterns they were accustomed to changed. As the animals and plants they fed on died out or moved away, our primitive forefathers' survival was threatened as well.

The changes that are happening now are certainly rapid enough to have raised a few eyebrows. In 2001, experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading United Nations body on the science of global warming, confirmed that the 1990s had been the hottest decade since records began 150 years earlier. They also found that average temperatures had risen by roughly 1.1°F (0.6°C) since 1900. While this doesn't sound like much, many experts view it as a shift of seismic proportions, especially as the trend appears to be speeding up. And forecasts for the future are even more alarming. By the end of this century, the Panel expects global average temperatures on the surface of our planet to jump by as much as 10.4°F (5.8°C)—a giant leap over any period.

Worse still, the changes taking place now appear to be almost anything but natural. They could hardly be more unnatural. According to the vast majority of credible climate specialists, the rapid changes we're experiencing have little to do with nature, and everything to do with ... us.


Victims of Our Own Success?

Ironically, the root of the problem lies with humanity's profound success over the last two centuries. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, our numbers have swelled more than 650 percent, from just 980 million in 1800 to an astonishing 6.5 billion in 2005. We have now explored every corner of the globe, and made massive leaps forward in our understanding of science and nature. We have discovered or invented the internal combustion engine, electricity, mass production, and the microchip. We have unlocked the secrets of the atom, found cures for mass killers like smallpox and the plague, pioneered air travel and manned space flight. What's more, many people (but far from all) have experienced a dramatic rise in their standard of living. The average American factory worker now produces more in a couple of months than his great-great-great-great grandfather could have made in a lifetime's labor. We spend, buy, consume, travel, eat and drink more than ever before. And we live longer. Much longer. The last 200 years have been far and away the most successful period in our history.

One of the biggest (and least well kept) secrets of our success has been fossil fuels. Our innovative ancestors who discovered the benefits of drilling for gas, oil and coal and then burning the stuff to produce energy have helped us blaze a trail from poverty to progress, bringing about the biggest change in our collective material fortunes since our ancestors first climbed down from the trees. Imagine a world without fossil fuels. How would we run our cars, light our homes, power our air conditioners and refrigerators, or play our computers, Playstations, televisions and DVD players? What would we have used to generate electricity in our power plants, run our early steam engines and factories or, later, our airplanes and heavy industries? Some scholars might look back on the pre-industrial eighteenth-century "Enlightenment" period as a cultural revolution. But there was a lot less "light" in the Enlightenment than there is today. It was the Industrial Revolution that brought electric lamps, battery-powered flashlights and a thousand other modern inventions to our homes, shops, streets and workplaces.

The contribution made by oil, gas and coal to our modern lives is incalculable. Even today, when alternative sources of energy have been developed, fossil fuels continue to meet almost all our power needs. Whether it's providing the electricity you need to run your brand new Starbucks-style coffee maker every morning, or the gas to run your car, fossil fuels are still streets ahead of the competition.

Unfortunately, as our economies continue to grow, and as the rest of the world plays catch-up with wealthy countries like the United States, Japan and Britain, we're using more fossil fuels than ever before. Almost four-fifths of the world's energy comes from them. And forecasts suggest their dominance won't end anytime soon, either. On current trends, the world's use of energy is set to almost double in the first 30 years of this century, with about 90 percent of the growth likely to be met by gas, oil and coal. Oil is more in demand than ever, and supplies are expected to jump from 75 to 120 million barrels a day by 2030 (contrary to popular belief, the world's reserves of oil are not going to run out in the near future, and will probably be able to meet growing demand for at least the next three decades, and possibly longer, although prices may continue to rise in tandem with the increased demand). Both oil and coal will maintain their current shares of the total energy market, while natural gas is actually expected to raise its game, grabbing a bigger slice of the pie than ever before. Meanwhile, some alternative sources of energy are expected to go on the back burner. Nuclear power, which now supplies just under 7 percent of the world's energy, is expected to fall back to 4.3 percent, while hydro-electricity will barely hold onto its modest 2.2 percent share. Sources such as solar energy and wind power will grow quickly. The problem is, they currently command such a minuscule share of the market that, unless we change our ways almost overnight, many decades will pass before they make a serious dent in fossil fuels' dominance.

So fossil fuels seem set to remain top dog. But what, exactly, is the big problem with that? Oil, coal and gas have fuelled the human race's rapid march toward progress and prosperity for 200 years. Surely that's a cause for celebration, not concern? Industrialists and business leaders have gloried in the benefits of fossil fuels for a long time. Many still do.

"Oil and gas resources are critical for continuing to improve global standards of living," said ExxonMobil, the world's biggest oil producer, in a recent report on future energy needs.

On many levels, ExxonMobil is right; our world would be far poorer in so many ways without fossil fuels. Technology would never have progressed so far, so fast. But while the triumvirate of oil, gas and coal can be thanked for leading us into the twenty-first century, many now view this "gift" as a poisoned chalice or Trojan Horse. The reason for this is that fossil fuels carry a critical flaw. In the worst case scenario, it could mean that what oil gave us, it could easily take away, sending our civilization crashing down around us.

The problem relates to how oil, gas and coal influence the greenhouse effect. This is because burning fossil fuels to produce the energy to run our cars, homes and offices creates heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Lots of it.

Perhaps you already knew this? What you may not be aware of, though, is just how much of the stuff we've been pumping into our atmosphere.

Since the Industrial Revolution began, our use of oil, coal and gas has been releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in disturbingly large amounts. To give you an idea of just how large, let's start with the average American passenger vehicle. Each year, your car (or SUV, or convertible) probably pumps about five or six tons of carbon dioxide out of its exhaust. That's around 11,000 pounds of the greenhouse stuff from just one car. Sounds like a lot? Try multiplying it by 542 million—the total number of passenger vehicles in the world today. Now, add hundreds of millions more trucks, motorbikes and other forms of motorized transport. Throw in several hundred thousand power plants, commercial airplanes and diesel-powered trains, millions of factories, tens of millions of offices and billions of homes, all adding to the amount of fossil fuels being burned to produce energy. For good measure, let's toss in the destruction of up to 16 million hectares of forests in the Amazon and other parts of the world every year (trees and plants release carbon dioxide when they die).

The grand total from all this? Twenty-three billion tons each and every year. And counting. Within about 25 years, it will have jumped to 38 billion tons a year. That's almost two trillion tons of carbon dioxide between 1800 and 2030. (See figure 1.2.)

Now, imagine a world without humans. If we weren't here, none of this vast amount of additional carbon dioxide would have been produced. Some would come from trees and plants dying and decaying or from natural forest fires, which release carbon dioxide. More would come from animals breathing (they release carbon dioxide, too, as do humans). Meanwhile at the other end of the line, so to speak, animals' belches and bowel movements release methane, another greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions also spew heat-trapping gases. And water vapor in our atmosphere holds onto heat, preventing it from slipping out into space.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Global Warming by Christopher Spence. Copyright © 2005 Christopher Spence. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Hot Topic
• What Is Global Warming?
• What Is Global Warming Doing to Our Weather?
• What Is Global Warming Doing to My World?
• How Will Global Warming Affect Me?
• What Is Being Done to Tackle the Problem?
• What Government and Big Business Should Be Doing - And Why Some Vested Interests Don't Want It to Happen
• What Can I Do?
• The End . . . Or the Beginning?

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