Climate Change - How Bad Can It Get?

World Atlas takes a look at how severely humanity could be affected in the years to come by climate change.

Climate change and global warming are scientific terms used interchangeably to describe the gradual rise in average temperatures in the earth’s atmosphere. Scientists attribute much of the rise in the earth’s temperatures to greenhouse gasses (GHGs). These gasses trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere resulting in the rise in the Earth’s temperatures.

Contributing Factors Worsening Climate Change: Natural and man-made

activities like fossil fuels and biomass burning, fertilizer use, industrial processes, energy use, waste management, and deforestation contribute to GHG production. Some GHG's produced in such activities include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gasses according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to EPA, carbon dioxide from industrial processes and fossil fuels is the largest contributor of GHGs, at 65 percent. There also are natural factors that cause climate change through the carbon cycle, like volcanic activity, plant and animal respiration, and ocean-atmosphere exchange, earth’s orbit around the sun, and changes in solar activity, according to EPA.

Global Emissions: Past Observances and Future Projections

According to EPA, in 2010, global greenhouse gas emissions were about 46 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. These emissions represent a 35 percent increase from 1990 and factor the effects of land and forestry use. In that time period, net emissions of carbon dioxide which contribute three-quarters of total global emissions increased by 42 percent. Nitrous oxide emissions increased the least at 9 percent, while methane emissions increased by 15 percent, and fluorinated gas emissions doubled. Most of these GHG emissions came from Asia, Europe, and the United States which accounted for 82 percent of total global emissions in 2011, according to EPA. From 1970, global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by about 90 percent, according to EPA. Fossil fuels combustion and industrial processes contributed about 78 percent of those increased emissions from 1970 to 2011. For the future, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects by 2035, carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, natural gas, and oil, will have risen by 43 percent from 30.2 billion metric tons in 2008.

Warming Trends in Recent Decades

Since modern record keeping began in 1880, the global average temperature has increased by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit according to Climate Central. The increase is due to global warming and rises in human-induced carbon dioxide emissions. From when Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970, global average temperatures have risen by about 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit every decade. In decades before 1970, temperatures rose by about 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit per decade from about 1940. According to NASA, 2012 was the 9th warmest year in an analysis of global temperatures stretching to 1880. The ten hottest years from 1880 to 2012 all occurred since 1998, and nine of the ten years occurred from 2002.

High and Low-Temperature Change Scenarios

While GHG emissions result in warmer global temperatures, low temperatures occur due to human aerosol emissions, according to a NASA report. Human aerosol emissions cause the cooling effect when airborne particles scatter and absorb incoming sunlight. Soot and light colored sulfate aerosols produced by burning fossil fuels; produce these human aerosol emissions which cause low temperatures. James Hansen a professor from Columbia University also considered the father of climate change awareness, has stated human aerosol emissions as having caused lower temperatures that were there from 1940 to 1970. In that period, there was excess use of fossil fuels by Europeans and Americans for their industries and power plants. Still, both greenhouse and human aerosol emissions are caused by burning huge quantities of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas.

Public Opinion and Climate Change Denial

Climate change is a contentious subject, there are those who agree it exists and those who don’t. In 2015, research by the National Surveys on Energy and Environment reported in the US, 16 percent of people don’t believe there is evidence proving climate change exists. According to a study done by a research body Ipsos MORI, in 2014 the US has the highest numbers of climate change deniers in the world. Other countries with considerable climate change deniers were Britain and Australia. However, China, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Turkey, France and India, had over 80 percent of those sampled agree that climate change is induced by humans.

Negative Effects of Climate Change

In the coming years, climate change according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is projected to put some species at the risk of extinction. An average rise of 1.5 degrees centigrade in temperatures could put 20 to 30 percent of species at risk. Already climate change has caused glaciers to shrink, and ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up prematurely. Melting glaciers are releasing more water into oceans causing them to rise and threaten low-lying settlements and islands, especially those in coastal regions. Also, trees and plants are flowering sooner, thereby weakening them, or destroying their buds in winter according to a National Geographic (NG) report. Pests and diseases prevalent in the tropics like mosquitoes carrying malaria are also shifting to environments that were too cold to inhabit them. In the Arctic sea, ice break up is negatively affecting polar bears by giving them less time to hunt according to a Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), report. From 1980 to 2004, the average weight of female polar bears in Western Hudson Bay, Canada decreased by 143 pounds. In Terre Adelie, Antarctica reduced sea ice is believed to have caused a 50 percent decline of emperor penguin populations, according to CBD.

Loss of Biodiversity

Rise in temperatures and shift in rain and snow patterns, are resulting in trees and plants around the planet “moving” to Polar Regions, and mountain slopes, according to the Nature Conservancy (TNC). This shift in vegetation threatens indigenous animal species that feed on them. That will cause the animals to migrate as new variants of flora, crop up and those that don’t will risk extinction. According to a Harvard T.H Chan school, by 2050 climate change is expected to expose to the threat of extinction about a quarter or more, of all land species. According to IPCC by 2100, if current trends of burning fossil fuels continue, the planet’s surface will warm on average by as much as 6 degrees Celsius. According to the CBD, for the past 8,000 years, about 45 percent of the earth’s original forest cover has been converted, and most of it in the past century.

Deadly Heat Waves

Abnormally hot weather results in persistent heat waves characterized by high nighttime temperatures that span from few days to weeks. High humidity and night time temperatures are deadly especially to the elderly. According to Climate Communication, heat waves cause more deaths yearly than lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. Heat-related illnesses and death have been reported. Over 20,000 deaths in Europe and more than 1,500 in India since 2003 due to heat waves. Scientists linked the deaths to climate change according to TNC. In India, heat waves occur between March and June, but can extend to July. It’s projected by 2050; average summers in the US will have more days topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit, if global warming continues as it is, according to the National Wildlife Federation. The India Meteorological Department classifies a heat wave as when temperatures reach 40 degrees centigrade for plains and at least 30 degrees, for hilly regions.

Agricultural Production and Food Security

Warmer temperatures due to climate change are a double-edged sword for agriculture; they can hasten crop maturity, or reduce yields. Faster maturity for grains reduces the time needed for seeds to grow and mature thereby lowering the yields, according to EPA. Yields for wheat and soybean can increase by 30 percent or more if carbon dioxide concentrations are doubled according to EPA. But for maize yield increase is less than 10 percent. Climate change also causes droughts that lower water supplies needed by crops. Pests, weeds, and fungi which hamper yields also thrive in warmer temperatures, wetter environments with high carbon dioxide levels. In the US farmers annually spend $11 billion annually to fight weeds.

Extreme Weather Events

In recent decades extreme weather patterns have become prevalent worldwide. From 2011 to 2013, the US experienced 32 extreme weather events that caused damages that cost at least a billion dollars, according to EPA. But establishing a clear link between extreme weathers and climate change is still a work in progress for scientific researchers. However, they concur climate change is raising the odds of some extreme weather events occurring. Such events include heat and cold waves, hurricanes, regional changes in floods, droughts, and wildfires all consistent with a warming planet. Human-induced climate change due to fossil fuels usage has also increased the strength of these extreme weather events, according to the US Global Change Research Program. Commenting on a report by the U.S National Academy of Sciences linking human-induced climate change to extreme weather events, Adam Sobel a climate professor at Columbia University, pointed to heat waves as being caused by climate change.

Rising Sea Levels

Sea levels have been rising at a rate of 0.14 inches annually since the 1990's, according to a science report on NG. The rise has been attributed to climate change, and it exposes coastal cities like Venice in Italy or islands at risk of being gobbled by oceans. In 2008, Venice got flooded by waters from the Adriatic Sea. In the past century the Global Mean Sea Level has risen by 4 to 8 inches according to NG. But the annual rate of rise in sea level for the past 20 years has been 0.13 inches yearly, twice the average speed of the previous 80 years. Researchers attribute this to burning of fossil fuels and human and natural activities that result in the release of heat-trapping gasses to the atmosphere. These emissions have raised the earth’s temperature of which oceans absorb 80 percent of the heat. This heat causes the ocean waters to expand and encroach on the mainland. Sea level rise is also being caused by melting of glaciers and polar ice caps that end up in the sea. Warming temperatures are causing accelerated melting of ice in Greenland and West Antarctica, with the water streams ending up in the sea.

Prospective Solutions to Reverse and Mitigate the Effects

As climate change and its effects keep coming to the fore worldwide in recent years, solutions are being crafted for its mitigation and reversal. In the developed world, renewable energy solutions like solar, are being adopted to substitute for fossil fuels usage. In 2015, Solar Power Europe reported solar power meets over 1 percent of global electricity demand. Italy, Germany, and Greece are 3 European countries where solar photovoltaic cells supply over 7 percent of electricity demand there. Reforestation efforts ensure carbon dioxide emissions are sequestered by trees from the atmosphere, and stored as carbon to slow climate change. According to WeForest when forests release water vapor and microscopic nuclei into the atmosphere, clouds are made. It is estimated that 20 million square kilometers of forest can create an additional 2 percent cloud cover in the planet. Electric and hybrid fuel efficient cars are also becoming gradually popular as the replacement for traditional fossil fuel powered automobiles. According to a report by the University of Michigan, if every American drove a vehicle that gets 31 miles per gallon (MPG), instead of the current average of 21.4 mpg, total emissions would reduce by 5 percent.

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