Since the nineteenth century (1800s), scientists have been debating whether greenhouse gas emissions could cause climate change or “global warming”, a term that, as it turns out, was not coined by Al Gore. Since then the debate has raged on, leading to debates among politicians, world leaders, journalists, and even college and high school students. Even now as we approach the year 2012, a global warming debate has even been raised by students and faculty right here at Del Mar–even amongst the Foghorn staff ourselves. The reality of global warming, however, can’t be easily explained in 500 words or less; and though the issues of global warming are numerous and immensely complex, perhaps we are focusing on the wrong end of those issues all together. Before we get ahead of ourselves though, let’s take a look at the history of the subject.
The word of the day is “anthropogenic” emission and climate change, or as some would like to incorrectly call it, global warming. That term might seem familiar to a similar term, “anthropomorphic”, the attribution of human characteristics to animals or other non-human objects. Anthropogenic simply equates to something caused by mankind; so an anthropogenic emission in this context refers to greenhouse gas emissions. It was first suspected by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius around 1896 that greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, amongst others (yes, there are multiple greenhouse gasses) could be having a substantial effect on the global climate–this is according to the journal of Science, vol. 272. The term anthropogenic climate change describes this effect. Since Arrhenius’ work, the topic of human-caused greenhouse emission and climate change has ranked amongst the most hotly debated topics among the scientific community; and as you’ll notice, we’re not using the term “global warming” to describe this phenomenon. That’s due to the fact that “global warming” simply means just that–a global increase in temperature–the plain english in the phrase does not imply a cause. It wasn’t until the late 1900s that we began to associate the phrase with image of manmade disaster popularized by politicians like Al Gore in his film An Inconvenient Truth.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t been worrying about it, however. The idea that greenhouse gas emissions caused by mankind could have a lasting effect on our planet is a horrific thought akin to any of the great global apocalypse scenarios drawn up by our best fiction writers and filmmakers. The most prevalent fear associated with global warming is the fact that it is, for all intents and purposes, true. Global warming–remember that we’re not referring to a man made disaster with the term–has been well documented over the last century or so. The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of the scientific community is no longer arguing whether or not global warming is real. They tend to agree that the Earth’s global temperature since the Industrial Revolution has definitively increased, a fact Claire Parkinson, a climatologist for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center claims in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2010, is no longer a subject of debate. In other words, global warming is real, but the exact cause is still hotly debated. There is no current scientific consensus on the cause of global warming, although many scientists will agree that anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gasses is at least “one” of the causes. Parkinson goes on to say that the debate has “gotten so polarized that scientists who go against the mainstream worry they’ll be treated poorly in the press,” and “people will just say, ‘Oh, they’ve been bought off by the oil industry,’ but that’s not always true.” What Parkinson means is many scientists who disagree with the cause theories proposed by organizations like the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007, and popularized by the works of Al Gore and others are afraid to speak out and express their opinions for fear of being attacked by the press. Furthermore, with the recent political debates regarding the subject, it’s not uncommon for someone arguing for anthropogenic global warming to be accused of being a thoughtless “liberal”, or for skeptics to be called thoughtless “conservatives.” To further illustrate the point of a lack of consensus, the U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee published a report in 2008 and updated 2009 containing the names and opinions of over 700 scientists expressing a wide variety of views against the idea that global warming is a manmade phenomena. They published this work without the consent of the scientists surveyed, exemplifying its accuracy since the scientists were not aware their truthful opinions would be released to the public. Unfortunately, for every scientist arguing in favor, there is likely also a scientist arguing against. The simple fact of the matter is there is still no consensus, no universal opinion, and no conglomerate of facts that say global warming is our fault, or at least entirely our fault.
We could now list numerous sources by legitimate scientists and organizations arguing both for and against the subject of anthropogenic global warming, but that wouldn’t get us very far. Instead, we’ll look at the real facts. Global warming is said by some to be the result of a collection of greenhouse gasses within Earth’s atmosphere. These gasses are trapped by the atmosphere, and do their part to trap energy from the sun on the planet with them. This phenomenon is said to cause an increase in global temperatures, and is dubbed the “greenhouse effect.” It’s often compared to the process which causes your car to heat up during the day. Just what are greenhouse gasses? Carbon dioxide is the most popularized culprit, but there are others, including nitrous oxide, methane and the most worrisome of them all, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). All of these gasses are released naturally–for example when a volcano erupts, a cow flatulates, or when you exhale as you read this paper–but since the industrial revolution of the 1800s we’ve seen a new source of greenhouse emissions, a manmade source, and quite a few of them if we’re being honest. Aside from the rising human and cattle populations, our cars, our factories, our trains, our hairspray (when CFCs were used) and perhaps most prevalently our power plants (except nuclear and some other alternative sources) all emit greenhouse gasses. Even typing these words on this page is responsible for a couple tons of coal being burned somewhere. In fact, emissions from power plants comprise the single largest source of man made greenhouse gas emissions on Earth, according to William Tucker in his book Terrestrial Energy, 2008. In the U.S. this is made even worse due to widespread use of SF6, which the IPCC regards as the single most dangerous greenhouse gas.
An anonymous research contact working at Texas A&M University College Station spoke to the Foghorn about the dangers of SF6, which he reports to have an “extremely long half-life in the Earth’s atmosphere, along with the property of infrared light absorption.” SF6 was banned by the vast majority of countries on Earth, but not in the United States, where it is still used throughout our electrical grid and industrial infrastructure. SF6, according to the IPCC, has a potential to cause environmental warming 23,900 times greater than carbon dioxide. In other words, a single pound of SF6 has as much environmental impact as eleven tons of carbon dioxide, as reported by the IPCC. With chemicals like this at work in our atmosphere, it’s easy to see why there is so much fear surrounding global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.
While there may not be a total scientific consensus on its cause, it’s hard to ignore the evidence suggesting that the earth’s temperature is indeed rising. Roger Pielke Sr., a meteorologist and self-described “climate realist” working for the University of Colorado identifies himself as a political independent. Pielke views the dissent among the media and scientific communities as a setback, according to the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. “In his view, those who frame the climate change debate as one that pits the IPCC against those who don’t believe global warming is real…are wrong on both counts. Global warming is happening…and it can’t be explained entirely by natural forces.” Pielke and others believe that the dissent concerning the subject of global warming is not only hampering our ability to describe the phenomena, but is also hurting public opinion on the subject. To put it simply, the debate over global warming is clouding the public view of the subject, and may even be hampering our ability to respond to it.
Even at Del Mar, conflicting opinion stories published by the Foghorn this semester have already debated back and fourth on the subject, bringing up conflicting data and viewpoints. The simple fact of the matter, according to the general scientific community, is that global warming is indeed happening, though its effects, causes and concerns are still the subject of an endless debate. One thing that is far more certain, however, is our ability to do something about it. Just as mankind’s industrial revolution brought about anthropogenic green house emissions, so too could mankind take steps necessary to lessen our impact on the Earth–that is, if we can come to an accord on the subject and end our debate.
Sam Parris-Copy Editor