Climate Change. Global Warming. The Greenhouse Effect. Whatever you call it, the threat of rising global temperatures has been an issue of intense debate for decades. Despite a strong consensus among much of the scientific community, there remain many articulate and intelligent skeptics of the global warming theory in both the scientific and political arenas, as well as among the general public.
While the issue is generally framed as a political one, taking appropriate action shouldn’t be a matter of partisan debate. Regardless of whether climate change is driven by human activity, or simply part of the Earth’s natural cycle, the push for energy conservation is a rational and responsible one. For years, the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has advocated for a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
Established in 1988, the IPCC has been working for more than 20 years to evaluate the risk of human-created climate change, based on the ongoing findings of scientists and institutions around the world. In 2007, the panel released its Fourth Assessment Report. The authors of the report warned that we could see an increase of about 0.36 degrees per decade over the next two decades, with even higher increases projected for later decades.
While that may sound like a modest rise in temperature, the net result could be intense, with average temperatures rising by as much as 11.5 degrees by the end of this century. If that happens, the effects on human health, water resources, agriculture and outdoor recreation would be immense. The following is a look at how increased temperatures would touch each of those areas.
As temperatures rise, increases in threats to human health could result. Though cold-related injuries and illnesses would decline, cases of heat stress are expected to increase, particularly in large cities, which because of a higher concentration of greenhouse gas emissions, can even now be up to 10 degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas. Such extreme heat would be especially dangerous for children, the elderly, and those with heart conditions or asthma.
Higher temperatures could also contribute to air quality problems, including increases in ground-level ozone and air pollution, which can damage healthy lung tissue and worsen existing respiratory problems.
Some scientists predict the warming trend could result in more frequent extreme weather events, such as forest fires, droughts, flooding and tropical storms, which could also negatively impact public health.
The potential impacts of climate change on the water supply are hard for scientists to predict, but very few of the educated guesses on the issue offer good news.
Whether higher temperatures would result in less rainfall or more is a matter of debate among scientists, and would likely vary by region, but either scenario could result in increased water pollution. In areas with reduced rainfall, stream and lake levels would fall, resulting in less dilution of existing pollutants.
Increased rainfall, on the other hand, could result in more pollution due to sedimentation, as well as overloads to facilities designed to reduce sewage overflows and storm-water runoff. If sea levels rise as predicted, freshwater quality in coastal areas could also be affected, contaminating the water supply with saltwater.
Higher temperatures would speed evaporation and, when combined with earlier snowmelt and potential decreases in precipitation, could also increase the risk of drought conditions.
Climate is a critical to food production. While crop growth might initially benefit from a warmer climate, especially in temperate areas, ongoing changes in climate, water supply and soil moisture would eventually make farming more difficult in some regions. A temperature-related increase in ground-level ozone could also present a challenge to farmers, as could the greater potential for droughts, floods, and heat waves.
According to a 2001 report by the National Resources Council, regional climate shifts are likely to result in significant changes in the agricultural industry. Because large corporate farms are better equipped to make modifications to equipment, practices and crops, or even to relocate, the climate shift is likely to have a larger impact on small farmers.
Parks, refuges, and wilderness areas are set aside because of their unique natural characteristics. If plant and animal species migrate in response to climate shifts, much of our public recreation land could be subject to drastic changes in character.
We may not have to wait very long to witness those effects. Montana’s Glacier National Park has only 25 active glaciers today, down from about 150 in 1850, and those that remain are only a fraction of their former size.
Some of the predicted climate-based impacts on recreation and tourism in the U.S. include declines in coldwater fish habitat that would curb fishing; shifts in migratory bird populations, affecting birdwatchers and hunters; beach loss due to sea-level rise; changes in coral reefs, affecting snorkeling and SCUBA diving; and fewer locations and days suitable for winter activities, such as skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing.
What Can You Do?
Even if human-generated climate change turns out to be a myth, as some insist, we will still benefit from reducing our dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels. The rewards reaped will be cleaner air, less competition for finite resources and less anxiety over them, and monetary savings. If, however, global warming is a reality, and we continue to consume energy at today’s levels, scientists say the consequences could be dire. By making just a few small changes in your home and yard, you can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, increase the nation’s energy independence, and save money. Here are a few simple and painless suggestions, courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to help you get started.
Greenhouse Gasses: According to the EPA, greenhouse gases are gases that trap the heat of the sun in the earth’s atmosphere, producing the greenhouse effect.The two major greenhouse gases are water vapor and carbon dioxide. Lesser greenhouse gases include methane, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons, and nitrogen oxides.
The “Greenhouse Effect”: The effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, due to certain gases, in trapping heat from the sun; the atmosphere acts like a greenhouse.
Greenhouse Emissions: Waste gases given off by industrial and power plants, automobiles, and other processes.