I am a full-time writer and I would greatly appreciate your support.
For nearly three decades now, climate change has been a hot topic of an ongoing public debate. The debate itself evolved, starting with cries of imminent doom for all mankind in the late 1980’s, through tales of unprecedented, unforeseeable, and unstoppable wild weather incidents (storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.) at the turn of the centuries, to be finally hushed by a global economy crisis of 2008, when humanity discovered other threats to its well-being. With the crisis more or less over, the climate change debate reemerged in a more civilised form of real scientific arguments and long-term government policies, ceasing to be merely a popular bandwagon of easy publicity for celebrities and a lucrative fundraiser for numerous NGOs.
Being 35, I am a representative of the first “ecologically conscious” generation. Regardless of our personal viewpoint of the matter, either demonising or dismissing the human impact on the long-term, global climate processes, we are the first generation raised with this issue present in the background of our perception ever since we were old enough to understand any of it. This makes us responsible to know what we are talking about.
The Essence of Global Warming
So is the climate changing? Definitely so. Global warming is a fact. It started around 1850 and for the moment seems to have stopped in 1998 with no significant change until now. This, in itself, would not be dangerous at all, because a natural cycle of warm periods interrupted by more or less severe ice ages (last one, known as medieval little ice age, took place from 1350 to 1850) has been occurring for millennia. Unfortunately, current rise of temperature is about twice higher than the highest peak of the previous cycle, which was around 1000 years ago (amplitude of 1.7℃ so far, compared to 0.85℃ in the previous cycle), so it is safe to say that something is amiss. Especially that most of this gap falls to only one side of the average, with only about 0.1-0.2℃ lowering of the lowest temperature of the cycle and the rest adding up to excessive warmth. Let’s take a closer look at the most important processes relevant to this climate change.
ASPECT 1: Earth’s Magnetic Field Polarisation Change
The least publicly acknowledged phenomenon contributing to global warming and yet arguably the most influential is the change in Earth’s magnetic field polarisation, which we may be unknowingly experiencing. This happens on average every 450 000 years. Earth’s magnetic field polarization diminishes (becomes less dipolar and more multipolar) by as much as even 95% and then the poles (North and South) switch places (this is a rapid process – it is agreed that at its peak the poles can move as fast as 6° a day). This process is now long overdue, with the last one having occurred around 750 000 years ago.
Moreover, we are currently experiencing a vivid (in geological terms) change of Earth’s magnetic poles position and strength. The North Pole is now drifting westwards from northern Canada towards Siberia at a dashing speed of over 40 km/year (compared to only 10 km/year at the beginning of the XXth century. Meanwhile, polarisation decreased to only 35% of its peak strength about 2000 years ago with nearly a quarter of this drop happening within last two centuries. These processes have three major effects that influence our climate changes.
The first factor is a reduction of high energy particles (or GCR – Galactic Cosmic radiation) caught by our planet’s magnetic field. Don’t worry – they are all caught by our ionosphere, but at a price – a secondary radiation occurs in the lower parts of our atmosphere, which, being harmless itself, heats the atmosphere.
The second effect is lowering of the whole atmosphere by around 5 km so far. This results in less high altitude clouds reflecting sunbeams and more low altitude clouds insulating the Earth. Another possible side effect of this phenomenon is a slight global rise of atmospheric pressure causing higher air temperatures. It is generally agreed that this aspect of Earth’s magnetic field depolarization accounts for at least 14% and maybe as much as 50% of the whole global warming (defined as a rise of global mean temperatures).
The third result is not directly connected to global warming but is definitely a part of the climate change debate. Due to abrupt changes in magnetic field flows, extreme weather phenomenons occur more frequently. This is especially true for overabundant rainfall, strong winds and thunderstorms. This effect is also magnified by the rising temperature.
Before we move on, it is important to also mention an increase in Earth’s seismic activity, which is strongly correlated with magnetic field changes, although the causality links have not yet been agreed upon (i.e. it can be a different result of a common cause, but also a cause or a result by itself). Apart from unexpected earthquakes and tsunamis a crucial aspect of increased seismic activity is a possibility of triggering a supervolcano incident. The most known supervolcano cell is the Yellowstone National Park, responsible for 4 of 10 greatest eruptions known to us (3rd, 6th, 7th, and 10th), each of which triggered an ice age and resulted in numerous species extinctions. Yellowstone erupts fairly regularly, every 650 000 years with the last eruption around 640 000 years ago. Normally we shouldn’t be too concerned about it, but the abnormalities in the magnetic field flow might trigger a premature incident. If that happens, global warming will definitely stop being a problem to worry about.
ASPECT 2: The Solar Cycle
Another process fully beyond human control is the solar cycle. Currently we are quite far past its all-time high, which took place around 1950 as well as past the local peak, which occurred in 1990, but still we are experiencing 20% more solar activity than the average for the 1850’s. Excessive solar energy reaching our planet is generally agreed to be responsible for at least 15% of the extra temperature rise and may account for as much as 40%.
ASPECT 3: Data Discrepancies
Let’s move on to another aspect of global warming, this time manmade, the urbanisation. Whilst its effect on air temperature is obvious and has already been measured, the data is often misinterpreted. Air temperature undoubtedly rises faster in big cities than in small villages, e.g.: New York’s mean temperature increased by over 2.5℃ (over 4℉) in the last 200 years compared to only about a 0.6℃ (little over 1℉) rise in Death Valley. What we seem to overlook is the fact that these local nodes have little effect globally, yet are a big chunk of the collected data (there are statistically more weather stations in cities, because they are easier to maintain and can be used for commercial purposes, i.e. press, TV, internet weather reports). Data insufficiency and methodology discrepancies may account from 0 up to 10% of the temperature rise.
ASPECT 4: Greenhouse Gases
The last factor taking part in the global warming are the greenhouse gases, which unjustly have a pretty bad public reputation. The truth is that they make life as we know possible on this surprisingly cold planet, heating Earth’s surface by a whopping 33℃ (59,4℉) and making it inhabitable by pushing a somewhat unbearable average temperature of -19℃ (-2.2℉) to a much more appreciable 14℃ (57.2℉). Although the most abundant greenhouse gas is water vapour responsible for up to 85% of the greenhouse effect, we can step over to the next gas, because humidity of our atmosphere is constant, beyond human control, and does not matter in our debate.
Next in line is carbon dioxide (CO2). Since 1750, CO2 levels have risen by 40% from 280 ppm (parts per million) to 392 ppm, which is the capital argument of all the “eco-fighters” that this is the main culprit behind the global warming. It is argued that the rise in carbon dioxide levels directly translates to the excessive rise in temperature and because CO2 represents roughly around 10% of the greenhouse effect (3.3℃), the documented 40% rise of its abundance more than explains the 0.85℃ extra rise in temperature. This train of thought is simplistic and can hardly be called scientific, but it is popular because the calculations not only seem plausible at first sight but also absolve us of lack of knowledge about any other processes shaping our ecosystem, giving humanity a false sense of control over our planet. Meanwhile, whilst being undoubtedly responsible for some part of the global warming process, CO2 is not even the worst greenhouse gas. Enter methane…
Methane (CH4) is also called a natural gas because you can also find in your own farts (abundantly). It is also a common fuel and a byproduct of the ubiquitous decay of dead organic matter. Unfortunately, it is also quite a potent warming agent as 1 particle of methane carries about 72 times more greenhouse effect potential than a particle of carbon dioxide. Within the last 265 years, levels of methane abundance in the atmosphere rose by a fraction over 170%, although on the whole this gas is about 225 times less abundant than CO2.
Carbon dioxide and methane are both natural gases and it is very difficult to prove beyond doubt that their rise of concentration in the atmosphere is purely man made. Burning fossil fuels, industrialisation and cattle herding are undoubtedly to blame, but as I mentioned earlier recent years were overly abundant in seismic activity releasing enormous amounts of these gases into atmosphere with every volcanic eruption (8 notable incidents since 1750, twice the average for the documented two millennia). It is also worth mentioning that current levels CO2 are relatively young, as they were still around ten times higher only 400 million years ago (around 8% of Earth’s age).
The greenhouse effect is also partially self-propelling. Because of the rise in air temperature icebergs detach from polar ice caps more often and after drifting to warmer regions, melt completely releasing vast amounts of additional CO2 frozen in ice into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, mankind has also created its own greenhouse gases that are unmistakably chemical: the CFCs, HCFCs, sulphur hexafluoride and a greenhouse effect superstar: tetrafluoromethane. The last one is not really a threat being very scarce, but its particle carries over 5200 times more warming potential than a particle of carbon dioxide and lasts for 50 000 years. The first three are the dark remnants of casual environmental neglect of the 1980’s and are being phased out at the moment with CFCs already virtually out of use and HCFCs to follow by 2030. All together these gasses add up to around 1200 ppt (parts per trillion), which make them about 1350 times less abundant than methane and about 300 000 times less abundant than carbon dioxide, yet they are responsible for as much as ⅙ of the impact CO2 has on our climate. The bad news is they will be around for a long, long time and there’s nothing to blame except our own stupidity.
But let’s return to the original question: Is climate change our fault? The answer is not simple in any way. Most probably to some extent climate changing processes are accelerated and enhanced by civilisation, but it is also undeniable that those processes would progress naturally even if we were not around. To fully understand our impact on the ecosystem we should probably diverse our answer into three time-frames: immediate, short-term and long-lasting.
Immediate effects are those we see all around us. Changes that happen within a generation. Those were extremely harmful from the start of the industrial revolution in 1750 until the end of the XXth century with the globally darkest hour in the 1980’s. We survived, heard the wake-up call and took action. What is definitively positive is the change in our mental approach to ecology, energy preservation, and resource management, e.g.: within last 25 years the deforestation of the Amazon decreased more than fivefold (from 21 150 km2 in 1988 to 4 840 km2 in 2014). Our air is less polluted and our rivers are cleaner than they were a quarter of the century ago. By our, I mean Australia, both Americas and Europe. Change is much slower in Africa and possibly even reverse in Asia, although 2014 was a remarkable year with China’s pollution emission lower than the previous year for the first time in history.
The short-term effects are those lasting anything from fifty to a few hundred years. Unfortunately, some of our pollutions will be with us for even longer. Changing our fossil based power system to renewable sources of energy, reducing CO2 and CH4 emissions and severely punishing hard, chemical pollution will definitely make our lives and the lives of our offspring better, but it is crucial to acknowledge two very important conditions of these actions. First of all they need to be global. Being a Polish citizen, I am proud to say that the EU is the avantgarde of ecologically conscious, long-term, government policies, but if EU’s legislation is not matched by USA, Canada, Australia, Russia, India, and China, it will serve little or no purpose globally, while being extremely strenuous economically for our local community. And so we arrive at the second condition: economic viability. Ecologically conscious legislature must keep a rational profit/cost ratio without giving in to extremists from either side of the debate. After all, we should strive to better our lives with as little negative impact on our environment as possible, not to serve the environment at all cost.
Finally, we come to the long-term impact of humankind on our planet. In geology terms, long-term means millennia, if not hundreds of them. 250 years of our industrial activity are nothing more than lighting a match next to a floodlight. Sooner or later the Yellowstone Supervolcano will erupt bringing us decades of severe winter and obliterating the global warming process. While it does make us feel better to think we have the power to change our planet’s processes, we are far from it. At this moment, we are merely capable of making our own lives better or worse by exacting minuscule changes in the global, temporary landscape. Thus, although we should continue to use Earth’s resources wisely and strive to alter our ecosystem as little as possible, we should remember we are doing it for our own good and not some mystical “tired mother Earth”. Earth is fine, do not be too proud in your claims.
Summing up, it is important to notice that both points of view of the climate change debate are biased by certain groups of interest. One side is driven by scientific grants financed by NGOs for which no imminent ecological threat means no fundraising edge, whereas the other is constantly fuelled by traditional power corporations for which any action changing the status quo is potentially dangerous. Thus, it is essential to filter out emotionally charged arguments and take an impartial look at the hard data and study the true nature of climate change, remembering that today our fear is used to raise money for the well being of countless NGOs whilst indifference serves lowering corporate costs.
Another way of looking at this matter is realising that today we learn so much about our planet thanks to the eco-alarmists of the 1980’s while every year we are more capable of surviving a truly apocalyptic natural disaster thanks to corporate research and development departments. They are both necessary even if to an unbiased bystander they may seem as necessary evil.
The bottom line is: we need to adapt. Global warming may continue even if we proceed with all the proposed limitations of pollution and greenhouse gases emissions. Thus, we need to look forward and be prepared to act.
If you want to know more here are some useful links: