Published by The College of Liberal and Professional Studies
Why All the Confusion About Global Warming?
This is the first in a series of articles that will explore—and hopefully help explain—the confusing aspects of global warming.
Global warming is one of the hottest topics of our generation. Scientists and government agencies tell us we’ve got to do something to control this warming, or face dire consequences. They tell us the polar ice caps will melt and raise sea level to disastrous levels. Entire cities will be submerged. Humans, animals and plants will be forced to relocate. Islands—including island nations—will disappear. Tropical diseases, and vectors that carry them, will migrate to colder, temperate zones. Entire populations will endure climate-related hardships. The Earth itself may begin to suffocate.
To many people, this sounds unduly alarmist. We’ve all learned in school that the earth will continue to thrive until the sun dies, and that won’t happen for a few billion years…unless something happens to make the world uninhabitable before then.
Global warming involves some frightening possibilities—but the most frightening prospect is that human industrial activity will speed the current cycle of warming and endanger civilization as we know it in hundreds instead of billions of years.
While many people criticize this as a “sky is falling” mentality, it’s easy to point to examples of civilizations that did not realize what would happen when a weather pattern changed, or their soil was depleted. Rapid climate change is one of the factors that caused the collapse of the Mayan civilization in approximately one generation. Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria has been underwater for centuries. The island nation of Tuvalu is rapidly being submerged.
Imagine the consequences in areas of the world where water shortages already exist. In China today, a massive water project is currently underway to redirect enormous flows of water from the south to the north, where regional water resources have become insufficient to support the population—a situation that will become dire as global warming continues. In the U.S., California draws the bulk of its water from other states. These examples, while not entirely attributable to climate change, illustrate how abruptly a civilization can collapse.
In the United States, our culture fosters innovation and change, and we consider ourselves relatively safe because enemies have to cross oceans to invade our nation. Living in a prosperous nation with a mostly temperate climate, a strong economy and self-sufficient food supply, most Americans seldom think about something like climate change putting a rapid and unexpected end to our society. However, scientists warn that if we do not control the emission of greenhouse gases and “carbon-generating” activities, the Earth will rapidly reach a tipping point from which there is no return. When this point is reached, no miraculous innovations or feats of engineering will save us, and it will be too late for alternative energy solutions, lower carbon footprints, or other environmental solutions.
These realities are disturbing, but also confusing. It’s easy to find “paradoxes” in the global warming phenomenon. Some pundits have used these fuzzy issues to cloud the real issue which is the undeniable threat posed by global climate change, the links to human activity, and the solutions we need to adopt.
Many of these paradoxes are difficult to resolve…for example:
- How do we know for sure that global warming is really caused by human activity, and not a natural geological cycle—after all, the Earth’s history includes episodes of global warming that completely melted the ice caps, and the Earth “bounced back” so why won’t we bounce back again?
- Scientists say that the ice caps and glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate, which will cause sea level to rise in the coming century—but why does melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica raise sea level, while melting ice in the Arctic has little or no effect on sea level?
- Why is CO2 suddenly listed as a “pollutant”—isn’t this the gas that plants need to ‘breathe’ just like humans need oxygen?
- How is it that CO2 emissions from gas-burning cars weigh more than the gasoline in the fuel tanks?
- We are told that CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants and other sources need to be sequestered…but why does it have to be sequestered? Why can’t we separate CO2 into two friendly elements, carbon and oxygen?
- How can global warming intensify water shortages in some areas but increase rainfall in others—even “greening” some desert regions like the Sahara?
- In 2010, the U.S. and Europe had record snowfall—how does this synch with global warming? It’s tough to convince a Congressperson or Senator that global warming requires urgent action, when Washington D.C. saw its snowiest winter since record-keeping began in 1888. And yet, the NOAA’s remote sensing satellites recorded the warmest March since taking readings in 1979.
These are a few of the intriguing paradoxes I’ll be addressing in the coming weeks and months. My goal is to explore these paradoxes and attempt to clarify what’s really happening, what’s needed to address the challenges and what solutions may be possible. Insights will be drawn from scientific studies and papers, from the writings of experts in the field, as well as commentators and media reports. I will also tap the expertise of our University of Pennsylvania faculty and colleagues at other centers of excellence who are studying these issues. And I’ll include my own insights and observations, as well.
Most important, I want to invite you the reader to contribute information, insights and comments in the accompanying blog. By sharing our insights we can all better understand the phenomena, technologies, and issues involved in the complex and often confusing topic we call global warming.