The issue of global warming is unique among the major international problems as it is one area that has transformative, comprehensive and long term impact on the future of entire world. For over a decade now the subject of global warming has become the common platform for intellectuals citizens, scientists, social organizations, and political and economic leaders from different parts of world to converge, assess and determine the possible ways to contain and mitigate its threat, that poses an unprecedented risk to the functioning and perhaps very survival of humanity.
Global warming, as an empirical instance, was factually corroborated in late in 1980s and early 1990s (Paterson, 1996), although in theory it was predicted quite earlier by leading scientists and environmentalists. The years since 1987 started to show the veracity of these predictions as global average annual temperature soared higher every passing year and 1998 became the warmest year in the recorded years. More ominously, the second and third most warmest years in recorded history were 1995 and 1993, confirming to scientists, environmentalists and people that the rise in global temperature was not a sudden phenomena, or an aberration, but a systematic process that would compound in the absence of any effective policy and action (Johansen, 2002). The issue of global warming has since then assumed international proportion as people have started to realized that the warming is a consequence of the largely unstructured paradigm of development, consumption, and growth followed over past 200 years, a problem that has been deeply embedded in the socio-cultural and economic system of the world (Uzawa, 2003).
This paper attempts to study the origin and causes of the problem of global warming, the dynamics and actors involved, the global action underway, the interested parties and the consequences that can emanate from these natural phenomena whose provenance rests in human designs.
Global warming: A background study
The increase in industrial activities since industrial revolution has been accompanied with corresponding increase in energy consumption, as the entire industrial system has been completely energy centric. as the lifestyles of people changed, and people moved from pastoral settings to high impact life of urban quarters, energy requirements saw additional boost since the beginning of 20the century (Christianson, 1999). Today the entire structure of human world depends exclusively on utilization of the energy, the majority of which, comes through exploitation of fossil fuels that include coal, liquid petroleum, and natural gases (Johansen, 2002). The 20th century has not merely seen extravagant increase in the consumption of energy resources but also a massive population explosion where population of world tripled from 2 billion in 1930 to 6.5 billion by 2005, thereby making it impossible to reduce the consumption rates. With demands continuously pressing ahead, world’s energy intake also almost doubled in just 30 years from 1973 to 2002.
This giant rate and quantity of energy consumption has put world to the crisis of global warming that have s potential to challenge the very existence of humanity and accompanying life forms. In the blind rush of growth that world has followed, it became over occupied with the immediate enjoying of wonders of fossil fuel without ever considering the consequences of its maniac pace of growth. The consequences of exploitation, on their part, did not take much time to manifest and started to inflict substantial damage, disrupting the fine compositional balance of atmosphere that is vital for animal and plant life (Christianson, 1999)
Causes of global warming
Global warming, in itself is product of two factors that are (a) Greenhouse effect and (b) Ozone layer depletion. It is important to look into both of these processes to completely understand the aspects associated with global warming
“Greenhouse is the biography of a scientific idea, the story of what global warming — or the so-called greenhouse effect -is and of how it came to be” (Christianson, 1999)
Greenhouse effect is a well understood and corroborated scientific phenomena that is caused by build up of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, oxides of sulfur, chlorofluorocarbon, methane, ozone and water vapor, that allow solar radiation to pass through but trap long wave infrared radiation in the lower levels of earth’s atmosphere that dissipates its heat content in earth’s natural system, causing a general and gradual warming of the biosphere and atmosphere (Spash, 2002). Greenhouse effect, in itself, is one of the essential conditions of existence on earth as the warmth trapped by the gases provides climatic controls for life to prosper in its all diversity and absence of greenhouse gases would have made the surface temperature of earth lower by more than 30 degree centigrade. However, the enormous amount of greenhouse gases released in the atmosphere over 200 years has increased the retention potential of the atmosphere, trapping far larger amount of radiation than required and increasing the net heat content of the atmosphere (Spash, 2002). Ozone layer depletion: Ozone layer depletion is in itself a major environmental crises, caused exclusively due the release of chlorofluorocarbons that disintegrated the ozone layer by attacking the O3 molecule and converting it into oxygen (Fleagle, 1994). The detection of ozone hole over Antarctica in 1985 led to widespread scientific consternation along with apprehension in world as it was immediately apparent that a part of the natural system has been severely damaged by human actions. What was not immediately obvious was the possible effects of the ozone layer depletion on environment and the natural system (Paterson, 1996). However, the effect appeared soon as it further intensified the phenomena of the global warming. Due to the depletion of the ozone layer majority of Sun’s high intensity-high energy ultraviolet radiation, that was earlier absorbed by ozone layer, started to penetrate the climate, but prevented from escape by the cover of greenhouse gases (Fleagle, 1994).
Other factors: Scientists are also worried about the possible bio-feedbacks of global warming that may further increase the concentration of greenhouse gases (Johansen, 2002). The warming of environment can melt the glaciers and snow fields of Antarctic and Arctic where huge amount of methane is trapped in the permafrost snowfields. The melting of these snowfields would release this trapped methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Moreover, it has been estimated that rise in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would reduce the capacity of oceans to absorb the gas, and might even reverse the situation, where oceans may start releasing carbon dioxide.
“The global warming trend continues, the results could be depressing indeed: melting polar ice along with thermal expansion of the oceans could raise the sea level, flooding coastal cities, and many agricultural landscapes could dry out, becoming deserts. And yet, as the class studied the issue further, we learned that the news is not all bad. The nations of the world have already taken collective action to solve one global atmospheric problem: depletion of the ozone layer. Global warming, as we will discuss below, is a different and a bigger problem, but scientists have already come together to measure, understand the causes of, and set goals for reducing the rate at which it occurs.” (Paterson, 1996)
Evidences of global warming
There are strong factual evidences that he massive buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere with their ability to trap solar radiation has led to increase in global average temperature since early 20th century, although in initially the effect was contained due to differential effect of radiation and non-uniformity of warming over different geographical and geological regions (Ramanathan and Barnett, 2003).
Since beginning of 1990s, the average global temperature has suddenly spiked up, a fact that has raised the possibility of a future runaway global warming scenarios with sudden and unforeseeable rise in average world temperature by several degrees (Fleagle, 1994). Some of the evidences related to global warming are (Johansen, 2002; Jordan, 2005; Fleagle, 1994)
1. The years since 1990 have been recorded as among the warmest years in the second millennium with the years 2005, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2001, and 1997 recorded among the hottest.
2. Each of the month from August 1997 to September 1998 created a new world record for being the hottest month ever recorded.
3. Meteorological departments and global climate monitoring agencies have reported average increase of temperature by 3 to 4 degree Celsius in regions of Alaska, Western Canada, and eastern part of Russia that is more than double of rise in global average temperature.
4. The global average temperature has increased by over 1 degree centigrade in the past century.
5. Glaciers in Greenland and the tropical glaciers have been rapidly melting over past 100 years, causing an average rise of sea level by 10-20 cm.
6. Since 1979, the snow area in Arctic and Antarctic regions has been shrinking at rate of 9 percent ever year. It has also thinned considerably and the indigenous communities have reported shorter period of sea ice and melting permafrost.
7. Summer spans have increased in many parts of the world over a past fifty years span, especially in Europe and Americas.
“Every year least 56 countries suffered severe floods, while 45 baked in droughts that saw normally unburnable tropical forests go up in smoke from Mexico to Malaysia and from the Amazon to Florida…. Spring in the Northern Hemisphere is coming a week earlier [and] the altitude at which the atmosphere chills to freezing is rising by nearly 15 feet a year” (Johansen, 2002)
Global warming is one of the most pressing issue that world faces. The phenomena of global warming has huge implications for survival potential of humanity as continuous warming can seriously undermine marine and land environment, natural environment and ecological balance. The continued emission of greenhouse gases threats to take up global temperature beyond natural endurance level and cause severe climatic changes. There are ample evidences of global warming and confronted with them, the world community is urgently required to take corrective steps to slow down the process that causes warming.
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Fleagle, R.G. 1994. Global Environmental Change: Interactions of Science, Policy, and Politics in the United States. Praeger Publishers. Westport, CT.
Johansen , B.E. 2002. The Global Warming Desk Reference. Greenwood Press.: Westport, CT.
Paterson , M. 1996. Global Warming and Global Politics. Routledge. New York.
Spash, C.L. 2002. Greenhouse Economics: Value and Ethics.: Routledge. London.
Uzawa, H. 2003. Economic Theory and Global Warming. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.
V. Ramanathan and Tim P. Barnett. Global Warming: Both Sides. The Wilson Quarterly. Volume: 27. Issue: 2. Publication Date: Spring 2003. Page Number: 63