This paper looks at the controversial issue of climatic change. In particular, it develops the question of if and why earth’s climate is changing? The roles of man, naturally occurring trends, and earth’s cycles are considered, and an outlook for what can be expected in the near and distant future is given.
The uneasiness of modern man arises from a rupture between himself and nature that leaves him homeless within the universe…’
Over the past years most individuals have become acutely aware that the intensity of human and economic development enjoyed over the 20th century cannot be sustained. Material consumption and ever increasing populations are already stressing the earth’s ecosystems. How much more the earth can take remains a very heated issue. Here a look at the facts sheds some very dark light. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people, while today there are 5.8 billion. There may well be 10 billion people on earth before the middle of the next century. Even more significant, on an ecological level, is the rise in per capita energy and material consumption which, in the last 40 years, has soared faster than the human population. “An irresistible economy seems to be on a collision course with an immovable ecosphere.” Based on these facts alone, there is grave reason for concern.
Taken further, it is even more frightening to note that, while man has affected the environment throughout his stay on earth, the impact has been most intense in the relatively short industrial era. Since the industrial revolution, and over the past century in particular, man’s ecological footprint on the earth has quickly grown from that of a child to one of a giant. True, this period is heralded as an economic success story, which it certainly has been. However, many argue that it seems increasingly likely that the path to man’s success will soon slope downward to his demise. The climate is changing, and so must we.
This paper will look at the coin of climate change, where on the one side the human impact on the earth will be shown, and on the other, the impact of earth on man. Such a study is inevitably somewhat polemical, as it is still open to debate what the precise effects of man have and will be on climate change, and also what climate change will mean to man. It will also be quite general in analysis, as a paper of this scope can allow no more. What will be made clear, nevertheless, is that the relationship between man and earth is clearly changing. More specifically, man is outgrowing the earth. If the relationship is to continueindeed prosperthen a new balance needs to be found. The issue of climate change holds one important key to this balance.
Man and the Environment
Thomas Malthus is well remembered for his position as a doomsayer. When looking at the rates of population growth in Victorian England, he saw unchecked growth as leading to a rapid decline in the living standards of man. He blamed this decline on three main factors: the overproduction of offspring; the inability of natural resources to sustain rising human population; and the irresponsibility of the lower classes to prevent their overpopulation. Very generally, Malthus suggested that this trend could be controlled only if the family size of the lower classes was regulated so that poor families would not produce more children than they could support. He predicted that the demand for food would inevitably become far greater than the available supply of it. This prediction was rooted in the thought that population, when unchecked, increased geometrically; i.e., 2,4,8,16,32… while food products, or as he called it subsistence’, only grew at an arithmetic rate; i.e, 1,2,3,4,5,…… He provided only a basic economic reason for this however, and generally attributed famine, poverty and other catastrophic occurrences to divine intervention (he was a very religious man, a clergyman, in fact). He believed that such natural outcomes were essentially God’s way of preventing man from being lazy.
The point here is not to provide an evaluation of Malthus, and one might well argue that he was wrong in many of his predictions; but rather to highlight the posit that man has long been living beyond his means. Sooner or later, this will have its consequences. As a species, our success has certainly been impressive, but it has come by turning a blind-eye to our surroundings. “A prime reason for our success is our flexibility as a switcher predator and scavenger. We are consummately adaptable, able to switch form one resource basegrasslands, forests or estuariesto another, as each is exploited to its maximum tolerance or use up. Like other successful species we have learned to adapt ourselves to new environments. But, unlike other animals, we made a jump from being successful to being a runaway success. We have made this jump because of our ability to adapt environments for our own uses in ways that no other animal can match.”
Whether or not man can continue to adapt to the emerging environment, however, is a difficult question. In a (literally) rapidly changing world, it is difficult to look back on past or present to divine the future. But, using Malthus’ line of reasoning, one way or another mother nature will surely take care of us’. “Lack of resources, environmental degradation, famine and disease will in the painful fashion known by our ancestors cut our species back. AIDS is the obvious example of a way in which to do it….Conditions already exist in several African countries for the virus to kill more people than are being born…However, with its incubation period of as much as ten years or even more, AIDS is not a boom-and-bust infection like the Black Death. Unchecked it could move on a time-scale of 200 rather than 20 years. But the effects could be as devastating.” It is thus clear that we can not go on as we have in the past. The questions of when’ and how’ environmental degradation will catch up with us remain.
In passing, it should be noted that there are several (weak) arguments to be made suggesting the patterns of climatic change that have, and will still, occur to be quite beyond the understanding and influence of mortal men. As argued by C. W. Thornthwaite in 1956, “man is incapable of making any significant change in the climatic pattern on the earth; that the changes in microclimate for which he is responsible are so local and some so trivial that special instruments are often required to detect them.” Another interesting argument against the severity of global warming, forwarded by Meyer in 1996, is the “artefact of a transition of stationing weather observatories near cities that have grown considerably during the same period. And place this curve, with its relatively small fluctuations, net to one of natural temperature changes over the last 20,000 years, and one might well despair of hearing any human impacts against so noisy a background.” These arguments bring to light the controversy that surrounds the urgency of global warming and climatic change. Indeed, standing alone they do make compelling assertions that can only be countered by the application of theory. As also noted by Meyer, “only by adding a theoretical explanation of the workings of the climate system, the processes that generate the events that we experience as weather and the order that we discern as climate, can we suggest with some confidence what would have been or would be the consequences of particular human activities.”
The Importance of Environmental Viability
Before moving on, it is necessary to highlight the importance of environmental viability. While this may already be well known, it is equally apparent that most individuals do not perceive it as an immediate problem. For most, concern with the environment is a distant long-term problem that does not require today’s attention. This has much to do with the lifestyle that has created the problems in the first place.
In our increasingly interlinked world there is a common strive towards a global’ economy which is characterised by the swelling of liberalised trade and financial capital flows. Though it is not certain at this point where this will lead, it is very likely that the result will be increased economic activity and, in turn, increased material and resource consumption. For many, at least in the developed world, this means increased prosperity and enhanced standards of living. The glamour of this lifestyle, however, tends to hide the ugly facts. Consider, for instance, that already at this stage of development, “rates of resource harvesting and waste generation deplete nature faster than it can regenerate….As the world becomes ecologically overloaded, conventional economic development actually becomes self-destructive and impoverishing. Many scholars believe that continuing on this historical path might even put our very survival at risk.” In contrast to the impressions of many, the environment is an immediate problem.
Though environmental concerns are widespread and many, perhaps the most challenging is the significant (30%) increase in greenhouse gasses accumulated in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. At present rates of increase, these greenhouse gasses will again double by the turn of the next century. The effects this will have on the earth’s climate remain controversial, but most agree that the earth’s equilibrium temperature will be affected. The argument here remains, how much? This question will be looked at in the forthcoming section.
It is not surprising to note at this stage that “fluctuations and changes in climate occur both spatially and temporally, the causes of which are a source of much speculation and controversy. What is unequivocal is that the past 2 to 3*106 years (and more) have been characterised more by change than by constancy. It is equally apparent that climatic change, whether it is a response to natural or cultural stimuli, is complex. It is not yet understood which factors, either singly or in combination, create positive feedback, nor is it understood how they interact.” Even further, the indices of climatic and environmental change over the past 2 to 3*106 years have been proxy records, which makes the identification of their underlying causes a formidable task. Having noted these inherent problems, its is possible to objectively evaluate some of the predictions that have been forwarded over time.
There are several ways by which climatic change can be recorded and understood. Three of the most well known are quaternary subdivisions based on the terrestrial record, ocean sediment cores, and ice cores. These methods have been used in isolation and also in conjunction with one another. Of particular interest here is the growing body of data that has been collected from ice cores that is contributing to studies of environmental change and aiding correlations between polar, continental and ocean sediment records. “The polar ice sheets and those of high tropical mountains are nourished by precipitation from the atmosphere, the composition of which is thus recorded as successive layers of ice accumulate. Such records provide information on environmental change over the past ca. 200K years and base line data from pre-and post-industrial levels for the biogeochemical cycling of metals such as lead.”
Over the past century, countless theories about climate change have been advanced and tested using the above techniques. First to be highlighted are those that look at climatic change as part of a system of internal adjustments within the climatic system. “Several have emphasised changes in the quantity and quality of solar radiation, especially in relation to sunspot cycles…Currie’s (1995) identification of the 18.6 year lunisolar cycle and the 11 year solar cycles in Chinese dryness/wetness indices, for example.” Such phenomena have been associated with floods, draughts, poor harvests, and the like. A 1988 study by Labitzke and Loon made a connection between sunspot maxima/minima and quasi-biennial oscillation (QBO). “The QBO is an oscillation of the zonal wind component in the stratosphere above the equatorial region with a periodicity of ca. 27 months.” Their study over a 36 year period pointed out a positive link between “warmer winters during the Sun’s more active periods and between colder winters when the Sun is least active and when the QBO is in a westerly direction.” They found that the reverse conditions also applied. While this relationship has subsequently been criticised and generally disrespected, recent polar ice core samples have indeed shown correlations consistent with the study. Indeed, a 1990 study by Beer et al linked “10Be deposition with the 11 year sunspot in Dye 3 ice core from Greenland. Beer et al. state that increased levels of 10Be occur when solar activity declines; and because the intensity of the solar wind is reduced there is an increase in the generation of cosmogenic isotopes such as 10Be and 14C.” Another 1990 study by Wigley and Kelly not only fortifies but also adds to these findings. “Not only is there a relationship, albeit complicated by the effects of precipitation, between the 10Be in the Vostok ice core and temperature change, but there is also a possible relationship between the 14C concentrations and fluctuations in glaciers. The nature of this relationship and the way it varies have yet to be determined; for now, change in solar irradiance, alias sunspots cycles, remain as enigmatic as ever.”
Tree ring data has also been helpful in the study of natural climatic change. In addition to the variables just noted, there are researchers who believe that the quantity and quality of solar radiation that reaches the earth is mainly affected by dust and sulphate aerosols, usually concomitant to volcanic eruption. “The dust scatters and partially reflects incoming solar radiation whereas the aerosols act as cloud-condensation nuclei. Both cause reduced temperatures for short-lived periods unless the volcanic eruptions are very large.” Tree ring evidence has found that cool summers since the 17th century have indeed been primarily due to volcanic eruptions.
Volcanic eruptions can further influence climate by their pollution of the oceans. “some of the dust will settle into the water body, providing nutrients such as iron and other cations, which may stimulate primary productivity in maine phytoplankton. Their uptake of carbon dioxide could reduce its concentration in the atmosphere and contribute to global cooling by diminishing the greenhouse effect.”
There can be little doubt that the combination of these, and various other factors, does induce a varying degree of cyclical climatic change. However, some suggest that none of them contribute sufficiently to create positive feedback that would effect changes in the magnitude of glacial-interglacial swing. “It is now widely accepted that astronomical forcing, the Milankovitch theory, is the most important primary cause of Quaternary glacial-interglacial cycles and probably those of earlier geological periods….It is the change in the orbital eccentricity that is thought to drive the glacial interglacial cycle. These cycles influence the amount of solar radiation received at the Earth’s surface, especially in the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere.” However, these cycles have proven to have little effect on insolation. Other non-naturally occurring factors are therefore responsible for the climatic changes anticipated. Popular causes are the greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide and methane, whose changes in atmospheric concentration parallel global warming and cooling. Further, there may also be a relationship between “ocean circulation, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and global temperature change. The production and dampening of North Atlantic Deep Water in particular is considered to be a mechanism whereby temperature change over the Arctic ice cap is translated into global change.”
Whatever the particular cause of climatic change, what interests many observers is how the changes will impact on human existence. It is reasonably safe to say that, in aggregate, the changes will be large and profound. Indeed, it is quite possible that human life and ecosystems in some parts of the world will not be able to survive. In all likelihood, the change is probably going to be a reasonably quick one, occurring perhaps within decades, and most certainly within a century. “Across the globe, changes in temperature would be reflected, in complex ways, in the migration of rainfall patterns, with enhancement in some areas and drying in others. Short-term weather events might become more variable and severe and unusual storms occur more frequently. Forests, sensitive to temperature, might be severely damaged if the rate of warming exceeded the rate at which the forest species could migrate toward more suitable conditions, and such migration would be widely obstructed where other land uses stood in the way.”
Moreover likely is that the melting of the polar ice caps would cause the sea level to rise. While some credible arguments actually suggest that the sea level would decrease (due to increased precipitation in the polar regions), the mainstream logic does rather suggest a rise to the tune of several centimetres per decade. In time, this would surely flood very low-lying coastal areas, and increase erosion and stress on shorelines around the world.
This knowledge, however, is of little comfort or interest to most people. The only fact that can perhaps involve people and ease their tensions is knowing which particular locations will be affected, and how they can begin to prepare themselves. It is towards this difficult question that the following question turns.
Regional and Local Effects of Climate Change
Making any specific or even generalised claims about regional and local climate changes is even more controversial than the effects of climate change at large. “Existing lakes and inland seas do have some measurable effects on temperature and humidity in the ribbon of land along their shores, but no so large and so widespread as ordinarily to justify creating new ones as climatic generators.” The same type of controversy surrounds the desertification of land. Looking to the cases of the desertification of the middle east, northern Africa, and India, it is argued that “overgrazing by livestock both raised the albedo of the surface and injected dust into the air; thus altering the regional heat balance by reflecting away more solar radiation. A net cooling from these processes then promoted atmospheric stability and suppressed rainfall; the vegetation withered under the lessened rainfall and more dust swirled upward, magnifying the original impact.” The example of the diminishing rainforests provides another good, though controversial, case. As has been witnessed in these regions to some degree, changing the earth’s physical landscape can have affects on microclimates.
Cities, too, have witnessed some significant climatic changes as a result of increased urbanisation. The well-known heat island’ effect; i.e., a net elevation of temperatures above those found in the adjacent countryside, has been well documented. “It stems particularly from changes in the land surface and the energy budget. Cities themselves generate much of the heat in which they bask or swelter. The roughness of the urban land surface retards the speed of the winds, and thus lessens the dispersion of heat; the impermeable and well-drained surface is less moist, and so less heat is lost through evaporation; and the structures and surfaces typical of the city absorb and retain heat at high rates.” This increased heat may in turn result in fog, storms, precipitation induced by convective heating and pollution condensation.
On a larger regional level, the distribution of species will be affected by climatic change, which is likely to have widespread consequences for human life. Agricultural pests will be displaced, and the incidence of disease vectors’ through the spread of malaria carrying mosquitoes, for instance, will affect the health and well-being of human populations.
Mannion makes the observation that “areas of high altitude are those which have been most directly affected by the advance and retreat of glaciers and ice caps. Indeed, the Arctic and Antarctic zones are currently experiencing glaciation, and it is from these areas that much can be learned about glaciation.” Many others share this posit that higher altitude will be more affected, but how much more remains the question.
In sum, it must be said that “the diversity of the earth’s surface translates into a diversity of physical impacts of global changes, different social impacts even of similar physical ones, different expectations of their impactswhich , of course, have often been wide of the markand different costs that any globally uniform change in behaviour would incur.” Based on this observation, it is quite likely that landlocked countries have nothing to fear in terms of rising sea levels, and areas that have traditionally experienced poor levels of rainfall may actually benefit from increased precipitation. Canada, however, as a nation that is very dependent on agriculture, forestry, and fisheriesand thus more dependent on climatic conditionswill likely be quite vulnerable to any climatic shifts. In general, however, it can be said that “climate change may create opportunities for gain as well as for loss, but countries with different endowments of skills and capital will differ in their ability to exploit those opportunities.”
As has been advanced throughout this paper, there is a considerable degree of uncertainty surrounding the climatic future of the earth. This, according to Mannion, “highlights the complexity of the climate system and the inadequacy of current scientific understanding.” This vein of thought also ran through the Rio Earth Summit, which recognised the reality of global warming, but also the substantial scientific uncertainty with regard to its timing and magnitude. This lingering confusion has made the problem of global environmental change “the largest single problem facing the world scientific community.”
But, while the precise impact of man’s footprint on the earth cannot be measured with great accuracy, there is no reasonable man who will argue that current rates of consumption are either beneficial or wholly necessary. Indeed, it is quite intuitive to conclude that increasing industrialisation and increased economic output is a step in the wrong direction, at least in terms of the environment’s wellbeing. Given the state of present day research, it has reasonably been estimated that “under a business as usual scenario of continued growth of fossil fuel use, and hence of greenhouse gas emissions, the global average temperature is estimated to rise at a rate close to 0.3C per decadea rate which is probably greater than any that has occurred on earth since the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. Associated with the rise in global average temperature will be substantial changes in regional climate, especially in the intensity and frequency of droughts and floods.” Though impossible to prove, in aggregate it has been argued that the change will be large and greater than the earth has seen since the last ice age. If this is even close to the truth, it is very likely that human beings and the earth’s ecosystems will not be able to sustain the pace of change in their present surroundings. What will happen at the regional and local level, however, is much more difficult to predict though in some cases, will likely be even more devastating. From what has been shown in this paper, there is distinct reason to suspect that higher latitudes will experience greater overall warming than lower latitudes. If this is indeed the case, “the release of vast stores of carbon from the tundra peatlands and boreal zone will reinforce global warming. Moreover, if there are further reductions in acidic emissions, which at current levels cause a counteracting effect, global warming will be accelerated.” Put simply, this is not a good thing.
Quantifying the extent of the potential damage is not only beyond the scope of this paper, but perhaps beyond human comprehension (at this point) and even worse, missing the point. The only certainty about future climatic change is indeed uncertainty of its extent. It might not be wrong, given such circumstances, to prepare for the worst.
The picture that this study has painted is, quite apparently, confusing and sombre. However, there is a faint stroke of optimism that can be added. E. G. Nisbet notes that “despite our losses, we are intellectually and physically richer than any other generation of humanity. Our poverty is spiritual. It is well within our power to be optimists, if we can dispel the cynicism of the past decades. If we are optimists, most things are possible. The challenge to cherish the planet, to construct a new global economy, is far less than the challenge, in 1940, to defeat the last threat against human hope.” This strain of reasoning provides a welcome contrast to the depressing observation noted by Barrett at the opening of this study. And it is true, there is nothing to suggest that we are firmly locked into a future that is condemned. For the first time in history, it may well be possible for a balance to be found between man and nature.
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