10 March 2008

Global Warming

Global warming is an animal ethics issue. As the planet warms, fragile habitats that countless animal species depend on for survival will be destroyed. We have already witnessed radical changes in the polar icecap, changes that threaten numerous arctic species. Recently published research suggests that the situation is even more dire than previously predicted. This Washington Post column highlights the gravity of the situation [Also available here.].

Most scientists agree that a 3.6°F (2.0°C) increase in global average temperature could have serious negative environmental consequences. According to the Post story, computer modeling conducted by Andreas Schmittner (College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University) indicates if we continue "business as usual" and do nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions, average temperatures are likely to increase 7.0°F by the year 2100. This increase in temperature is likely to last hundreds (if not thousands) of years, threatening to dry up sources of water worldwide. Loss of potable water threatens countless animal species including Homo sapiens.

In independent research published in Geophysical Research Letters 35, Damon Matthews (Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Concordia University) and Ken Caldeira (Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington) have found that:
a single pulse of carbon released into the atmosphere increases globally averaged surface temperature by an amount that remains approximately constant for several centuries, even in the absence of additional emissions.
Matthews and Caldeira also find that:
to hold climate constant at a given global temperature requires near-zero future carbon emissions.
They conclude:
Our results suggest that future anthropogenic [human-generated] emissions would need to be eliminated in order to stabilize global-mean temperatures. As a consequence, any future anthropogenic emissions will commit the climate system to warming that is essentially irreversible on centennial timescales.
Matthews and Caldeira's findings suggest that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recommendation that industrialized nations need to cut emissions 80 to 95 percent by 2050 (limiting CO2 emissions to 450 ppm) to prevent severe climate change may not go far enough.

Meanwhile, Republican Presidential candidate John McCain is only calling for a 60% reduction by 2050. Lucky for him, he won't be around to witness environmental damage caused by his proposal, though he will have kept his current constituents happy. The Democratic Presidential candidates' proposals are only somewhat better where global warming is concerned. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are calling for 80% reductions by mid-century, which, while better than the 70% reduction plan currently before the Senate, is still at the low end of the IPCC's recommendations.

As the World's leading contributor of greenhouse gases, the United States should be taking the lead in the charge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S.'s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are twice that of Europe and nearly 8 times that of China. As such, it is incumbent upon the U.S. to make radical reductions in CO2 emissions.

Fortunately, we don't have to wait for our elected officials to implement federal legislation curbing greenhouse gas emissions to start reducing our own contributions to global warming. Here are some simple things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. When it comes time to replace your current vehicle, buy a hybrid. Until then, keep your current car tuned up, keep your tires inflated to the maximum safe level as specified on the tires, and avoid jackrabbit starts. [Switching to a fuel-efficient vehicle is in your self-interest anyway with average gas prices in the U.S. at their all-time highs and projected to increase 20-30 cents per gallon next month!] Take public transportation when possible. Walk or ride a bike for short errands [Doing so will improve your fitness level and waistline to boot.]. Turn off electrical appliances, including computers, when not in use. Turn down the thermostat in winter to 68°F or even 66°F and turn up the thermostat in summer to 80°F or even 82°F. When lightbulbs burn out, replace them with compact florescent bulbs.

I'll be discussing other ways to reduce your carbon footprint in subsequent posts. In the meantime, you can measure the size of your ecological footprint by taking the ecological footprint quiz. Think you're "green"? You might be surprised by how brown your footprint is. This quiz is interactive and will explain steps you can take to reduce the size of your footprint on planet earth.

Note: The quotes from Matthews and Caldeira were taken from the abstract of their article "Stabilizing climate requires near-zero emissions." The complete abstract of their article is available here. The abstract of Schmittner's article can be found here.

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