THE EARTH IS BECOMING WARMER – BUT DOES IT MATTER?
During the 20th century the temperature of the earth rose about one degree Fahrenheit. That probably does not seem much to you or me, but it is a rapid increase when compared to other natural changes. So how has this come about and does it matter? Earth Care‟s Sophie Armstrong explores these questions.
There is no doubt that the earth is become warmer (see Graph 1) and that it is human activity that has caused this global warming rather than a random but natural phenomenon.
All scientists subscribe to the view that the increase in the earth‟s temperature is
due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil to produce energy. Some byproducts of this process are called “greenhouse” gases, the most important
one of which is carbon dioxide. Dr Janice Foster explains: “There is a natural
phenomenon that scientists call the „greenhouse effect‟. This is when small amounts
of gases in the atmosphere, like carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour, trap heat from the sun and there fore warm the earth, without the „greenhouse effect‟. The earth
would be about thirty-three degrees Celsius cooler than it is. So, we add huge quantities of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It means that more heat energy tends to be trapped in the atmosphere causing the global temperature to go up.”
We know that the levels of carbon dioxide have increased greatly over the last 100 to 150 years. It was a scientist called Charles Keeling, who made accurate measurements of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 1957 to 1997. He found that between these years the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere went up from around 315 parts to around 370 parts per million
(see Graph 2).
All scientists accept this data. They also agree that it is the burning of more and more fossil
fuels that has resulted in this increase in carbon dioxide. So how high will the temperature increase go? Dr Janice Foster says that over the next 100 years the amount of warming could be as low as 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but it could be as high as 5 degrees.
However, the attitude of scientists towards this rise is completely different. On the one hand, Dr Foster thinks that the trend which increases the temperature by 5 degrees would be a catastrophe. She says, "We can't predict the climate well enough to know what to expect, but it could be very serious." Others who agree with her think there may be a rise of several metres in the sea level, or predict severe storms, floods, droughts, famines, the spread of diseases and the disappearance of species. On the other hand, there are those, like George Hambley, who are opposed to this view, believe that we should not worry about high levels of carbon dioxide in the air. They predict that any warming will be mild with few bad environmental consequences. In fact, Hambley states, "More carbon dioxide is actually a positive thing. It will make plants grow quicker; crops will produce more; it will encourage a greater range of animals - all of which will make life for human beings better."
Greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere. Even if we start reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the climate is
going to keep on warming for decades or centuries. No one knows the effects of
global warming. Does that mean we should do nothing? Or, are the risks too great?