What’s Happening to the Weather?
“The catastrophic floods and severe storms we are now experiencing will become more frequent.”—THOMAS LOSTER, A WEATHER RISKS SPECIALIST.
IS SOMETHING really wrong with the weather? Many fear that there is. Meteorologist Dr. Peter Werner from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says: “When we observe global weather—the extremes in precipitation, floods, droughts, storms—and note its development, we can rightly say that these extremes have quadrupled over the last 50 years.”
Many feel that the unusual weather patterns are evidence of global warming—the so-called greenhouse effect run amok. Explains the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “The greenhouse effect is the rise in temperature that the Earth experiences because certain gases in the atmosphere (water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, for example) trap energy from the sun. Without these gases, heat would escape back into space and Earth’s average temperature would be about 60°F [33°C] colder.”
Many charge, however, that man has unwittingly tampered with this natural process. Says an article in Earth Observatory, an on-line publication of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration: “For decades human factories and cars have spewed billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere . . . Many scientists fear that the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases have prevented additional thermal radiation from leaving the Earth. In essence, these gases are trapping excess heat in the Earth’s atmosphere in much the same way that a windshield traps solar energy that enters a car.”
Skeptics point out that only a small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions are man-made. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a research group that is sponsored by both the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, reports: “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”
Climatologist Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says: “If I had to put a figure on it, I would say that it is 60 percent our fault . . . The remaining 40 percent is due to natural causes.”
Possible Consequences of Global Warming
What, then, has been the apparent result of the buildup of man-made greenhouse gases? Most scientists now agree that the earth has indeed heated up. Just how dramatic has this temperature rise been? The 2001 IPCC report says: “Global surface temperatures have increased between 0.4 and 0.8°C since the late 19th century.” Many researchers believe that this small rise could account for the dramatic changes in our weather.
Admittedly, the earth’s weather system is astonishingly complex, and scientists cannot state with certainty what—if any—the effects of global warming are. However, many believe that as a result of global warming, there has been increased rainfall in the Northern Hemisphere, drought in Asia and Africa, and escalating El Niño events in the Pacific.
Needed—A Global Solution
Since many view this problem as man-made, cannot man solve the problem? A number of communities have already enacted laws to limit pollution emissions from cars and factories. However, such efforts—commendable as they are—have had little or no impact. Pollution is a global problem, so the solution would have to be global! In 1992 the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was convened. Ten years later, in Johannesburg, South Africa, the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held. Some 40,000 delegates attended this meeting in 2002, including about 100 national leaders.
Such conferences have done much to bring about a general consensus among scientists. The German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel explains: “Whereas most scientists back then [in 1992] had their doubts about the greenhouse effect, it goes practically unquestioned today.” Even so, Germany’s environment minister, Jürgen Trittin, reminds us that the real solution to the problem has still not been found. “Johannesburg must therefore be not only a summit of words,” he stressed, “but also a summit of action.”
Can Environmental Damage Be Halted?
Global warming is just one of many environmental challenges facing mankind. Taking effective action may be far easier said than done. “Now that we have finally faced up to the terrible damage we have inflicted on our environment,” writes British ethologist Jane Goodall, “our ingenuity is working overtime to find technological solutions.” But she cautions: “Technology alone is not enough. We must engage with our hearts also.”
Consider again the problem of global warming. Antipollution measures are costly; often, poorer nations simply cannot afford them. Some experts thus fear that energy restrictions will send industries fleeing to poorer lands where they can operate more profitably. Even the best-intentioned leaders, therefore, find themselves caught in a bind. If they protect their nations’ economic interests, the environment suffers. If they push for environmental protection, they endanger the economy.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki, of the World Summit advisory panel, therefore argues that change must come through individual action, saying: “Real environmental change depends on us. We can’t wait for our leaders. We have to focus on what our own responsibilities are and how we can make the change happen.”
It is only reasonable to expect people to behave with respect for the environment. But getting people to make needed changes in their life-styles is not so easy. To illustrate: Most people agree that automobiles contribute to global warming. Hence, an individual may want to cut back on driving or do without an automobile completely. But doing so may not be so easy. As Wolfgang Sachs from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy recently pointed out, “all the places that play a role in daily life (workplace, kindergarten, school, or shopping center) lie so far apart that you cannot manage without a car. . . . Whether I personally want a car or not has nothing to do with it. Most folks simply have no choice.”
Some scientists, such as Professor Robert Dickinson of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, fear that it might already be too late to spare earth from the consequences of global warming. Dickinson believes that even if pollution ceased today, the effects of past abuses to the atmosphere would still last for at least another 100 years!
Since neither governments nor individuals can solve the problems of the environment, who can? From ancient times, people have looked to the heavens for help in controlling the weather. As naive as such efforts were, they do reveal a basic truth: Mankind needs divine help to solve these problems.
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“There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities”
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“Is Global Warming Harmful to Health?”
An article in Scientific American raised this intriguing question. It predicted that global warming “will expand the incidence and distribution of many serious medical disorders.” For example, in some places “the number of deaths related to heat waves is projected to double by 2020.”
Less obvious is the role global warming could play in infectious disease. “Mosquito-borne disorders are projected to become increasingly prevalent,” since mosquitoes “proliferate faster and bite more as the air becomes warmer. . . . As whole areas heat up, then, mosquitoes could expand into formerly forbidden territories, bringing illness with them.”
Finally, there are the effects of flood and drought—both of which can result in polluted water supplies. Clearly, the threat of global warming must be taken seriously.
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The greenhouse effect causes heat to build up in the atmosphere instead of escaping into space
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Man has released billions of tons of pollutants into the air, accelerating the greenhouse effect