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Global Warming, Greenhouse Effect & Climate Change

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Global warming, a potential consequence of the greenhouse effect, is one of the “hottest”, most controversial topics in both science and world politics today. Due to the political agendas of entities ranging from Greenpeace to the auto, energy and mining industries, the waters regarding the subject have been muddied considerably. Some people, including a number of prominent scientists and researchers, deny the possibility of global warming altogether. The evidence, while previously in conflict, now speaks clearly; global warming is a reality. In my eyes, therefore, the issues requiring attention are:
  • Worldwide recognition of the problem by scientific, political and civilian communities at large;
  • Identification of causes;
  • Accurate prediction of types of changes and speeds at which they may occur;
  • Determination as to what, if anything, can be done to reverse or mitigate the process;
  • Prediction and resolution of environmental, social, economic and political impacts of resultant changes.
The greenhouse effect exists because certain gases, known collectively as greenhouse gases, have accumulated in our atmosphere. These gases, by virtue of their molecular structure, enable most solar radiation (short wave infrared) to penetrate the atmosphere, but absorb thermal energy radiated from the Earth’s surface (long wave infrared). These gases prevent some surface heat from radiating into space, trapping it within the atmosphere much as the glass in a greenhouse traps heat to keep plants warm (albeit by a completely different process).

The greenhouse effect is essential for our survival; without it, Earth would be a much colder place, incapable of sustaining life as we know it. However, if the quantity of heat retained increases over time due to an overabundance of greenhouse gases, the atmosphere and even the oceans may begin to warm on a global scale. Heating of the air and oceans would cause glaciers and polar ice to melt, raising sea levels worldwide. In fact, we are witnessing the occurrence of such events now.

It appears that the debate over whether global warming is actually taking place has been resolved, though there are still doubters. Global warming is real, not imagined, and it is affecting our lives today. Debate continues to rage over the causes of global warming, since numerous greenhouse gases are produced by combustion and the burning of fossil fuels. Is global warming a natural or man-made phenomenon? When entertaining this debate, it is important to remember that greenhouse gases are also produced by many natural processes that have taken place throughout Earth’s geologic history. Other inputs to the climate mechanism, such as volcanism, fluctuations in solar output and changes in Earth’s orbit, must also be considered.

Possible outcomes of global warming include food shortages, loss of natural habitat, changes in ocean currents, and submergence of coastal and island land mass; if abrupt, these changes could result in starvation, mass migrations (of both animals and people), extinctions, world economic catastrophe and, of course, wars fought over dwindling resources and territory.

Emphasis must be given to resolving the debate over whether global warming is a natural or man-made phenomenon; it is only through resolution of this question that we can move forward. If global warming is a natural process, it may very well be too large for mankind to influence; we must then focus our efforts on how to adapt to its consequences. If, on the other hand, global warming proves to be man-made, we must determine what the effects of global warming are likely to be, what can be done to moderate these effects, and whether the process has already progressed too far to be influenced in a significant manner.

Finally, is global warming the end game? Will Earth simply continue to warm; will our atmosphere reach a new, warmer equilibrium state; or will global warming ultimately unleash physical changes that result in dramatic atmospheric cooling effects, possibly plunging our planet into a new Ice Age?

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 14 April 2003, updated 24 March 2014.

Our Climate Change section provides resources which discuss the science behind the greenhouse effect, debate whether global warming is taking place, describe the changes we may witness as a result of global warming, and address issues that need to be resolved to cope with impending environmental changes. View the Climate Change SiteMap for a complete list of our greenhouse effect, global warming and climate change topics.
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