Climate change is affecting all aspects of everyday life. It is costing all of us money and is beginning to threaten the lives of millions of people. In effect, the world’s people are collectively carrying out a long-term, uncontrolled, climate experiment by emitting greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere, converting forest into farmland, and changing the earth’s environment in a multitude of other ways. Although we are all participating in this experiment, some individuals, some communities, some corporations and some countries are responsible, and have long been responsible, for more emissions per inhabitant than others.
To deal with climate change it is extremely important to act IMMEDIATELY. Scientists have long recognised that there are key “Tipping Points” when the state of the atmosphere, or oceans, or soils, become such that the changes can no longer be reversed and further rapid, harmful climatic and environmental changes ensue. The current rates of ice melt in the Arctic and Antarctic are alarming. The Amundsen Sea embayment of West Antarctica may have passed a “tipping point” as the “grounding line” where ice, ocean and bedrock meet is retreating irreversibly. Similar effects may be occurring in the Wilkes Basin of the East Antarctic. Meanwhile, the Greenland ice sheet is melting at an accelerating rate as the earth’s temperature rises. Although the present 1o centigrade increase since the industrial revolution may seem small, as little as another 0.5o C may commit future generations to live with steady sea-level rise of up to 10 m over the next 10,000 years. Yet by 2050, over 570 low-lying coastal cities will face projected sea level rise by at least 0.5 meters. This puts over 800 million people at risk from the impacts of rising seas and storm surges.
Sea-level rise is just one consequence of climate change passing a tipping point. In the functioning of the earth, its atmosphere, and its surface on which we live, a change to one part of the system leads to changes in others. The melting of the arctic ice is related to the thawing of permafrost in Siberia; fires and pest changes in Boreal forests in North America; a slowdown in the Atlantic Ocean circulation; the bleaching and die-off of coral reefs; fires and droughts in Amazonian and Australian rainforests; and to the ice shelf break-ups in Antarctica. Each of these major impacts has further climatic consequences. Fires and permafrost melting release yet more greenhouse gases. Changes in ocean temperatures and circulation patterns affect weather systems, often increasing storminess and drought, thus affecting human settlements and their food supplies. Such changes can have far reaching impacts on human health and well-being. Excess deaths during heat waves have been increasing. Smoke from wild fires greatly affects people with lung diseases.
With all of us beginning to be affected by climate change, we need to think of what we can do as individuals, as households, as communities, as voters for municipal and national governments and as consumers of products produced entrepreneurs, and small and large business corporations. At all levels, people need to think of the three pillars of the response to global warming: Mitigation; Adaptation and Resilience:
- Mitigation: slowing the rate of the global warming
There is no silver bullet to overcome increasing global temperatures. More ways must be found to reduce greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Decision makers at all levels need to recommit to finding ways to reduce even further the greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.
- Adaptation: taking steps to live with the effects of global warming
Adaptation can take many forms: building dikes, levees or sea walls to hold back water; moving people and economic activities out of flood-prone areas; growing alternative crops that are more suitable to warmer temperatures; and finding plants that are resistant to periods of drought; developing household, community and municipal water saving and storage systems to provide supplies during periods of drought. Many communities, everywhere, may have to adjust their building codes so that homes, schools and public buildings are more energy efficient, can withstand more severe weather events and ideally incorporate solar power generation.
- Resilience: becoming better able to withstand and cope with the effects of climate change
Resilience involves both changing the way we do things, such as how we consume our natural resources, and more proactive and continuous community planning to cope with floods and to avoid their worst impacts. Governments have a key role in providing insurance, raising awareness and strengthening homes and infrastructure to withstand climate induced disasters.
Government policies should encourage renewable energy generation and efficient sustainable public transport.
Removing CO2 from the atmosphere
A key issue in coping with greenhouse gas emissions is the reduction of the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere. One way is to avoid processes that release carbon. Another is to ensure that as much as possible of the carbon released by manufacturing processes if stored elsewhere. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) uses established technologies to capture, transport and store carbon dioxide emissions from large point sources, such as power stations. It also has an important role to play to ensure manufacturing industries, such as steel and cement, can continue to operate, without the associated emissions. The process is a low carbon technology which captures CO2 from the burning of coal and gas for power generation, and from the manufacturing of steel, cement and other industrial facilities. The carbon dioxide is then transported by either pipeline or ship, for safe and permanent underground storage, preventing it from entering the atmosphere and contributing to anthropogenic climate change.
In several countries, the emissions of power stations have been reduced by a great expansion of renewable wind and solar energy, but, alarmingly, nearly 40% of the world’s electricity is still generated from coal and only 10% is from wind and solar and 16% from hydropower. The rate of removal of power stations emissions is far too slow to avoid the tipping points. CCS is still in its infancy. The UK Government for example plans a first “Carbon capture, usage and storage” project by the mid-2020s, when climate campaigners say we need to be carbon neutral by 2030. This is just one example of the lack of a real sense of urgency over the climate change tipping point threats.
Currently, Earth’s forests and soil absorb about 30% of atmospheric carbon emissions, partially through forest productivity and restoration. While deforestation has occurred throughout human history, the practice has increased dramatically in the past 50 years. However, planting 950 million hectares of new forests could help limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels by 2050. Tree planting could be beneficial, but tree growth takes time and the covering of more of the Earth with forests will affect the Earth’s surface albedo (reflectivity) and evapotranspiration. A darker surface will absorb more heat, while evapotranspiration will have a cooling effect. While the uncertain balance between these effects is being investigated, the prime task for forest management must be to stop further deforestation and restore depleted and damaged forests to their original cover of 50 years ago. The use of tree planting as the input for carbo offset schemes, such as those operated by some airlines, has thus to be examined carefully to be sure that the benefits are all that they are claimed to be.
Limitations to climate change mitigation by technologies: the need for changes in human behavior
The difficulties and costs of CCS and tree planting on a large scale show that we must mitigate climate change be reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible in as many ways as possible. Here is a summary of some things that can be done, and are being done already in some places and societies around the world.
Individuals: consume less meat; buy fewer clothes; walk preferably, use public transport, switch off lights and appliances that are not being used; travel less and avoid air travel where possible.
Households: in modern cities ensure buildings are designed appropriately for the climate, to be cool in hot climates and well-insulated in cold climates; use cooking and heating appliances sensibly. Help poorer households to cook with electricity rather than wood or charcoal. Grow food locally where possible; consider the food-miles of purchases made in shops.
Communities: support local food production; share community transport; sustain local markets and shops.
Municipalities: develop local climate change mitigation plans; support solar and wind power installations on all public buildings, including schools and hospitals; support local public transport; raise parking charges and related fees to discourage private vehicle use; develop pedestrian precincts in large cities, with bans on vehicles with high emissions. Encourage municipal tree-planting and urban agriculture schemes.
National governments: subsidise and encourage renewable energy schemes at all scales form the household to major power plants; close down coal-fired power stations quickly. Support public transport that serves people well at the frequencies and times that encourage high use. Ensure that all government operations and building become carbon-neutral rapidly.
Business corporations: make sure that the whole business is working to become carbon neutral in the next few years. Ensure that all buildings are energy efficient and well insulated; that supply chains use the most sustainable form of transport; that land around premises has tree-planting or is used for food production; that all forms of energy saving, renewable electricity generation, water and materials recycling are in place and used to the fullest extent.
The key messages
- We must act on climate change on a large scale NOW.
- All of us, from school children to grandparents, presidents to paupers, business magnates to labourers, can and must change our behaviour and operations to reduce our climate impact.
- Mitigation by reducing emissions urgently and quickly is the key way forward.
- We should be careful about those who argue that techniques such as CCS and tree-planting will provide solutions: they will help, but their side effects have to be questioned.
- We have to work together: one nation, one municipality, one community or one family cannot achieve much by itself, but all of us together have a chance!
Article by Ian Douglas
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