The Fight Against Climate Change: Challenges and tipping points

November 4, 2016



Half a year after the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we have reached a collective consensus that the world is ending. This is perhaps the first time in 25 million years that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have reached 400 parts per million (ppm), and as reported by Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO), these levels have remained consistent for more than a month. Normally, carbon dioxide levels reach their minimum in September. Two months later, scientists are now speculating that the increased levels of CO2 point to a new geological era termed the “Anthropocene.” 

Since the advent of modern environmentalism in the 1960s, CO2 emissions have been at the center of the fossil fuel, alternative energy, and climate change debates. Scientists have since labeled 400 ppm as the carbon dioxide “tipping point.” Ambiguous statements such as, “Reaching the 400 ppm mark should be a reminder for us that carbon dioxide levels have been shooting up at an alarming rate in the recent past due to human activity,” (Dr. Carmen Boening, NASA) have been disseminating through the media since the end of September. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas entering the atmosphere through human activities. By definition, CO2 irradiates longwave radiation towards the Earth. In recent years, it has gained a negative connotation due to its association with global warming. However, there is an optimal range of CO2; without greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, the Earth would have an average temperature of about -18°C or 0°F. 

The presence of too much CO2 in the atmosphere is equally dangerous. As part of the process, forests and oceans act as “carbon sinks.” Rising CO2 levels create a positive feedback loop. When temperatures increase, the solubility of gases in the ocean decreases for two reasons. First, rising CO2 levels will irradiate more longwave radiation, leading to increases in Earth’s average temperature. The increased temperature will again lower the solubility of Earth’s oceans. Studies show that the absorption and photosynthetic ability of oceans and forests cannot match the rate at which we emit carbon dioxide – implying that at some point in the future, the CO2 currently dissolved in the ocean will return to the atmosphere. Coupled with the combustion of fossil fuels, more CO2 is entering the air than ever before. The process is exacerbated by glacial melt; as glaciers melt, the albedo of the Earth lowers, meaning that more longwave radiation is absorbed than reflected. Heat is generated, which leads to more glacial melt. 

The ramifications of higher temperatures include ocean acidification, extinction, subsequent food chain disruption, rising sea levels, and the increased spread of disease carrying vectors thanks to changes in climate and habitat. It would also affect the economy, food supply, and homes everywhere. Already, climate refugees are migrating south in countries such as Canada. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be upwards of 200 million climate refugees fleeing the effects of shoreline flooding, and other losses of real estate. 

The carbon tipping point is very much real. Before widespread industrialization, CO2 levels averaged around 280 ppm. Now, there is around 2 ppm of CO2 added to the atmosphere each year. Since then, the average global temperature has increased by about 0.85°C. 

Already, climatologists have observed abnormal weather patterns that they believe to be the result of climate change. In January of this year, Hurricane Pali became the earliest hurricane to form in the central Pacific basin (January 11, 2016). Hurricane Alex became the second earliest hurricane to form during the month of January in the Atlantic (January 14, 2016). Although the unusual warmth of the tropics can be attributed to 2015’s El Niño (one of the strongest on record), the development of hurricanes generally occurs between the months of June and November. Two hurricanes developing during January shows that the ocean had already warmed to summertime levels. Scientists corroborate that surface sea temperatures have risen by 0.1°C. Winter Storm Jonas was the heaviest storm on record dating to 1869. 2016 was also marked by the hottest days and months on record, leading to an increase in wildfires like the Fort McMurray Wildfire in Canada. With the Arctic thawing, we can expect more dangerous weather in the future. Severe weather in has caused at least 90 deaths in the United States this year alone. 

With a CO2 concentration of 400 ppm, these effects would be exacerbated. Considering that even without additional CO2 emissions, the cumulative effects of carbon dioxide emissions are estimated to push temperature to rise another 0.8°C above the 0.85°C since industrialization began, carbon dioxide levels of 400 ppm are disastrous. To put that into perspective, while 350 ppm is not ideal, it is deemed the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

The facts and predictions are infamous. In addition to the people who will be displaced by climate change, Kofi Annan’s think-tank, the Global Humanitarian Forum, reported that in 2009, climate change was already responsible for 300,000 deaths per year. By 2050, the death toll could rise to as much as 500,000 deaths per year as a result of severe flooding, forest fires, heatwaves, floods, and storms. A more recent study found that the death toll has climbed to 400,000 people per year with an additional 4.5 million deaths attributable to air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. 

Furthermore, climate change currently costs the world more than $1.2 trillion per year – or 1.6 percent of the world GDP. The DARA Group predicts that by 2030, the cost of climate change will rise to 3.2 percent of the world GDP. 

Agriculture has also been affected. For example, in 2012, high nighttime temperatures resulted in the loss of $220 million in Michigan cherries. Drought due to high temperatures and extreme weather could also affect farming productivity and food availability worldwide. Even abundant fisheries will come under a far greater strain.

Another consequence of climate change is the spread of disease-carrying vectors across the world. “Warming of their environment—within their viable range—boosts their rates of reproduction and the number of blood meals they take, prolongs their breeding season, and shortens the maturation period for the microbes they disperse,” said Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School. The outbreaks of today mirror this observation. Last year, it was found that Aedis aegypti mosquitoes live in Washington, D.C., whereas it was once thought that the mosquito could not survive year-round north of South Carolina. A. aegypti is the species of mosquito that carries Zika virus, West Nile Virus, dengue, and chickungunya. Previously, Zika virus was found closer to the equator, but now it has spread to Central America and the American southeast. Similarly, the World Health Organization approximates that an increase of average global temperature by two or three degrees Celsius would expose 7 percent more people (several hundred million people) to malaria. 

When the Paris Climate Change Agreement becomes effective on November 4, one must consider two questions.  

First, if our current carbon dioxide levels are resulting in more natural disasters, disease, and crop loss, will the Paris Climate Change Agreement reverse these harmful effects? Current levels of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere will already produce an additional increase in temperature of 0.8°C. Combined with the temperature increase of 0.85°C since industrialization, that is nearly 2°C. The terms of the Paris Agreement state that its objective is to prevent an increase of 1.5°C, but based on the effects of our current climate, we may see even more volatile weather and epidemiological catastrophes. It is possible that the answer lies not in curbing emissions, but in investing more money into carbon sequestration so that the predicted 0.8°C increase can be mitigated. 

Second, who will bear the costs of said mitigation? Although the Paris Climate Change Agreement is viewed as a global diplomatic victory, it is not legally binding. If countries want to enforce its terms within their boundaries, their legislative branches must pass laws to hold their citizens accountable for their carbon dioxide emissions. This inherently imposes an unfair conundrum on densely populated developing countries; while citizens in developed countries such as the United States emit far more CO2 per capita than a citizen living in Beijing, for example, the global responsibility would fall more heavily on China as a collective due to its status as the world’s largest polluter. Countries have been incessantly arguing over who to hold accountable for addressing climate change and pollution. Often, less advantaged countries feel as if they are being suppressed from industrialization simply because of the past mistakes of currently industrialized nations. 


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