When I wrote my first editorial about global warming, back in October 2000, the concentration of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere stood at 370 parts per million (0.037%). Today, CO2 stands more than 400 parts per million, and the world’s additions of this gas to the atmosphere have increased nearly every year—with only a slight pause during the global recession of 2009. The rise in emissions is due to more people, each with a desire for a higher standard of living, largely based on fossil fuels.
Well before 2000, environmental scientists pointed out how rising CO2 levels would lead to global warming, and that global warming had serious implications for our food supply, our health, sea level, droughts, and other important parameters of human existence. Embracing air-conditioned homes, appliances, and large cars, most folks believe what they want to believe—not what science tells them. And, economists tell us that low-cost sources of energy, namely fossil fuels, will bring a better life for everyone. We can deal with the impacts later.
While we haven’t done much about global warming, today there are only a few nay-sayers to the issue of climate change and its impacts. Everyone agrees that the concentration of CO2 and the average temperature of our planet are rising. Some are quick to point out that the rise in CO2 each year is not coupled to the rise in temperature, but for the past six decades these variables are strongly correlated over 10-year periods. Only a few persist with the argument that these trends are not due to human activities.
We have made great, albeit slow, progress in the public understanding of the climate change. Now more than half of the U.S. population believes that climate change is an important issue. Since the average CO2 molecule added to the atmosphere is destined to stay there for more than 100 years, we’ve lost precious time trying to reduce our emissions, and we face a long time before we can bring the levels back down to something reasonable.
We must tackle this issue very soon, or the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere will lead us to an inevitable and undesirable warming of our planet. Emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels must first be stabilized, then reduced, and finally eliminated if we want to bring the CO2 levels in the atmosphere back to those seen 100 years ago.
Appropriate government policies that insure the best life is brought to all must be focused on this climate change problem. And we have some great, new tools to bring to bear—with the capture of solar energy in photovoltaic panels, wind and tidal power. A carbon tax would make fossil fuels expensive and undesirable to use. Subsidies for emerging alternative energy sources will bring the products of Research and Development (R and D) to market faster and at lower cost. This is not the time to ignore a glowering big problem, as policy makers did with absence of military preparations for the impending war during the 1930s.
This is the time for forward thinking and for the role of government to do what it can do best for the benefit to all.
I will be talking about these and related issues in a lecture organized by NCWarn on Tuesday March 24, 2015 at 7PM at the Friday Center at UNC Chapel Hill. Join us.
Schlesinger, W.H. 2011. Climate Change. Intrepretation 65(4):378-390.