On my recent Amtrak trip between Tucson, AZ and Alpine, TX, I caught up on some reading. The highlight of that reading was an article by Alexandra Witze entitled “A Planetary Crisis” in the March 12, 2022 issue of Science News (pp. 16-24). This is absolutely the best article I have ever read about the history of our scientific knowledge on the topic of human-induced climate change.
One important point to call out. The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has been continuously monitoring atmospheric CO2 levels since March 1958, and the annual mean CO2 level has increased 31.8% between 1959 and 2021.
315.98 ± 0.12 ppm
416.45 ± 0.12 ppm
Annual Mean CO2 at Mauna Loa expressed as a mole fraction of dry air (micromol/mol = parts per million = ppm)
And, most recently,
Alarmingly, the rate of increase is not linear.
We know that carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas. And, as Witze’s article explains, that fact has been known since 1856.
One thing is crystal clear. Human activity (mostly the burning of fossil fuels) is causing the increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, and that is causing our planet to warm. We need to quickly and substantially reduce the amount of CO2 we are dumping into the atmosphere—or risk catastrophic consequences. I’m trying to do my part. We just installed rooftop solar panels that should generate most or all of the electricity we consume, including that required to power an electric car. As soon as I can get one (this fall?), I will be trading in my gasoline-powered car for an electric one.
By the way, I’ve been a subscriber to Science News for the past 50 years, and in my opinion there is no better newsmagazine covering all areas of science. If you aren’t already a subscriber, please consider becoming one.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued an important special report yesterday on climate change. In the accompanying press release, they state the following:
Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.
This report will be a key scientific input into the Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland in December, when governments review the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.
We are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice.
Warming of 1.5ºC or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems.
In the Summary for Policymakers, the IPCC states that “warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts.”
This last point is very important. Even if humanity disappeared from the face of the Earth tomorrow, it will take centuries to millennia for greenhouse gases in our atmosphere to return to pre-industrial levels.
Richard Wolfson, Professor of Physics at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, states in his excellent 2007 video course, “Earth’s Changing Climate” (The Great Courses, Course No. 1219),
The atmosphere, living things, soils, and surface ocean waters all represent short-term carbon reservoirs. Cycling among these reservoirs occurs mostly on relatively short time scales. In particular, a typical carbon dioxide molecule remains in the atmosphere only about five years. But the rapid cycling of carbon through the atmosphere-biosphere-surface ocean system means that any carbon added to that system remains there much longer—for hundreds to thousands of years. Because the added carbon cycles through the atmosphere, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide goes up and stays up for a long time.
We’ve known about this aspect of climate change for a long time. It is based on solid science. Any action we take now, either positive or negative, will affect Earth’s environment many generations into the future.
I know of no better introduction to climate science than Richard Wolfson’s video course. Even though it was produced 11 years ago, it is still completely relevant.