The problem of global warming receives a lot of publicity. Movies like The Day After Tomorrow released in 2004 portray outrageous events that can happen if measures to mitigate global warming are not taken. While this movie may be sensational and unrealistic, it does highlight an important and sobering fact: reliance on fossil fuels is altering the global climate, and the consequences of this change are potentially damaging to humans and the Earth's ecosystems.
The phenomenon of global warming is defined as the warming of the Earth's surface temperature by several degrees. This warming can have serious implications for weather patterns and has been shown by many studies to impact ecosystem health and biodiversity. It is a problem directly linked to energy consumption from fossil fuels.
When fossil fuels are combusted, they release carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water (H2O), and chlorofluorocar-bons (CFCs) into the atmosphere. These gases are often called greenhouse gases because they absorb infrared radiation from the Sun and hence do not allow it to escape (Alexander 1996, 20). Because heat that is normally reflected is trapped in molecules of these gases, a warming effect occurs on the Earth's surface. A great amount of evidence demonstrates that global warming is occurring. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that surface temperatures on Earth have increased approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius (approximately 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1861, mountain glaciers have retreated, and sea levels have risen between 0.1 and 0.2 meters in the twentieth century. Furthermore, the IPCC estimates that these changes have occurred more rapidly than any other warming event during the last 1,000 years. This change has been largely attributed to the industrialization of society. The burning of coal, oil, and natural gas releases substantial amounts of CO2 and CH4 into the atmosphere. In the last 150 years, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 350 ppm, and most of this increase has occurred since 1960 (IPCC 2001). Additionally, CH4 concentrations have increased from 0.8 ppm to 1.7 ppm in the past 150 years. While concentrations of CH4 are lower than those of CO2, methane is more effective at retaining heat. Most scientists now agree that global warming is a serious issue that needs to be addressed in energy policies (UCS 2005).
Global climate change has the potential to significantly alter the way humans live on the earth. Although these effects are widely debated in the scientific community, concerns include an increase in frequency and intensity of severe weather events (such as hurricanes), an increase in drought cycles creating stress in regions that already have a limited supply of freshwater, and a shifting of many of the world's ecosystems resulting in a loss of biodiversity. Rising sea levels will inundate coastal cities (where a large majority of the world's population resides), a problem that will create an incredible economic burden. Finally, many models of climate change predict that disease outbreaks will become more frequent and severe.
While it is difficult to determine the severity of these impacts, there is a large amount of scientific evidence that supports these predictions. Because of these potential consequences, many governments are looking for energy resources that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear energy has been proposed as an alternative, but it too has a variety of adverse environmental and health impacts.
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