Fossil Fuels And Global Warming

Oil and coal are commonly referred to as fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels is one of the leading contributors to global warming. Fossil fuels are made up almost entirely of carbon. In the case of oil, there are other toxic materials that when burned, or when the fumes are inhaled, are known to cause cancer in humans. When coal is burned to generate electricity or oil is burned in the form of gasoline or diesel fuel for transportation, carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.

In developed countries, such as the United States, fossil fuels are the principal sources of energy that are used for fuel, electricity, heat, and air-conditioning. In fact, more than 86 percent of the energy used worldwide originates from fossil fuel combustion. Although for years fossil fuels have been readily available and convenient, they have also played a major role in climate change and global warming. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, fossil fuel use in the United States causes more than 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions (Greenhouse gas emissions are discussed in chapter 2.) and 98 percent of just the CO2 emissions. This adds approximately 4.5 billion tons (4.1 billion metric tons) of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, which number would be even greater if the Earth did not have natural carbon sequestration processes. Nature has provided trees, soil, the oceans, and animals, which act as carbon sinks, or sponges, to soak up the CO2.

Global warming is under way and will likely continue for the next several centuries due to the long natural processes involved, such as the extended lifetimes of many greenhouse gases. However, there are ways humans can help reduce the potential effects. Because everyone uses energy sources every day, the best way to reduce the negative effects of global warming is to use less energy. By cutting back on the use of electricity, the combustion engine, deforestation, agribusiness, and wasteful lifestyles, fossil fuels can be reduced. The adoption of nonfossil fuel energy sources, such as hydroelectric power, solar power, hydrogen engines, and fuel cells, promises to cut the emission of greenhouse gases in half.

Former vice president Al Gore, the critically acclaimed creator of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the author of The Assault on Reason (2007), among many other titles, and the recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (received jointly with the IPCC) said, "Climate change is not just a crisis, but the most important crisis mankind has ever faced."

According to a report released by Global Issues, an organization focused on analyzing pressing current scientific, cultural, and political needs, the burning of fossil fuels is creating two separate problems: the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and by-products that are pollutants causing global dimming.

Some of the by-products of fossil fuels such as sulfur dioxide, soot, and ash, are pollutants. When these pollutants enter the atmosphere, they change the properties of the clouds. The pollutants become incorporated into the clouds, resulting in clouds with a larger number of droplets than unpolluted clouds, which makes them more reflective. This causes more of the Sun's heat and energy to be reflected back into space, reducing the heat that reaches the Earth. This phenomenon is called global dimming. In addition to environmental problems, such as smog and acid rain, dimming has also been blamed for contributing to the deaths of millions of people. Because the polluted clouds keep the Sun's heat from reaching the Earth's surface, it has made the waters in the Northern Hemisphere cooler, which has resulted in less rain forming in key areas. Because of this, the Sahel in northern Africa has not received the rainfall it needs. In the 1970s and 1980s, massive famines affected North Africa because of prolonged droughts. According to a 2005 BBC documentary on global dimming by Beate Liepert at Columbia University, when the

High concentrations of particulates trapped in the air in cities are a result of burning fossil fuels—notice how the buildings and mountains in the background are difficult to see. (Nature's Images)

data from these decades was run through global dimming models, the computers duplicated the famines experienced in the Sahel. The conclusion was that "what came out of our exhaust pipes and power stations from Europe and North America contributed to the deaths of a million people in Africa, and afflicted 50 million more with hunger and starvation."

According to Anup Shah at Global Issues, the impacts of global dimming might not be in the millions, but billions. The Asian monsoon system is responsible for bringing rainfall to half the world's population. If global dimming affects the Asian monsoons, more than 3 billion people could be negatively affected.

Another contributor to global dimming is the contrails (vapor trails) from airplanes. This was not even understood until the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Because all commercial flights were grounded for the following three days, it allowed climate scientists to document the effect on the climate when there were no contrails or heat reflection. What they found was that the temperature rose by 1.7°F (1°C) during that three-day period.

Because global dimming has the ability to keep the Earth's temperature slightly cooler, there are concerns that global dimming may in fact be hiding the true power of global warming. Climate models today predict a 5°F (3°C) increase in temperature over the next century—a

Smog From Fossil Fuels

Jet contrails are another source of global dimming; it was realized after all airline traffic was grounded immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. (Nature's Images)

serious increase in temperature. Even grimmer, because global dimming may be masking the fUll effect of global warming, the temperature increase may be greater than 5°F (3°C).

This could present a conundrum. Global dimming can be alleviated and controlled by cleaning up emissions. If global dimming is addressed but global warming is not, however, the effects of global warming could be amplified. The BBC documentary on dimming suggested that only addressing global dimming would rapidly increase the negative effects of global warming. In that case, it is conceivable that irreversible damage is only about 30 years away. The global impacts could include the melting of ice in Greenland, which would contribute to rising sea levels, inundating coastal locations worldwide; the drying of tropical rain forests; and the increase of wildfires, which would release more CO2 into the atmosphere.

Rather than a 5°F (3°C) temperature increase, there could potentially be a 10°F (6°C) increase. If this were to occur, it would be a more rapid warming than at any other time in history and it would have the following negative effects:

• massive die-offs of vegetation

• a dramatic decrease in food production

• increased soil erosion

• increased desertification

• temperature increases

• release of methane hydrate from the oceans' bottoms—a greenhouse gas eight times stronger than CO2

According to the BBC documentary, "This is not a prediction, it is a warning of what will happen if we clean up the pollution while doing nothing about greenhouse gases."

Using global dimming as a way to curtail the effects of global warming, however, is not a viable option. Allowing pollutants to remain in the atmosphere will cause health problems from soot and smog such as respiratory illnesses. It will also lead to increased environmental problems such as acid rain, as well as ecological problems such as changes in rainfall patterns, which can lead to the deaths of millions of people from drought and failed agriculture systems. Instead of dealing with just one or the other, both global warming and global dimming must be dealt with together.

The IPCC consensus in their 2007 report is that "Humankind's reliance on fossil fuels—coal, fuel oil, and natural gas—is to blame for global warming." According to a report in USA Today, Jerry Mahlman, an American climatologist who was formerly the director of the federal Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in New Jersey, said, "The IPCC report represents a real convergence, a consensus that this [global warming] is a total global no-brainer."

Claudia Tebaldi, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, remarked, "The big message that will come out is the strength of the attribution of the warming to human activities." Commenting about the IPCC's 2007 report, she said, "The report lays blame at the feet of fossil fuels with 'virtual certainty,' meaning 99 percent sure."

This is a significant increase from their 2001 report, where they said fossil fuels were likely, or 66 percent sure. The upgraded assessment was the result of a two-month intensive review of more than 1,600 pages of new research data compiled by more than 2,500 scientists.

According to Tabaldi, "Even if people stop burning the fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide, the heat trapping gas blamed most for the warm up, the effects of higher temperatures, including deadlier heat waves, coastal floods, longer droughts, worse wildfires, and higher energy bills, would not go away in our lifetime.

"The projections also make clear how much we are already committed to climate change. Even if every smokestack and tailpipe stops emissions right now, the remaining heat makes further warming inevitable."

Mahlman added, "Most of the carbon dioxide still would just be sitting there, staring at us for the next century."

The 2007 report also pointed out that this issue should finally receive the serious attention it deserves. Previously, the argument was focused more on whether the problem was natural or human-induced.

In the two years since its release, there have been several achievements and advancements made. The levels of research have grown, public awareness has increased, the subject has been incorporated into many school curriculums worldwide, and legislation—local, national, and international—has been passed and is currently being introduced into governments around the world. In addition to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize shared by Al Gore and the IPCC, the film An Inconvenient Truth earned two Oscars at the 2007 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, California. Global warming issues are finally receiving the media attention they deserve, making the public more aware of the real issues and the reasons why they need to be addressed now.

Growing public education and awareness have not solved all the problems. Although the public is becoming more educated, skeptics are also raising their voices in protest, continuing to cloud the issues, making it important for people to pay attention to the facts. Many cities worldwide, foreign countries, and individual states in the United States are taking action to curb fossil fuel emissions. Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, for example, has ordered the world's first low-carbon limits on passenger car fuels in the most populous state. The new standard reduces the carbon content of transportation fuels at least 10 percent by the year 2020.

Climatologists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California created a climate and carbon cycle model to examine global climate and carbon cycle changes. What they concluded was that if humans continued with the same lifestyles and habits they are accustomed to today (commonly referred to as a business-as-usual approach), the Earth's atmosphere would warm by 14.5°F (8°C) if humans use all of the Earth's available fossil fuels by the year 2300.

Their model predicted several alarming results: In the next few centuries, the polar ice caps will have vanished, ocean levels will rise by 23 feet (7 m), in the polar regions temperatures will climb higher than the average predicted 14.5°F (8°C) to 33°F (20°C), transforming the delicate ecosystems from polar and tundra to boreal forest. Govindasamy Bala, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Energy and Environment Directorate and lead author of the project, said, "The temperature estimate was actually conservative because the model didn't take into consideration changing land use such as deforestation and build-out of cities into outlying wilderness areas."

While current atmospheric CO2 levels are 380 parts per million (ppm), the model projected that by 2300 the level will have risen to 1,423 ppm—a nearly 400 percent increase. The model identified the soil and biomass as significant carbon sinks. But, according to Bala, "The land ecosystem would not take up as much carbon dioxide as the model assumes. In fact, in the model, it takes up much more carbon than it would in the real world because the model did not have nitrogen/nutrient limitations to uptake. We also didn't take into account land use changes."

The results of the model showed that ocean uptake of CO2 starts to decrease in the 22nd and 23rd centuries as the ocean surface warms. It takes longer for the ocean to absorb CO2 than it does for the vegetation and the soil. By 2300, the land will absorb 38 percent of the CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels, and 17 percent will be absorbed by the oceans. The remaining 45 percent will stay in the atmosphere. Over time, roughly 80 percent of all CO2 will end up in the oceans via physical processes, increasing its acidity and harming aquatic life.

Ken Caldeira of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution and another author of the project, said, "The doubled CO2 climate that scientists have warned about for decades is beginning to look like a goal we might attain if we work hard to limit CO2 emissions, rather than the terrible outcome that might occur if we do nothing."

According to Bala, the most drastic changes during the 300-year period will occur during the 22nd century—when precipitation patterns change, when an increase in the amount of atmospheric precipi-table water and a decrease in the size of sea ice are the largest, and when emission rates are the highest. Based on the model's results, all sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere summer will have vanished by 2150.

When referring to global warming skeptics, Bala says, "Even if people don't believe in it today, the evidence will be there in 20 years. These are long-term problems. We definitely know we are going to warm over the next 300 years. In reality, we may be worse off than we predict."

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