Global warming, or climate change, as it is more commonly referred to today, is a complex, emotionally charged topic. The fact that we can’t agree on a name should tell you something — both sides make valid arguments and can point to solid research to back their claims… making any form of consensus hard to find. The definition of global warming that most people agree upon is the warming of the air and oceans since the mid 20th century due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases emitted into the air naturally or because of man.
CLIMATE CHANGES OVER TIME
Science has long known that climate is a powerful influence on life here on Earth… impacting our biology, our culture and where exactly we live. Over the Earth’s 5 billion year history there have been some pretty extreme climate changes, though they happened over many thousands of years. Today the evidence of Earth’s climate history is there for experts to find, and use, to help get a sense of longer-term cycles.
It’s only been since the Industrial Revolution that humans have had the capability to impact climate in significant ways, and not until the late 1800s that records of weather began to be kept. Burning fossil fuels, like coal and oil to heat our homes and drive our cars got things rolling, razing of tropical forests hampered nature’s ability to balance things out, and emissions from factories only made the problems worse, along with the increasingly rapid use of natural resources and the dumping of toxic substances by free-wheeling businesses before regulations were applied.
GREENHOUSE GASES: NATURAL OR MAN-MADE?
Both sides admit that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases do warm the planet. Much like a greenhouse uses glass to hold in the heat, or the inside of a car warms quickly when parked in the sun, the gases in our atmosphere do the same on a planet-wide scale. Sunlight reaches the surface, it’s absorbed by the land and water, and then it gets sent back into the atmosphere. Some goes into space, but much more remains trapped, and like the greenhouse or the parked car, it heats that inside space.
NASA data tells us that January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record, and there are numbers to prove the temperature on Earth has gone up almost 1 degree F in the last century. The challenge comes when people try to decide how much of this change is due to the activities of man, and how much might be natural fluctuations over which we have no control.
Complicating things is that many of us confuse the weather outside our window with climate, joking that over-long, bone-chilling winters are proof global warming is a myth… junk science. What we forget is just how large the Earth’s surface really is, so it is natural for the surface to be cold in one place and very warm in another at the same time. To give you some perspective, even if the entire United States had below normal temperatures for a winter, this represents less than 2 percent of the Earth’s surface. Feel small?
There’s also the very universal and well-entrenched idea that changes in climate could not possibly be the result of anything done by mere mortals. Changing that mindset is not going to be easy.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
Naturally, there are those who have a vested interest (fossil fuel and related industries) to downplay or distort the information out there, to cloud the issue and prolong the arguments while they do as they please. The good news is that you don’t need to wait for governments to act or a consensus to be reached; you can take steps on your own to change things for the better. Be mindful of how much electricity you use, drive more fuel-efficient cars, reuse and recycle as much as you can, support legislation that puts the environment first (within reason) or puts a stop to tropical deforestation. Learn all you can about the issue and be willing to share (calmly, quietly, and without yelling) what you’ve learned with others.
The impact of global warming, no matter who ends up being responsible, is hard to miss. Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, there are more droughts and wildfires, more powerful storms, not to mention record high temps and severe rains (or snows) becoming almost routine. Our oceans, home to some of the basics of the food chain, are becoming much more acidic, and this has unknown consequences to those all-important marine ecosystems.
It’s almost as if the Earth itself is giving out signals that things are not well, but it remains to be seen how many of us are inclined to listen.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: As the official government space dedicated to all things climate change, you’ll find the basics as well as more in-depth science, a related links directory, and details on what you can do to help.
- NASA’s Eyes on the Earth: This is a data lover’s dream. You’ll see vital signs of the planet, details on key global warming indicators, evidence and more, right there in black and white. There are even special areas for teachers and kids, as well as a collection of NASA’s best videos and visualizations of climate change — compelling viewing.
- Cooler Heads Coalition: For climate change news and spot-on analysis, visit this blog, an ad hoc gathering of over two dozen nonprofit groups in the United States and abroad that take issue with global warming alarmism. The mission here is to educate readers on the true state of climate change, not to push the panic button.
- Climate Debate Daily: Want a very neutral take on global warming? Climate Debate Daily offers just that — a rare look at all sides of the global warming issue without bias. Each side presents its most powerful, convincing arguments, and then readers are left to form their own opinions. You’ll find the latest in climate news, key resources on arctic sea ice, global temperature data, solar data, and much, much more.
- Union of Concerned Scientists: A must for impartial, straight-talking information on all facets of this issue, this is a fantastic resource. The site of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a leading science based nonprofit, offers global warming basics plus information on clean vehicles, energy, food and agriculture, and more.
- Natural Resources Defense Council: The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council provides a wealth of information about green living, green business, and what you can do to take action. A self-proclaimed environmental action group with over 1.3 million members and online activists, the site puts it all out there and lets you decide.
- Skeptical Science: For those on-the-go discussions, there’s a free iPhone app from Skeptical Science that you can use to defend climate change science. Here you’ll find all the skeptics’ arguments against global warming and the corresponding rebuttals from the other side. Updated regularly.