What is climate change?

Climate change is a term used to refer to pronounced long term fluctuations in global weather patterns. It is most often linked to global warming but can refer to a variety of drastic weather changes that are plaguing populations around the globe.

What is the root cause of climate change?

There are natural fluctuations in regional and global weather patterns, and large volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts have had a considerable impact on the earth’s climate as well. A large meteor impact is believed to have altered the earth’s climate so dramatically that numerous species, including the dinosaurs, became extinct. However, human activity is now a major cause of global climate change. Industrial and individual consumption patterns (especially the burning of fossil fuels) have produced enormous quantities of so-called greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide (CO2). These greenhouse gasses have accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere, preventing an increasing quantity of the sun’s radiation from escaping back into space. As a result, the earth is becoming a warmer place: the earth’s average temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius since the late 1880’s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that this could rise by another 1.4 to 5.8 % by the end of this century. Such change, even at the lowest end of the scale, would have drastic and dire consequences on the earth and its inhabitants.

Is there scientific consensus behind climate change?

There is little debate over whether the earth’s average temperature is actually rising. However, there is some contention about whether this warming is caused by human activity, or whether it is due to natural long term warming and cooling trends in the earth’s weather patterns. Some would argue that the earth’s biosphere is much too complex with far too many variables to predict with any certainty our influence on the system. Climate modeling attempts to forecast future change using a variety of methods but some scientists argue that with all the variables and unknowns involved in the process it cannot be seen as a reliable or effective tool. Even so, the scientific consensus that human activity is affecting the earth’s climate has steadily grown to the point that it is now widely accepted as fact.

What are the implications?

The implications of climate change are wide ranging. As atmospheric temperatures have continued to rise, the Arctic and Antarctic ice packs have experienced a melting of old ice. The average temperature of the world’s oceans has also increased. This combination of polar ice melt and the warming of the world’s oceans will lead to a steady increase in sea levels around the world, threatening coastal areas, island states, and agricultural land. Furthermore, the warming of the earth will lead to the disruption of major wind and tidal patterns and increasingly erratic weather. There will be more numerous and more destructive hurricanes, tidal surges, tornadoes, and droughts. Agriculture in many parts of the world will be affected, and insects and diseases will migrate to newly habitable zones around the planet.

Besides the negative consequences for human society there is also the detrimental effect climate change will have on the earth’s ecosystem and its wildlife. Species extinction will become more pronounced as habitats are destroyed and food chains are broken. The diversity of flora and fauna on the planet will be greatly reduced. This would not only have an adverse esthetic effect but would also have serious repercussions on those who rely on delicate environmental conditions for their livelihood.

What is being done to meet the challenge of climate change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, formed in 1988, was the first international attempt to focus on the issue. However, it was not until 1992 that an international agreement was forged to respond to global warming. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was signed at the Rio Summit in 1992. In the treaty, the industrialized countries agreed to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses by undertaking regulatory measures to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. However, very few countries met their commitments, due to the short-term economic costs of reducing fossil fuel consumption. The recently ratified Kyoto Protocol is an attempt by the parties to the UNFCC to try again. However, only a few countries are making progress cutting greenhouse gas emissions and Kyoto was dealt a blow by the refusal of the United States to participate. In addition, the Kyoto protocol does not include China or India, two countries that will be major emitters of greenhouse gasses in the future as their economies industrialize.

What is impeding progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

For any industrialized economy to cut emissions of greenhouse gasses, it must reduce consumption of fossil fuels. This will be expensive, and many governments have been reluctant to make significant regulatory changes that would slow economic growth and upset the voting public. Many governments also worry that imposing regulatory measures on businesses will harm the competitiveness of their industrial sector. If industry has to pay for the costs of emission reduction technology, higher fuel prices, or alternative energy sources, their products will be less competitive internationally, thus harming exports. Internationally, there is a division between Europe and the U.S. on emissions cuts which is making an effective international response difficult. The Bush administration has chosen to challenge the scientific certainty behind global warming to justify its inaction on emission reductions. Other countries, such as Australia and Israel, have decided to follow the U.S. approach. On the other hand, many countries, especially in Europe, have made more progress on achieving admissions reductions, though few countries have succeeded in meeting their assigned emissions cuts.

Is there a solution to this problem or is it too late?

If any kind of headway is to be made on reducing our production of green house gases an effort will be needed across all levels of human society. On the international level consensus is needed so that effective measures can be implemented and technology is shared so as to mitigate the economic damage of moving to new technologies and energy sources. On the national level governments need to provide funds for investment into renewable energy sources and create incentives for fuel economy and conservation. On the individual level global citizens need to make changes in their lifestyles and consumption patterns to reduce their personal production of greenhouse gases.

One may argue that it is too late and that the damage to the earth’s biosphere is beyond repair. The CO2 that has so far been released may yet still cause irreversible damage. This of course does not mean that we cannot minimize the negative consequences for future generations whom have no other choice but to live on this planet.

(artwork by Stephanie Cheung.)

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Brett is a fourth year International Relations major at UBC with lofty aspirations of changing the world(for the better of course!). He has plans of pursuing a Masters degree in Brussels Belgium next year with a focus on Globalization and the reduction of the inequities inherent in the process. Brett has also been published in the 2004-2005 edition of the International Relations Journal of International Affairs.