Our world shows severe signs of ecological imbalance. Eleven out of fifteen of the world’s major fisheries are in decline or collapse. Fifty percent of the world’s trees are gone and a large part of what is left is in trouble. It is estimated that the world has 50-100 years of farmable soil left, if we continue with the use of modern farming methods that cause soil depletion. Coral reefs, the “rain forests of the ocean” are dying all over the planet. An estimated 10-27% of the reefs are damaged beyond recovery with 58% endangered. And the weather appears to be getting less predictable every year. Ever notice that The Weather Channel no longer advertises itself as “accurate and dependable”?
Though some experts (a small minority) claim that there is no proof that mankind’s meddling is resulting in a global warming trend, there are almost daily reports of scientific evidence that global warming is a real threat and that the world appears to be warming at a more rapid rate than previously predicted. Twenty years ago, how many of us would have believed that you could swim in open water at the North Pole, like you could during the summer of 2000? Or that the “rain forests” of Indonesia could burn out of control as they did in 1998? There is considerable data to support the finding that weather patterns truly are getting more erratic. It is not your imagination, but an observable, verifiable phenomenon. Since 1983, Planet Earth has experienced its ten hottest years in recorded history. Seven of the ten hottest years on record were in the 1990s.
Since mankind has inhabited the earth for hundreds of thousands of years, you might wonder how things could get so bad so quickly? This appears to be the result of growing population and industrialization that has doubled world population in the last 40 years and has more than doubled man’s impact on the planet over the same period. After some great cataclysmic event occurred about 10,000 years ago, referred to in the Bible as the “Great Flood” and on ancient Sumerian clay tablets as “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, it took mankind about 8,000 years to grow the first ½ billion people. It took another 1,800 years to double this to produce the world’s first billion people. The next doubling took a mere 130 years. When I was a child, in the early 1960’s, the world’s population was 3 billion people, but since then it has taken only 40 years to double to the current world population of a little more than 6 billion people (see Figure 2).
Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming
Not only has world population exploded, but much of the world is becoming industrialized with third world “wanabees” that want to become consumers just like the Americans. This pressure of growing population and industrialization has resulted in deforestation of roughly 50% of the world’s forests plus a skyrocketing injection of “greenhouse gases”, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere (see Figures 3 and 4).
Figure 3. Carbon Emissions From the Burning of Fossil Fuels. Source: Vital Signs 2000: The Environmental Trends That are Shaping Our Future, by Lester R. Brown, Christopher Flavin and Hillary French.
The “greenhouse effect” is a hot topic for many of the world’s scientists. The atmosphere is primarily made up of oxygen (21%) and nitrogen (78%), with the remaining 1% made up of a variety of other gases. Both oxygen and nitrogen allow heat and light to pass through them with minimal resistance. Other gases, such as carbon dioxide, act like an insulating blanket, trapping and holding heat on the surface of the planet and in the atmosphere. These “greenhouse gases” trap heat on the planet similar to the way glass on a greenhouse holds heat inside.
Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, with a 1998 concentration of about 367 parts per million (PPM) or 0.037% (Brown 1999, 58). This seems like a small amount, but it is 30% greater than it was in 1860. Estimates for increases over the next century range from an optimistic, and highly unlikely, 23% to a rather devastating 173% (ARM 2000, 1).
The percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has a dramatic effect on the temperatures of the planet. Without any carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this planet would be a frozen desert, with practically all its water stored in frozen ice caps. Venus, on the other hand, has an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide. Even though it is only 27% closer to the sun than the earth, it has a surface temperature of a blistering 700º F. The higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are a major part of the reason why Venus is so much hotter than earth.
Over a period of hundreds of millions of years, as they grew, giant algae blooms, huge prehistoric forests, and coral reefs removed millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually from the earth’s atmosphere. Scientists commonly accept that mammoth deposits of ancient decaying plant and algae material were buried in the earth under huge pressures and eventually became the coal, oil and natural gas deposits that we burn today for fuel. Our consumption of these “fossil fuels” is a one-shot deal, taking many millions of years to replenish the supply. As we burn these fuels, we are liberating hundreds of millions of years of stored carbon and radically altering the earth’s atmospheric concentrations of these greenhouse gases. In a couple centuries, we are essentially changing the earth’s atmospheric composition back to where it may have been many millions of years ago, with potentially drastic consequences for our planet’s eco systems.
Figure 4. Atmospheric Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide. Source: Vital Signs 1998: The Environmental Trends That are Shaping Our Future, by Lester R. Brown, Michael Renner and Christopher Flavin.
So, what effects are we looking at? Temperatures at the Earth’s surface have increased by an estimated 1oF (0.6oC) over the 20th century. The 1990s were the hottest decade of the entire century; perhaps even the millennium, and 1998, 2001, and 2002 were three of the hottest years ever recorded. Scientific projections of future warming suggest a global increase of 2.5oF (1.4oC) to 10.4oF (5.8oC) by 2100, with warming in the United States expected to be even higher. When you consider that the changes in weather that most of us now acknowledge (RE: severity of hurricanes Katrina, Andrew, Mitch, etc.) are due to a single degree F of global warming, and that a continuation of current consumption patterns will result in a projected global warming that is 2.5 to 10 times as great over the next century, it is obvious there are potentially dire consequences for the stability and quality of human life on our planet.
Trees are the shock absorbers of the physical world. They purify the atmosphere and aquifers, generate topsoil, and act as giant water pumps that recycle millions of gallons of water back into the atmosphere from deep in the ground (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Trees and The Water Cycle (illustration by Karen Frances)
Deforestation leads to downwind “desertification”. The area that is now Iraq and Iran was once known as the “fertile crescent”, the cradle of modern civilization. Thousands of years ago, before the forests were cut down by encroaching civilization, it was 90% forested, but now is mostly covered by parched desert lands. The destruction of the trees, combined with accelerating increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, is likely to have severe long-term effects on global weather. We are witness to a giant experiment that we are inflicting on our planet and no one knows what the outcome will be.
Want to learn more about the ECO THREAT and its impending impact on your life? The Pew Center on Global Climate Change (www.pewclimate.org ) or Worldwatch Institute’s web site, www.worldwatch.org , is a good place to start.