What’s Happening to the Weather?
“The catastrophic floods and severe storms we are now experiencing will become more frequent.”—THOMAS LOSTER, A WEATHER RISKS SPECIALIST.
IS SOMETHING really wrong with the weather? Many fear that there is. Meteorologist Dr. Peter Werner from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says: “When we observe global weather—the extremes in precipitation, floods, droughts, storms—and note its development, we can rightly say that these extremes have quadrupled over the last 50 years.”
Many feel that the unusual weather patterns are evidence of global warming—the so-called greenhouse effect run amok. Explains the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “The greenhouse effect is the rise in temperature that the Earth experiences because certain gases in the atmosphere (water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, for example) trap energy from the sun. Without these gases, heat would escape back into space and Earth’s average temperature would be about 60°F [33°C] colder.”
Many charge, however, that man has unwittingly tampered with this natural process. Says an article in Earth Observatory, an on-line publication of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration: “For decades human factories and cars have spewed billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere . . . Many scientists fear that the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases have prevented additional thermal radiation from leaving the Earth. In essence, these gases are trapping excess heat in the Earth’s atmosphere in much the same way that a windshield traps solar energy that enters a car.”
Skeptics point out that only a small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions are man-made. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a research group that is sponsored by both the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, reports: “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”
Climatologist Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says: “If I had to put a figure on it, I would say that it is 60 percent our fault . . . The remaining 40 percent is due to natural causes.”
Possible Consequences of Global Warming
What, then, has been the apparent result of the buildup of man-made greenhouse gases? Most scientists now agree that the earth has indeed heated up. Just how dramatic has this temperature rise been? The 2001 IPCC report says: “Global surface temperatures have increased between 0.4 and 0.8°C since the late 19th century.” Many researchers believe that this small rise could account for the dramatic changes in our weather.
Admittedly, the earth’s weather system is astonishingly complex, and scientists cannot state with certainty what—if any—the effects of global warming are. However, many believe that as a result of global warming, there has been increased rainfall in the Northern Hemisphere, drought in Asia and Africa, and escalating El Niño events in the Pacific.
Can Environmental Damage Be Halted?
Global warming is just one of many environmental challenges facing mankind. Taking effective action may be far easier said than done. “Now that we have finally faced up to the terrible damage we have inflicted on our environment,” writes British ethologist Jane Goodall, “our ingenuity is working overtime to find technological solutions.” But she cautions: “Technology alone is not enough. We must engage with our hearts also.”
Consider again the problem of global warming. Antipollution measures are costly; often, poorer nations simply cannot afford them. Some experts thus fear that energy restrictions will send industries fleeing to poorer lands where they can operate more profitably. Even the best-intentioned leaders, therefore, find themselves caught in a bind. If they protect their nations’ economic interests, the environment suffers. If they push for environmental protection, they endanger the economy.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki, of the World Summit advisory panel, therefore argues that change must come through individual action, saying: “Real environmental change depends on us. We can’t wait for our leaders. We have to focus on what our own responsibilities are and how we can make the change happen.”