Paul Donahue

September 2008

The vast majority of climate scientists now agree that global warming represents the greatest threat to life on our planet (a FAR greater threat than that posed by terrorism) and will be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Even United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described climate change as one of the major issues facing the world. How much do you know about it?

What is a greenhouse gas and why is it called by that name? ANSWER: Greenhouse gases are the gases present in the Earth's atmosphere which reduce the loss of heat into space, trapping the heat in the atmosphere and therefore contributing to the rise of global temperatures through the greenhouse effect. It is called the greenhouse effect because the gases act in much the same way as do the glass walls of a greenhouse.

Is there still legitimate scientific debate on the validity of the concept of whether or not global warming is caused by human activity? ANSWER: No, there is no longer any legitimate scientific debate on the validity of the concept of whether or not global warming is caused by human activity. When a sampling was done of the peer-reviewed articles in the science which mentioned the words climate change, 100% of them agreed with the basic philosophy that humans are responsible for the majority of climate change…not a single one expressed doubt. But when a survey was done of articles in the popular media (newspapers, magazines), 53% expressed doubt as to the causes of climate change. The journalists of the popular media have done us an enormous disservice by misleading and confusing us!

We frequently hear of carbon dioxide as being responsible for global warming. However, a number of gaseous compounds contribute to global warming and some are considerably more potent, thousands of times more potent, in that regard than carbon dioxide. The Kyoto Protocol covers six of these gases. Can you name one other gas that contributes to global warming? ANSWER: The Kyoto Protocol covers six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulfur hexafluoride. Chlorofluorocarbons and even water vapor also act as greenhouse gases. In fact, any molecule with more than two atoms will trap heat.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is measured in parts per million (ppm). There is a very close correlation between the temperature and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere - the more ppm of CO2, the more heat is trapped and the warmer the planet becomes. Most scientists now agree on the number of ppm of CO2 we must remain below if we want to avoid catastrophic warming and “climate chaos”. What is that number of ppm, are we currently above or below it, and is the ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere going up or down?
ANSWER: Most scientists now agree that we must remain below 350 ppm of CO2 to avoid catastrophic warming and “climate chaos”. As of May 2008 the level of CO2 in the atmosphere stood at 387 ppm and was increasing at 2.15 ppm per year. Obviously, we’re in trouble. In the words of climate activist Guy Dauncey, “We are heading into unknown territory - beyond the bounds of our knowledge and experience.”

Rising temperatures are melting ice around the planet and this melting ice is raising the sea level. If the Greenland ice sheet slips into the ocean, a distinct possibility in the not so distant future, how much will the level of the sea rise? ANSWER: If the Greenland ice sheet melted or slipped into the sea, it would cause sea levels to rise by about 6.5 to 7 meters or 21 to 23 feet. The West Antarctic ice sheet is also at risk of disappearing, and that represents another 6 meters or 20 feet of sea level rise. Unfortunately, melting ice is not the only factor affecting the sea level. As the oceans warm, their water expands, and this expansion also contributes to sea level rise. Anyone interested in buying some nice ocean front property in Florida?

Which areas of the globe are currently experiencing the fastest warming, the equatorial regions or the poles? ANSWER: Over the past 100 years Arctic temperatures have been rising at almost twice the global average.

What is ocean acidification, what causes it, and is it a good thing or a bad thing? ANSWER: Ocean acidification is the name given to the ongoing increase in acidity of the Earth's oceans, caused by their uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) due to human activities increases the amount of CO2 dissolved in the oceans. Carbon dioxide gas dissolved in the ocean reacts with water to form carbonic acid resulting in ocean acidification. Since biological organisms and systems are adapted to a narrow range of acidity, this is a serious concern - definitely a bad thing.

Global warming is causing the rapid retreat of glaciers all over the world. How will this affect mountain communities near these glaciers, such as in the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia? ANSWER: Many of these communities depend on glacial meltwater to supply their water needs. When this supply of water disappears, it is not clear where these communities will get their water.

What do climate researchers have to say about extreme weather and global warming?
ANSWER: According to climate researchers, as global warming advances we can expect to see more and more extreme weather - stronger hurricanes, stronger electrical storms, drier and longer droughts, heavier and more prolonged rains.

What country is responsible for the emission of the greatest amount of CO2? What country is number two? ANSWER: China is number one, the United States is number two.

What country is responsible for the greatest per capita emissions of CO2? ANSWER: The United States, by a wide margin.

What percentage of the world’s CO2 emissions come from the United States? ANSWER: The U.S. is responsible for about 21% of the world’s CO2 emissions. China now accounts for nearly a quarter of global CO2 emissions, but as much of China’s industry is now geared towards producing many of the products we use in the United States, the effective emissions of the U..S. are actually much higher than 21%.

What percentage of CO2 emissions come from transportation? ANSWER: Worldwide, the transportation sector is responsible for about 25% of CO2 emissions. Within the U.S., transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions account for about a third of total CO2 emissions and represent the second largest source of CO2 emissions Electricity generation is the largest source of emissions within the U.S.

What is the relationship between the gasoline we burn and the amount of CO2 produced? ANSWER: Burning one gallon of gasoline produces 24.97 pounds of CO2 emissions.

If we were to burn all the world’s fossil fuels, apparently the goal of most of our politicians, what kind of a rise in average global temperature could we expect? ANSWER: We could expect a rise in average global temperature in the range of 12° to 13° Celsius (21.6° to 23.4° F) - a completely unthinkable rise in temperature. The last time in Earth’s history that the average global temperature was only 3° Celsius (5.4° F.) warmer, the sea level was 25 meters (82 feet) higher than it is today!

What percentage of CO2 emissions come from deforestation? ANSWER: Approximately 25% of global emissions of CO2 come from deforestation.

Of the fossil fuels commonly available to us - oil, coal, natural gas - which contributes the most CO2 to the atmosphere and which contributes the least? ANSWER: All fossil fuels contribute to global warming, but coal is the dirtiest. In the hydrocarbon family, coal is also the least efficient energy source, providing only half as much energy as oil, while producing twice as much CO2, and it also emits double the CO2 per energy unit produced as compared with natural gas.

Does nuclear power contribute to global warming? ANSWER: A false myth often propagated by the nuclear lobby is that nuclear energy is carbon free. In reality, several steps in the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to enrichment to reprocessing, emit copious amounts of greenhouse gases. (from the report Nuclear Power: No Solution to Global Warming, by M. V. Ramana, July 2005)

Would switching from gasoline to ethanol to run our cars help slow down global warming? ANSWER: In the Feb. 29 2008 edition of Science, researchers estimated that corn-based ethanol production will nearly double greenhouse emissions over 30 years because it will mean the conversion of grasslands and forests into cropland. That is because these habitats sequester tremendous amounts of carbon in their root systems. When the land conversion effects are taken into account, burning corn and soy-based ethanol actually contribute about twice the greenhouse gas emissions of gasoline.

What is a cap-and-trade system and what is a carbon tax, and which would be more effective at reducing CO2 emissions? ANSWER: A cap and trade system, also known as emissions trading, is an approach used to control greenhouse gas emissions by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of such gases. A central authority, usually a government or international body, sets a limit or cap on the amount of a pollutant that can be emitted. Companies or other groups are issued emission permits and are required to hold an equivalent number of allowances or credits which represent the right to emit a specific amount. The total amount of allowances and credits cannot exceed the cap, limiting total emissions to that level. Companies that need to increase their emissions must buy credits from those who pollute less. The transfer of allowances is referred to as a trade. In effect, the buyer is paying a charge for polluting, while the seller is being rewarded for having reduced emissions by more than was needed. Thus, in theory, those that can easily reduce emissions most cheaply will do so, achieving the pollution reduction at the lowest possible cost to society
A carbon tax is an environmental tax on emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The intention of a carbon tax is to reduce emissions of CO2 and thereby slow climate change. It can be implemented by taxing the burning of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum products such as gasoline and aviation fuel, and natural gas) in proportion to their carbon content. The merits of the two systems, cap-and-trade and carbon taxing, are debated, but a carbon tax would be more effective at reducing CO2 emissions.

Most of the western United States, particularly the southwest, is a fairly dry region. As global warming advances, is it predicted that these areas will receive more or less rainfall?
ANSWER: The predictions are that the U.S. Southwest will receive even less rainfall as global warming advances. This is not exactly good news for the residents of Tucson and Phoenix.

The world’s largest land carnivore was just recently listed as an endangered species by the U.S. because of changes to its habitat caused by global warming. What animal is that? ANSWER: The Polar Bear was recently listed by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior under the Endangered Species Act. Global warming is causing a significant loss of the sea ice that the bears need for hunting.

Does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have a legal obligation to set emission standards for CO2? ANSWER: Yes, according to a recent Supreme Court decision, the EPA is obligated to set emission standards for CO2. However, this Supreme Court decision has not stopped the Bush administration from abdicating its responsibility, and to date the EPA has failed to set emission standards for this pollutant and greenhouse gas.

What is a carbon source? What is a carbon sink? ANSWER: A carbon source is an entity that releases more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than it locks up. Examples would be a coal-fired power plant and a gasoline-powered automobile. A carbon sink is an entity that locks up or stores more carbon dioxide than it releases to the environment. An example would be a forest,

What is the albedo effect and how does it relate to global warming? ANSWER: Albedo is the percentage of incoming radiation reflected off a surface. Bright surfaces, like ice and snow, reflect solar radiation back into space. However, as ice sheets melt due to the Earth's rising temperatures, the removal of this highly reflective surface and the resultant increase in the surface area of less-reflective oceans and tundra could cause a decrease in the Earth's albedo and a consequent further warming of the planet.

What is a positive feedback loop and how does this concept relate to global warming? ANSWER: A positive feedback loop is a self-reinforcing system, a process that creates conditions that make that process quicken or intensify. The “positive” part of the term has nothing to do with positive outcomes, and that is especially true when it comes to global warming. Common expressions referring to a positive feedback loop include: vicious cycle, snowballing, or run-away situation. Global warming is proving to be affected by a growing number examples of positive feedback loops.
Example 1: The albedo effect (see above) is one example of a positive feedback loop. As the planet warms, more ice and snow melts, exposing more ocean water and tundra. These darker surfaces absorb more incoming solar radiation, causing the planet to warm further, which in turn causes more ice and snow to melt, and so on.
Example 2 - Higher temperatures in the Arctic cause the permafrost to begin melting. This melting causes the decomposition of organic material that has been frozen in the soil. This decomposition releases into the atmosphere both methane and carbon dioxide, two greenhouse gases. The increase in the atmosphere of these greenhouse gases causes the atmospheric temperature to rise further, which causes increased melting of the permafrost, and so on.
Example 3 - Water vapor is the most prevalent greenhouse gas on the planet. As the Earth heats up, the relative humidity is able to increase, allowing the planet's atmosphere to hold more water vapor, which causes more warming, which allows the atmosphere to hold still more water vapor, and so on.
Example 4 - Methane clathrate, also called methane hydrate or methane ice, is a solid form of water that contains a large amount of methane within its crystal structure. Significant deposits of methane clathrate have been found under sediments on the ocean floors, particularly under the Arctic Ocean. As the oceans warm, these methane clathrates can melt, releasing methane into the atmosphere. This causes further warming of the atmosphere and oceans, which releases still more methane, and so on.
Example 5 - Due to global warming-induced droughts, diseases, pest activity, wildfires and metabolic changes, some forest areas, including parts of the Amazon rainforest and the boreal forest of Canada, are now releasing more carbon than they are absorbing. Large areas of forest may be moving in this direction. Forests turning from a carbon sink to a carbon source causes further warming of the planet, which leads to still more global warming-induced droughts, diseases, pest activity, and metabolic changes, and so on.
Example 6 - In the Antarctic seas populations of krill have plummeted by 80% in the last few years due to the loss of sea ice. Krill are the single most important species in the marine food chain, and they also extract massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Less krill means more carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere, which means warmer seas, which means less ice, which means less krill and so on.

If our society could magically stop all emissions tomorrow of CO2 and other gases that contribute to global warming, would the planet begin to cool off, remain at the current temperature, or continue to warm? ANSWER: Even if all human-created greenhouse gas emissions could be somehow magically stopped tomorrow, because of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and the delayed warming reaction of the planet, things would still continue to warm for decades to come. On top of that, some climate researchers now believe that because of the positive feedback loops described above global warming may now be self-perpetuating.

What are CAFE regulations? ANSWER: The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, first enacted by Congress in 1975, are federal regulations intended to improve the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks (trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles) sold in the U.S. in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Raising the fuel efficiency standards of our vehicles, especially light trucks, vans and SUVs, would be one of the more effective things we could do to combat global warming, but due to pressure from the auto industry, Congress has proven very unwilling to make the necessary adjustments to the CAFE regulations.

What role does our diet play in global warming? ANSWER: The production of beef, pork and poultry is a bigger part of the climate problem than the cars and trucks we drive, indeed of the whole transportation sector. The United Nations recently published a report titled Livestock’s Long Shadow. It concludes that eating meat is “one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” And it insists that the meat industry “should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” According to that report, almost a fifth of global warming emissions come from livestock production. Over 50 percent of forests worldwide have been cleared to raise or feed livestock for meat-eating, and deforestation is a major contributor to global warming. And the world’s 1.3 billion cattle release tons of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. It is also far more efficient to eat low on the food chain. Producing a calorie of meat protein means requires more than ten times as much fossil fuel - and spews out more than ten times as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide - as does producing a calorie of plant protein. Over 70 percent of U.S. grain and 80 percent of corn is fed to farm animals rather than people, so there would be an enormous savings in energy by switching to a meat-free diet. (Also see the following two

Which action is more effective in countering global warming, switching from a standard car to a Toyota Prius or switching from a meat-eating diet to a vegetarian diet? ANSWER: Switching to a vegetarian diet is the more effective action. A cow produces more CO2 equivalent than a car, when you count the oil used to grow it, the methane the cow produces, the nitrous oxide from the fertilizer used to grow the feed crops, so a meat diet contributes substantially to global warming. (Also see question above.)

Many people say that eating locally produced food is an important step in combating global warming. At present, what is the average distance food travels in the U.S. before reaching our dinner plates? ANSWER: In the U.S. the average calorie of food travels 1500 miles from the farm to our plate.

The majority of the oil produced by the Alberta tar sands project is being shipped south to the United States, pushing Canada ahead of Saudi Arabia in oil shipments to the U.S. What are the tar sands, how do they relate to global warming, and why has the project been called the “environmental crime of the century”? ANSWER: Tar sands or oil sands are naturally occurring mixtures of sand or clay, water and an extremely dense and viscous form of petroleum called bitumen. They are found in large amounts in many countries throughout the world, but are found in extremely large quantities in Canada and also in Venezuela. Alberta is currently experiencing a huge boom in tar sands development, so much so that it has pushed Canada into the position of number one foreign supplier of oil to the U.S. Over 99% of Canada’s oil exports are sent to the United States. Unfortunately, producing oil from tar sands requires vast quantities of water, has decimated large areas of the boreal forest and is responsible for the emission of vast quantities of greenhouse gases. By the year 2020 the production of oil from tar sands in Alberta is expected to contribute 25% of the whole country’s greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason the Alberta project has been called the “environmental crime of the century”.

What is mountaintop removal and how does it threaten the atmosphere and the environment, in general? ANSWER: Mountaintop removal (MTR) has been called strip mining on steroids. It is a relatively new type of coal mining that began in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques. Primarily, mountaintop removal is occurring in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Coal companies in Appalachia are increasingly using this method because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while reducing the number of workers required to a fraction of what conventional methods require. MTR involves clear cutting native hardwood forests, using dynamite to blast away as much as 800-1000 feet of mountaintop, and then dumping the waste into nearby valleys, often burying streams. MTR is a destructive and unsustainable practice that annihilates ecosystems, transforming some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world into biologically barren moonscapes. With coal responsible for such a tremendous quantity of CO2 emissions, it would be far better just left in the ground.

How does the World Bank contribute to global warming? ANSWER: The World Bank is the world’s largest multilateral lender for fossil fuel projects. It currently funds oil and gas industries to the tune of some $1 billion per year and growing. In 2006, oil, gas, and power commitments accounted for 77 percent of the World Bank’s total energy program. Only about 6 percent went to renewable power such as wind, solar, and mini-hydro. In April 2008, the Bank approved a $450 million loan for a massive 4,000 megawatt coal project in India, expected to be one of the 50 largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world.

The Kyoto Protocol is a protocol to the international Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is the only existing international agreement with the objective of reducing the emissions of CO2 and other gases that cause global warming. As of May 2008 182 countries had ratified the agreement. Is the United States one of these countries? ANSWER: No, the U.S. has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012. In December 2007 the nations of the world met in Bali for two weeks in the largest climate gathering ever to negotiate an international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires. Given its tremendous importance, what was the final result of this gathering? Were any emission targets or limits set? ANSWER: The final result of the Bali meeting was very disappointing, with no emission targets or limits set.

Our politicians, the so-called leaders, talk of reducing CO2 emissions but simultaneously they also talk endlessly of the need to “grow” our economy. What is the basic flaw in their thinking? ANSWER: The tremendous and ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions of the U.S. are basically the result of an endlessly growing economy. There is a very strong correlation between economic output and greenhouse gas emissions. Hopefully, with the so-called “green economy” that will change in the future, but it is certainly not where we are now, with industrial activity accounting for approximately 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation, driven in large part by industrial use of resources such as wood products, accounts for another 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. So, one very important way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is for us to reduce the amount of industrial and commercial activity - but don’t expect any politician to tell you that anytime soon. The conventional wisdom of politicians and economists is that industrial growth and expansion serve the best interests of society and that increased production of material goods and the ready consumption of those goods are the keys to creating healthy societies. The following paragraphs are from an article titled “Contributions to Accelerating Atmospheric CO2 Growth from Economic Activity, Carbon Intensity, and Efficiency of Natural Sinks” by J. G. Canadella, et. al. and published in the November 20, 2007 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The growth rate of atmospheric CO2 depends on three classes of factors: global economic activity (generated from the use of fossil fuels and land-use change), the carbon intensity of the economy, and the functioning of unmanaged carbon sources and sinks on land and in oceans. Since 2000, a growing global economy, an increase in the carbon emissions required to produce each unit of economic activity, and a decreasing efficiency of carbon sinks on land and in oceans have combined to produce the most rapid 7-year increase in atmospheric CO2 since the beginning of continuous atmospheric monitoring in 1959. This is also the most rapid increase since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
“We estimate that 35% of the increase in atmospheric CO2 growth rate between 1970–1999 and 2000–2006 was caused by the decrease in the efficiency of the land and ocean sinks in removing anthropogenic CO2 (18%) and by the increase in carbon intensity of the global economy (17%). The remaining 65% was due to the increase in the global economy.”

This article was first published in the Fall 2008 issue of The Maine Woods.