Global Warming 101
> It’s getting hot in here!
Nineteen of the 20 hottest years on record have occurred since 1980; the top 10 since 1990. Worldwide average temperatures warmed a full degree over the 20th Century. If things don’t change, scientists warn we could see average temperature increases of 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That is faster than anything the world has ever seen in terms of temperature change.
Scientists have been studying the problem now for several decades. While they still don’t know every detail, nearly all agree that that heat-trapping pollution from fossil fuels is a major factor.
That consensus keeps getting stronger: from the National Academy of Sciences report to President Bush in 2001 to a declaration last December by the American Geophysical Union that nature simply cannot explain the unprecedented warming trends of the past half-century.
The extra layerGlobal warming happens when heat-trapping emissions collect in the atmosphere, like a down parka that keeps natural heat from escaping into space. In fact, this is one of the atmosphere’s most basic functions; without it Earth would be a frozen wasteland (scientists sometimes call it the greenhouse effect).
The problem comes when things get out of balance.
The chief culprit is carbon dioxide. It's the same stuff that makes bubbles in beer. You also exhale it. If that was all that was happening, things would be fine. The problem is the millions of tons of carbon dioxide pollution coming from exhaust pipes and smokestacks every single year.
These emissions are growing, tipping the scales in a big way. There is almost 30 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than natural levels at start of the industrial revolution. And we’re on track to double it by the end of the century. That’s going to make for a much warmer planet. Global warming means more air pollution, and problems with water supplies as precipitation patterns change. There will be hotter heat waves, and trouble for wildlife as ecosystems struggle with the changes. The costs to business, agriculture and local governments could be enormous.
The effects are much greater at higher elevations and northern latitudes, where skiers and snowboarders like to do their thing. Scientists say that unless carbon dioxide emissions drop, we’ll be looking at warmer, shorter winters.
The good news is that by using new, less-polluting technologies and conserving energy -- as many ski areas are doing -- we can keep winter cool. But urgent action is required: it will take a concerted effort from all of those with a stake in winter to turn things around.
> How electricity generation affects your healthAccording to the American Lung Association, scientists have estimated that the number of deaths in the United States associated with air pollution range from 50,000 to 100,000 per year. For every 75 of these deaths per year, there are 265 hospital admissions for asthma and 240 non-asthma respiratory admissions; 3,500 respiratory emergency doctor visits; 180,000 asthma attacks; 930,000 restricted activity days; and, 2,000,000 acute respiratory symptom days.
An EPA study found that for every dollar that we have spent on pollution controls since 1970, we have gained $45 in health and environmental benefits: fewer doctor visits, fewer work days lost, fewer hospitalizations, and fewer premature deaths. According to the World Watch Institute, implementing climate policies that will reduce our air pollution could prevent at least 8 million deaths in the next 2 decades.
67% of the nation's sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid rain, comes from electricity generation. According to the American Lung Association, sulfur dioxide affects breathing, increases respiratory illness, weakens pulmonary defenses and aggravates cardiovascular diseases.
28% of nitrogen oxides (NOx), which react with sunlight to create ground level ozone and smog, come from electricity generation. Ozone and smog irritate the lungs and lower resistance to infections like influenza, according to the American Lung Association.
Ozone (O3) occurs naturally in the upper atmosphere where it is beneficial. However, ozone in the lower atmosphere creates the urban haze which we call smog. Automobiles and electricity generation are the top contributors to ground level ozone. It causes over 1.5 million significant respiratory problems per year in children and adults. Short term effects include coughing, lung irritation and exacerbation of respiratory disease. Long term effects include chronic lung disease and even cancer.
Particulate matter is a type of air pollution more commonly referred to as soot. Exposure to particulate matter is especially harmful to people with lung disease (e.g. asthma, bronchitis, emphysema) and heart disease.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a climate change gas that causes global warming. Global warming can lead to the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. It also contributes to air quality problems, which increase the health effects of other air pollutants. Long-term effects associated with fossil fuel burning could be even more alarming than air pollution-related deaths today. In the future, tropical diseases could thrive as the earth's climate warms, and deaths due to extreme weather conditions (e.g. hypothermia) could increase.
Nuclear energy poses the unique threats of radioactive waste and radiation. Waste from nuclear energy facilities is dangerous to transport and to dispose of. In addition, there is potential for a disastrous nuclear accident, like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Health effects of radioactive waste include cancer, sterility and even death. Radiation may cause immune system damage, leukemia, miscarriages, stillbirths, deformities and genetic mutations.
Mercury is a highly toxic metal that is released from coal-fired power plants. Mercury accumulates in the fat cells of fish and other animals. When humans eat the fish, they are exposed to mercury. Mercury causes permanent damage to the liver and central nervous system, causing loss of motor function, slurred speech, tunnel vision, and loss of hearing. Mercury is particularly harmful when ingested by pregnant or nursing women as it can cause birth defects and developmental defects. Because mercury accumulates in biological organisms it is constantly being recycled in the environment as it moves up the food chain.
> How electricity production affects your environment
Coal and gas power plants emit:
36% of carbon dioxide (CO2), a climate change or greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. Currently, carbon dioxide emissions from coal and gas power plants are about 1 ton per person each year. Carbon dioxide is a major global warming gas. Global warming is a serious environmental threat that may contribute to coastal flooding, more frequent and extreme heat waves, more intense droughts, an increase in the number of severe storms, and the increased spread of infectious diseases.
67% of the nation's sulfur dioxide (SO2) when combined with rain water, creates acid rain. Acid rain damages the foliage of forests, crops, and other plants, and eventually can kill the plants. It also acidifies rivers and lakes causing them to be biologically "dead." Acidification also alters the chemistry of soil, releasing harmful metals into rainwater runoff and groundwater. Sulfur dioxide also accelerates the decay of stone and paint, damaging many buildings and monuments.
33% of mercury which contributes to contamination of soil and waterways. Mercury can circulate in the air for up to one year and can be transported thousands of miles from its source. Mercury accumulates in the fatty tissue of fish and is constantly being recycled in the environment as it moves up the food chain. Mercury causes permanent damage to the liver and central nervous system and can cause birth defects.
28% of nitrogen oxides (NOx), which react with sunlight to create ground level ozone and smog. Nitrogen oxide deposition causes algae blooms in lakes and streams. This depletes the water of oxygen, killing fish and other living organisms. Nitrogen dioxide has also been shown to cause pulmonary disease in animals.
Particulate matter is the major cause of reduced visibility (haze) in the U.S. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of emissions of particulate pollution - soot particles made of ash (heavy metals, radioactive isotopes, hydrocarbons, sulfates, and nitrates) that can transport and deposit trace metals such as mercury hundreds of miles from their source. Soot stains and damages stone and other materials, damaging many of our buildings and monuments. After traveling long distances, particles settle on ground or water, causing these effects:
- making lakes and streams acidic
- changing the nutrient balance in coastal waters and large river basins
- depleting the nutrients in soil
- damaging sensitive forests and farm crops
- affecting the diversity of ecosystems
Want to know more?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming - WikiPedia Article
http://www.lickglobalwarming.org/learn.cfm - Ben & Jerry's, SaveOurEnvironment, and Dave Matthews Band
http://www.climatecrisis.net/thescience - Background info on the movie: An Inconvenient Truth
http://www.nrdc.org/globalWarming/default.asp - Global warming information from NRDC
http://www.stopglobalwarming.org - StopGlobalWarming.org
http://www.renewus.org/do_something.html - RenewUS.org
Q: What causes global warming?
A: Carbon dioxide and other air pollution that is collecting in the atmosphere like a thickening blanket, trapping the sun's heat and causing the planet to warm up. Coal-burning power plants are the largest U.S. source of carbon dioxide pollution -- they produce 2.5 billion tons every year. Automobiles, the second largest source, create nearly 1.5 billion tons of CO2 annually.
Here's the good news: technologies exist today to make cars that run cleaner and burn less gas, modernize power plants and generate electricity from nonpolluting sources, and cut our electricity use through energy efficiency. The challenge is to be sure these solutions are put to use.
Q: Is the earth really getting hotter?A: Yes. Although local temperatures fluctuate naturally, over the past 50 years the average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded history. And experts think the trend is accelerating: the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1990. Scientists say that unless we curb global warming emissions, average U.S. temperatures could be 3 to 9 degrees higher by the end of the century.
Q: Are warmer temperatures causing bad things to happen?A: Global warming is already causing damage in many parts of the United States. In 2002, Colorado, Arizona and Oregon endured their worst wildfire seasons ever. The same year, drought created severe dust storms in Montana, Colorado and Kansas, and floods caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Texas, Montana and North Dakota. Since the early 1950s, snow accumulation has declined 60 percent and winter seasons have shortened in some areas of the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington.
Of course, the impacts of global warming are not limited to the United States. In 2003, extreme heat waves caused more than 20,000 deaths in Europe and more than 1,500 deaths in India. And in what scientists regard as an alarming sign of events to come, the area of the Arctic's perennial polar ice cap is declining at the rate of 9 percent per decade.
Q: Is global warming making hurricanes worse?A: Global warming doesn't create hurricanes, but it does make them stronger and more dangerous. Because the ocean is getting warmer, tropical storms can pick up more energy and become more powerful. So global warming could turn, say, a category 3 storm into a much more dangerous category 4 storm. In fact, scientists have found that the destructive potential of hurricanes has greatly increased along with ocean temperature over the past 35 years.
Q: Is there really cause for serious concern?A: Yes. Global warming is a complex phenomenon, and its full-scale impacts are hard to predict far in advance. But each year scientists learn more about how global warming is affecting the planet, and many agree that certain consequences are likely to occur if current trends continue.
Among these:• Melting glaciers, early snowmelt and severe droughts will cause more dramatic water shortages in the American West.
• Rising sea levels will lead to coastal flooding on the Eastern seaboard, in Florida, and in other areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico.
• Warmer sea surface temperatures will fuel more intense hurricanes in the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
• Forests, farms and cities will face troublesome new pests and more mosquito-borne diseases.
• Disruption of habitats such as coral reefs and alpine meadows could drive many plant and animal species to extinction.
Q: Could global warming trigger a sudden catastrophe?A: Recently, researchers – and even the U.S. Defense Department -- have investigated the possibility of abrupt climate change, in which gradual global warming triggers a sudden shift in the earth's climate, causing parts of the world to dramatically heat up or cool down in the span of a few years.
In February 2004, consultants to the Pentagon released a report laying out the possible impacts of abrupt climate change on national security. In a worst-case scenario, the study concluded, global warming could make large areas of the world uninhabitable and cause massive food and water shortages, sparking widespread migrations and war.
While this prospect remains highly speculative, many of global warming's effects are already being observed -- and felt. And the idea that such extreme change is possible underscores the urgent need to start cutting global warming pollution.
Q: What country is the largest source of global warming pollution?A:The United States. Though Americans make up just 4 percent of the world's population, we produce 25 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution from fossil-fuel burning -- by far the largest share of any country. In fact, the United States emits more carbon dioxide than China, India and Japan, combined. Clearly America ought to take a leadership role in solving the problem. And as the world's top developer of new technologies, we are well positioned to do so -- we already have the know-how.
Q: How can we cut global warming pollution?A: It's simple: By reducing pollution from vehicles and power plants. Right away, we should put existing technologies for building cleaner cars and more modern electricity generators into widespread use. We can increase our reliance on renewable energy sources such as wind, sun and geothermal. And we can manufacture more efficient appliances and conserve energy.
Q: Why aren't these technologies more commonplace now?A: Because, while the technologies exist, the corporate and political will to put them into widespread use does not. Many companies in the automobile and energy industries put pressure on the White House and Congress to halt or delay new laws or regulations -- or even to stop enforcing existing rules -- that would drive such changes. From requiring catalytic converters to improving gas mileage, car companies have fought even the smallest measure to protect public health and the environment. If progress is to be made, the American people will have to demand it.
Q: Do we need new laws requiring industry to cut emissions of global warming pollution?A: Yes. The Bush administration has supported only voluntary reduction programs, but these have failed to stop the growth of emissions. Even leaders of major corporations, including companies such as DuPont, Alcoa and General Electric, agree that it’s time for the federal government to create strong laws to cut global warming pollution. Public and political support for solutions has never been stronger. Congress is now considering fresh proposals to cap emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants from America's largest sources -- power plants, industrial facilities and transportation fuels.
Stricter efficiency requirements for electric appliances will also help reduce pollution. One example is the 30 percent tighter standard now in place for home central air conditioners and heat pumps, a Clinton-era achievement that will prevent the emission of 51 million metric tons of carbon -- the equivalent of taking 34 million cars off the road for one year. The new rule survived a Bush administration effort to weaken it when, in January 2004, a federal court sided with an NRDC-led coalition and reversed the administration's rollback.
Q: Is it possible to cut power plant pollution and still have enough electricity?A: Yes. First, we must use more efficient appliances and equipment in our homes and offices to reduce our electricity needs. We can also phase out the decades-old, coal-burning power plants that generate most of our electricity and replace them with cleaner plants. And we can increase our use of renewable energy sources such as wind and sun. Some states are moving in this direction: California has required its largest utilities to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2017, and New York has pledged to compel power companies to provide 25 percent of the state's electricity from renewable sources by 2013.
Benefits of Renewable Energy Certificates
> Little time or financial investment compared to other sustainability efforts.
> No change in your current energy billing, and no change in relationship with local utilities.
> No impact on energy reliability, and no on-site equipment need be installed.
> Provide a low-cost way to offset pollution due to electricity usage
> Provide organizations a true "green energy" marketing claim
> Can be used to cover all facilities in one contract
> Earn credit towards LEED Building Certification
> Can be purchased without switching utilities