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Our prospects for the near future

2012-01-16

The consensus of scientific opinion is that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising, and has been ever since it could be accurately measured, in the late 1950’s. At first it was rising, from about 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958, by one part per million per year. Normally, the concentration varies throughout the year by about 5 ppm, lowest in the late summer and highest in the winter. Recently the rate of increase has been gradually increasing, and now it rises nearly two parts per million per year. In July 2011, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 392 ppm.
At the same time, the average global temperature has been gradually rising; winters are showing increased snow, summers are hotter and drier. Spring comes earlier and fall is later each year. In extreme latitudes, permafrost is melting at an increasing rate. This effect, while much debated, has been shown during the last ten years to be continuing in spite of a solar minimum (when sunspots are less and the sun puts out less light and heat.)
There is also general scientific agreement that carbon dioxide levels are rising because of human industrial activity and the burning of coal and oil. The manufacture of cement is a particularly large contributor to human carbon dioxide release. This is despite the fact that, at present, human contributions to overall global carbon dioxide release are still small. Though small, the human contribution is greater than can be balanced out by forces that globally take carbon dioxide from the air: plant growth and absorption by the ocean.
The first statement, that carbon dioxide levels are increasing, cannot be gainsaid. The second statement, that humans are causing the increase, is still somewhat controversial. The actual scientific controversy has been satisfied more and more during the last ten years; this is in spite of statements to the contrary by the Administration of George W. Bush that date back to shortly after he was inaugurated. It is ironic that during the election campaign, Mr. Bush voiced his recognition of the problem of climage change and the need to do something about it.
During his Administration, Mr. Bush was at pains to instruct his entire executive staff (that is, everyone who worked for him) to downplay or deny the problem by whatever means necessary. Necessary means included censoring a scientific report and inserting language provided by the industry. Propaganda distributed by companies that produce coal and oil for burning has apparently caused much of the population of the United States to seriously question the existence of global warming and/or the human contribution to it.
Even more ironic, the Great Recession, which started in 2007, caused by the crash of mortgage securities (among other things) actually did produce an unintentional reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Though small, this reduction was significant enough to allow China to catch up to the United States in total emissions a few years early.
The most ironic fact about this entire issue is that human carbon dioxide release is estimated to represent only four percent of total global carbon dioxide release from all sources. It is to be hoped that some mechanism in nature will start absorbing carbon dioxide at a higher rate in order to counterbalance human increases; as yet, no such increase in absorption has become evident.
The environmental effects of rising carbon dioxide levels will, on the whole, be negative. Increased temperatures will result in rising sea levels as ice melts, with countries like Tuvalu that are near sea level suffering the most and possibly disappearing. The Netherlands will be hard hit, and their government is actively planning to deal with flooding that will overtop their intricate levy system.
Severe weather events are likely to increase, meaning tornados, hurricanes, and typhoons will be larger and more destructive. Wildfires due to drought are also likely to increase. Changes in the distribution of plants and animals will occur, with some species becoming extinct. Large fish and coral reefs will disappear.
All of these events, and many more, are inevitable regardless of what we do now. Only time will tell how severe and destructive climate change will be. The only thing we can be sure of is that the changes will be dramatic and will last hundreds of years. Even the half life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is unknown; estimates range from as low as five years (very unlikely) to as long as three hundred years. If the half life is fifty years, then even if we stop emitting carbon dioxide now (impossible), changes will continue for a long time.
The final irony is that these negative changes in our environment, particularly if they are severe and cause a marked decrease in population, will have a strong selective evolutionary effect. A new, changed, more viable type of human will replace the current stupid, failed type. That is, unless only cockroaches survive.

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