The debate behind what causes or contributes to global warming is one that has been hotly discussed; from those who suggest that it is due to human behavior, to those who think that it is a natural occurrence, which humans don’t necessarily contribute to its effects. Some believe that those who support the idea of global warming are rather alarmist in their beliefs, viewing events such as Earth Day as a hoax that attempts to lead people into a life of deprivation rather than living in a state of plenty. Despite which school of thought one subscribes to regarding the causes, the impacts of global warming occur far beyond one’s own backyard, neighborhood, or even the state. The following paper will provide a brief discussion regarding the myriad of causes that lead to global warming.
Global warming, which is also sometimes referred to as climate change, was made part of pop culture with the introduction of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which highlighted the many ways that human behavior has contributed to the devastation that has occurred on the planet; human actions have been linked to “famine, flooding, and destruction” (Fowler, 2012, p. 40). However, the warming of the planet has occurred long before the presence of humans, as according to scientists, warming and cooling of the Earth has always happened; but in the presence of humans, the rate at which the climate is changing appears to be speeding up rapidly (Blough, 2009). Global warming essentially is the warming up of the atmosphere, which causes a change in the normal rhythm of the climate, and a rising of the sea levels due to the melting of the polar ice caps (Blough, 2009). Climate change can also lead to more hazardous conditions, such as unsafe air to breathe and water that is unhealthy to drink. But if climate change has always happened, with each ice age followed by periods of warming without dire consequences, why have the effects intensified since the industrial age?
Humans are curious by nature, and the desire to learn and see other parts of the country and beyond has led to an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases that are present in the atmosphere. The invention of the gas engine appears to have coincided with the most recent increase in atmospheric and climate change; as research suggests that the levels of carbon dioxide, which is a primary byproduct of gas powered engines, has been rising steadily over the past 100 years (Blough, 2009). The burning of fossil fuels in conjunction with deforestation, or clear cutting forests, have been suggested as being the primary contributors to the buildup of greenhouse gases (Baron, 2006). With the increase in population, the demand for natural resources has also increased.
Greenhouse gases have been suggested as one of, if not the largest contributors to global warming, which come from a variety of sources which are linked to human behavior. The combustion engine, which burns fossil fuel in order to provide power and results in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide; the production of electricity, which can be made using clean sources such as through the use of solar and hydropower technology, is not always produced in the cleanest method, thus increasing the presence of carbon dioxide (Palanichamy, 2011). Likewise, in a society that has become more disposable in nature, the need for larger landfills and storage places for garbage has led to an increase in methane, as has the increase in the amount of grazing animals that are required to feed a growing population. In order to keep food fresh, the invention of refrigeration for both the home and industrial processes used in the preparation of food has led to the release of nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas that has been associated with climate change (Palanichamy, 2011). However, greenhouse gases are not the only present in areas of the world where industrialized nations burn fossil fuels, as the effects can be seen in the melting of ice caps in remote areas that are untouched by humans.
When energy from the sun is absorbed by the Earth, the planet warms. However, when that energy is not able to be released back into space, it becomes trapped, which results in rising temperatures. The trapping of heat is also known as the greenhouse effect, which has been shown to occur through natural causes, including volcanic eruption, changes in the orbit of Earth, and disturbances in solar energy, but human action has contributed greatly to the current state of the environment (National Research Council, 2010). Much of the human contribution can be traced back to the burning of fossil fuels such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas.
Under normal conditions, the sunlight that reaches the surface of the Earth, which is emitted in high-energy short wavelengths, can either be absorbed or reflected; most of the energy from the sun is absorbed, with about 30 percent reflected back into space (National Research Council, 2010). However, when there is excess pollution in the form of greenhouse gases, the heat and energy are prohibited from escaping, thus warming the Earth faster and hotter than it would be normally. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide absorb energy and work as a blanket which prevents the excess heat and energy to be reflected back into space. Greenhouse gases absorb most of the long-wave energy that is emitted from the surface of the Earth, preventing the heat from immediately escaping (National Research Council, 2010. The greenhouse gases then re-emit the energy in all directions, warming the entire surface of the Earth, even in areas which do not burn fossil fuels.
Carbon dioxide comprises the majority of greenhouse gases present in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is expected to increase as the population continues to grow. According to an assessment of population growth, the global population doubled, from 2.5 billion in 1950, to 5 billion in 1990, and it appears that the trend is not slowing down (Palanichamy, 2011). The effects of greenhouse gases are not just located where the fossil fuels are burned, as the effects have been witnessed in developing countries. Effects such as changes in crops and the various impacts of global warming due to the rise in sea levels brought about by the rise in temperatures from the energy produced by the sun being unable to dissipate back into space have the potential to cause severe damage.
The second most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is methane, which is produced from both natural occurrences and through the actions of man, and the level has been estimated to have increased to a level that is two and a half times that which was present prior to the industrial revolution (National Research Council, 2010). Methane is produced naturally from the result of decaying matter in wetlands and through agricultural activities, and the speed of release into the atmosphere is sped up by the actions of humans during fossil fuel extraction. However, the majority of methane in the atmosphere occurs due to human activity.
Nitrous oxide, which accounts for less than 10 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere occurs naturally as a byproduct of the nitrogen cycle. However, through human action, the amount present has increased dramatically. It is estimated that nearly half of the nitrous oxide in the atmosphere is caused by human activities such as agricultural soil management, chemical production, manure management, and transportation (National Research Council, 2010). A growing population requires more food, which means if the current trends and methods of agricultural production are maintained, the rates for nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases will continue to increase.
When it comes to climate change, there is a multitude of factors that contribute to the consequences we are currently experiencing. The increased temperature caused by the sun’s energy, unable to escape the Earth’s atmosphere due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases is leading to a variety of side effects such as those which have been mentioned. While some effects have been suggested as being natural, human factors appear to be the largest variable in the development of climate change, and a growing population will more than likely continue to contribute to the effects of global warming.
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Blough, C. (2009). Global warming project. Science Scope, 33(3), 49-52.
Fowler, T. B. (2012). The global warming conundrum. Modern Age, 54(1), 40-62.
National Research Council (2010). Advancing the science of climate change. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press.
Palanichamy, A. P. (2011). Global warming: Greenhouse effect. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 4(3), 204-206.