“What we must do now is step back from self interest and let common interest prevail.” – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Executive Secretary, Yvo de Boer, at the Closing Press Briefing, Bangkok Climate Change Talks, 9 October, 2009.
The earth is a ball of rocky material, partly covered by water and enclosed in a capsule of gas called the atmosphere. As it orbits the sun, it is bathed in a stream of radiant energy. Some of this energy is absorbed by the earth as heat.
If absorption was the only process, the earth’s temperature would rise quickly, the water would boil off and its rocky surface would melt. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen. The earth reflects some radiation away from itself. It also radiates energy out to space. Artificial satellites can take photographs of the earth by the reflected and radiated energy.
There is a balance between energy the earth receives from the sun over time and energy it reflects and radiates. In an ideal world, the earth's overall temperature would be stable.
Theory has it that some factors enhance the absorption of the sun’s energy. One idea is that particular gases in the atmosphere can act like the glass of a greenhouse, trapping heat energy. It is believed that gases like these, known as greenhouse gases, can cause the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere to rise.
Temperature shifts caused in this way are not necessarily evenly distributed across the globe. Some parts of the globe may even experience a lowering in the average temperature. Such is the complex nature of the earth’s atmosphere.
Some earth history
I find it fascinating that a beautiful green savanna, over a period of 6000 years, became the wasteland we now know as the Sahara Dessert.
Equally as curious is the desertion of a Neolithic settlement on Orkney 4500 years ago. Supposition is that a fall in temperature in the earth’s atmosphere, and ultimately a brutal storm, drove the settlers from their homes at Skara Brae in Orkney.
About 1500 years ago, Britain was invaded by the Saxons. One theory for the invasion is that it happened when Saxon homelands were being flooded by rising seas caused through climate change. The Saxons were looking for land that was less likely to be threatened by rising sea levels.
Earth’s varying climate
Despite the blame for climate change being levelled at the production of greenhouse gases by humans, it appears that significant climate variation is part of what has always happened.
All the above happenings took place during recorded history and are similar to situations that have arisen in other parts of the world today. They came about when human contribution was comparatively insignificant.
Is it possible that these events would have occurred even if there had been no human contribution? Is it also possible that human intervention may have little effect on future climate change?
There is a deal of misrepresentation about climate variation and its consequences. Unfortunately, the cover of the most recent United Nations Environmental Programme Report is a typical example of this. Not only is the representation flawed as to what global warming is likely to do to the surface of the planet, it also conveys a completely erroneous view of possible consequences to humankind.
There is a need for faithful representation of what’s happening to our planet. Attempts to provide this are likely to be subjective and are often prejudiced politically.
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in December 1997, “aimed at combating global warming. The Protocol establishes legally binding commitment for the reduction of four greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride), and two groups of gases (hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons) . . . ”
Yvo de Boer expressed dismay at the current moves to “kill the Kyoto Protocol . . . by a number of developing countries . . . while at the same time there is not even something better in sight or on offer”.
The Kyoto Protocol attempts to take charge of those factors that may contribute to global warming and that are within human control. It represents reasoned approaches to responsibilities to the future of humankind and of other living creatures on this planet.
For as much as change happening within the earth’s atmosphere is inevitable, humans apparently continue to make ruinous contributions that may well exacerbate a dangerous climatic situation.
Should we strive to deal with likely contributing factors that are within our reach to control? Or do we simply leave it to ‘Mother Earth’ to take care of all this?
The world’s nations are being alerted to the possible consequences of ignoring what appear to be clear signals from the planet. Talks are being held across the globe. My sincere hope is that nations throughout the world will adopt a unified approach to dangerous climate problems facing the planet – that they reaffirm the Kyoto Protocol and make commitments to take concerted action for the common good.
Grant (us) the serenity to accept the things (we) cannot change, the courage to change the things (we) can, and the wisdom to know the difference - Reinhold Niebuhr