Global Warming Essay

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The term global warming refers to a warming in the earth’s climate. Global temperatures have changed throughout earth’s history; however, in common usage, the term global warming refers to the anthropogenic (human induced) warming that results from an increase in atmospheric concentrations of certain gases due to the burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. This phenomenon is also called the greenhouse effect, and is a specific case of the more general term global climate change (which also refers to climate cooling both human induced and otherwise). Average global temperature has risen 0.6 ± 0.2 degrees C over the 20th century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities. IPCC also reports that the 1990s were the warmest decades and 1998 was the warmest year since 1861.

How does this happen? The earth surface absorbs energy from the sun and radiates it back into the atmosphere. An increase in “greenhouse gases,” including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), ozone (O3), chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), Nitrous oxides (N2O) and sulfur hexaflouride (SF6) from a layer of insulation that traps the earth’s outgoing heat, much as air is trapped inside a greenhouse. The increased concentration of these gases traps more heat and causes the earth’s overall temperature to become warmer.

The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has increased over the last century due to industrial and agricultural activity. The most significant greenhouse gas by volume is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) in vehicle exhaust, coal-fired power plants and industrial processes. Since the late 1950s, measurements made at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii record an increase in carbon dioxide concentrations within the atmosphere. Data from Mauna Loa and other sources indicate that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are now the highest in 150,000 years. Similarly, methane concentrations have increased as a result of the production and transportation of fossil fuels, rice paddy farming, livestock production, changes in land use from wetlands, and emissions from municipal solid waste landfills as organic waste decomposes. Nitrous oxide is released from agricultural and industrial activities, and the combustion of both and fossil fuels and solid waste. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF ), are greenhouse gases that are not naturally occurring, which are generated in a variety of industrial processes.

Physical Consequences

Climate change is predicted to produce a wide variety of physical impacts to atmosphere, land and oceans including increases in overall global mean temperature, increases in storm severity, sea level rise, changes in ocean currents, glacial retreat, drought, and increased fire and hurricanes. Reduced winter snow pack will result in lower flows to river streams during summer. Climate models analyzed by the IPCC predict that between 1990 and 2100, global temperatures may increase by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees C. The IPCC estimates that the combined effects of ice melting and sea water expansion from ocean warming are projected to cause the global mean sea level to rise by between 0.1 and 0.9 meters between 1990 and 2100. Because a high percentage of the human population lives along the coast, these increases in sea level will have enormous social impacts. For example, in Bangladesh, a half-meter increase in sea level puts some 6 million people at risk from flooding.

As a result of these widespread ecosystem disruptions, ecological productivity and biodiversity will be altered, leading to an increased risk of extinction for species already at risk. IPCC reports that “the stresses caused by climate change, when added to other stresses on ecological systems, threaten substantial damage to or complete loss of some unique systems and extinction of some endangered species.” Changes in climate are more pronounced in the northern and southern most latitudes. In September 2005 it was announced that global warming is melting the ice in Antarctica faster than had previously been thought. Over 13,000 square kilometers of sea ice in the Antarctic Peninsula appears to have been lost over the last 50 years.

Social Consequences

Social consequences from these physical changes are predicted to be widespread and potentially catastrophic as water shortages, decreased agricultural productivity, extreme weather events, and the spread of diseases take their toll. Flooding, severe storms, and drought will lead to increase in environmental refugees. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that already there are some 150,000 deaths per year connected to weather events. IPCC reports that climate change will produce human health threats ranging from heat stress and loss of life in floods, to indirect effects induced by expansion in the ranges of disease vectors such as mosquitoes and waterborne pathogens. Social impacts of climate change are exacerbated by other forms of environmental degradation including ozone depletion, population growth, and air and water contamination.

The people who are most affected by the global warming are least responsible for the emissions that cause the problem. This disproportionate relationship between who creates the problem and who pays the price is played out both globally and within the United States. For example, low income people living in tropical countries will be most at risk. Thus, in addition to being a major environmental problem, global climate change is a highly significant global environmental justice issue.

Climate change is an issue of global environmental justice on at least four dimensions. Wealthy industrialized countries of the Northern hemisphere contribute disproportionately to the pollution of the common global airshed. Low-lying geography and weaker infrastructure mean that consequences of global climate change will be worse for people who are poor, especially those in the poorer nations of the Southern hemisphere. People who are poor within the United States have less access to health care, may be less able to move rapidly from affected areas (mostly people without cars were left behind in the flooding of New Orleans). On an international level, poor nations that have weaker infrastructure are less able to respond in crises. People living in these places are even more affected by health or financial burdens. In terms of intergenerational equity, those alive today are negatively altering the earth’s atmosphere and climate, reducing its capacity to sustain life for generations to come. Finally, there are issues of equity and justice regarding international negations. These often center around the question of equitable global distribution of green house gas emissions as related to economic development. Nations such as China and India are expanding their economies, doing so increases their fossil fuel emissions. Climate treaty negotiations have favored industrialized nations in terms of both outcome and process.

Governmental Social Responses

Social response to information in climate change has ranged from the development of international agreements, relatively weak social movement activity in affluent Western nations, stronger social movement organizing from people on low lying South Pacific islands and in the Northern arctic, attacks on climate scientists and media spin, and the announcement of insurance companies that the increased claims due to global warming will bankrupt the insurance system in the not too distant future.

Due to the enormous ecological, social, and economic consequences of climate change the global regulation of greenhouse gases is highly politically charged. This is in part because nations from around the world have very different levels of carbon dioxide emissions and negotiating power. In addition to national governments, oil companies and environmental organizations are involved in negotiations. Issues of contention have included extent of overall emissions by each nation, process for emissions reduction, and the degree to which nations meet targets by using “carbon-removal” methods such as planting forests versus reducing actual emissions. International collaborative efforts on climate change began as far back as 1979 when the World Meteorological Office, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the International Council for Science held the first World Climate Conference in Geneva. This was followed in 1988 by the establishment of the IPCC, which was set up to assess scientific and social information about human-induced climate change. The IPCC released its first report in 1990. In response, the UN General Assembly launched a negotiating process to establish an agreement among industrialized nations to act to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

In 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted at the World Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The nations who signed the convention agreed to develop national inventories of greenhouse gas emissions, establish national programs to reduce emissions, and mitigate climate change. The Convention also required that the developed countries and countries with economies in transition (the “Annex I countries”) reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their 1990 levels by end of 2000. This was expressed as a voluntary, not binding, commitment. The convention was ratified by the United States and came into force in 1994.

It soon became clear, however, that voluntary commitments alone were not leading to emissions reductions. Negotiations for a new agreement that specified binding reduction targets culminated in a session held in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997, which became known as the Kyoto Protocol. Under the Kyoto Protocol industrialized nations are committed to legally binding reductions in greenhouse emissions between 2008 and 2012. Included are provisions for emissions trading among nations and so called “clean development mechanisms,” which encourage industrialized nations to transfer technology to developing countries that would reduce emissions.

Conflict over many issues, especially the responsibility of China and India for greenhouse emission reduction, was so significant that only in the final hour did nations reach agreement. The Kyoto Protocol went into effect on February 16, 2005, ten years after initial negotiations began and without the ratification of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States (the United States is a signatory only). Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol would require the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent below its 1990 levels by 2012. The Clinton Administration announced it would not send the treaty to the Senate for ratification. In 2001 George W. Bush announced the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on the basis that it was too costly for the U.S. economy. A highly criticized plan by the Bush Administration focuses on voluntary reductions in emissions, tax credits for emissions reductions, and increased research and development for new energy technologies. This plan allows for a 12 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 and has provided no mechanism for ensuring that this target will be met. There is, however, growing awareness in the United States Congress that action is needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Many U.S. states have enacted legislation and adopted policies that effectively reduce emissions of greenhouse gases while preserving economic viability. These include implementing renewable portfolio standards and mandatory greenhouse gas reporting.

Public Response

Despite the seriousness of the global warming, a notable pattern of meager public response in the way of social movement activity, behavioral changes or public pressure on governments is visible in all Western nations. Public “apathy” with respect to global warming has been identified as a significant concern by environmental sociologists, social psychologists working in the area of risk perception, and environmental writers. A number of studies have shown that Americans in particular know little about global warming.

Existing research assumes that a lack of information about the causes of global warming is the limiting factor in the public’s failure to respond-an orientation that Harriet Buckeley calls the “information deficit model.” Other explanations for the lack of action in the face of such a serious environmental and social problem target the problem from another angle: the desire and ability to avoid unpleasant emotions of guilt and helplessness may lead to denial about the global warming. Clearly, knowledge is necessary to generate public response, but is knowledge sufficient? There is evidence that fear about the future, feelings of helplessness about the ability to make change, and guilt due to knowledge of responsibility through fossil fuel consumption are barriers that discourage people from even thinking about global warming, much less trying to fix it. For privileged people, environmental and social justice problems such as the global warming are increasingly distant in time or space or both. At least in the short term, the people who are benefiting from the fossil fuel consumption are not the ones living on low lying islands or trying to survive off ringed seal in the Northern Arctic. Social inequality helps to perpetuate environmental degradation making it easier to displace visible outcomes and costs across borders of time and space, out of the way of those citizens who are most politically able to respond.

Scientific Uncertainty

How much certainty is there concerning the existence, causes, and consequences of global climate change? These are questions asked frequently by members of the American public. While climate modeling is complex and there are some scientists who disagree that human actions have played a significant role in increasing global temperatures, there is probably a greater degree of scientific consensus on the basics of the global warming than any other current scientific issue. There is more significant uncertainty regarding predicting future climate scenarios. The IPCC addresses the question of certainty throughout its 2001 report by rating predictions with low, medium or high confidence. A joint statement by scientists on the issue of climate science noted that, “There will always be uncertainty in understanding a system as complex as the world’s climate. However, there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring…The evidence comes from direct measurements of rising surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures and from phenomena such as increases in average global sea levels, retreating glaciers, and changes to many physical and biological systems. It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities. This warming has already led to changes in the Earth’s climate.” They further note that, “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.”

There is now evidence that the generation of uncertainty has been actively produced by those who stand to benefit from continued fossil fuel consumption, namely the oil and gas industry. In 2000, environmental sociologists McCright and Dunlap describe how conservative think tanks mobilized to challenge mainstream climate science by launching an attack on science, arguing that global warming will have substantial benefits if it occurs, and warning that proposed action to ameliorate global warming would do more harm than good. They examined how these countermovement organizations aligned themselves with prominent American climate change skeptics known for their affiliations with the fossil fuels industry. They conclude that a major reason the United States failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol was the opposition of the conservative antienvironmental movement.

Journalist Ross Gelbspan, once a climate skeptic himself, has described the influence of fossil fuel industry on American media framing of global warming, documenting how oil companies have influenced science, policy decisions, and produced a sense of uncertainty in the American media and minds of America public.


  1. Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism (Centre for Science and Environment, 1991);
  2. Agarwal, S. Narain, et al., “The Global Commons and Environmental Justice-Climate Change,” Environmental Justice (Transaction Publishers, 2002);
  3. Tom Athanasiou and Paul Baer, Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming (Seven Stories Press, 2002);
  4. Paul Baer, John Harte, Barbara Haya, Antonia Herzog, John Holdern, Nathan Hultman, Daniel Kammen, Richard Norgaard, and Leigh Raymond, “Equity and Greenhouse Gas Responsibility,” Science (v.289, 2000);
  5. Harriet Bulkeley, “Common Knowledge? Public Understanding of Climate Change in Newcastle, Australia,” Public Understanding of Science (v.9, 2000);
  6. Edward Elgar, S. Raynor, E.L. Malone, et , Ethics, Equity and International Negotiations on Climate Change (Cheltenham UK and Northampton, MA, 1999);
  7. Ross Gelbspan, The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth’s Threatened Climate, (Addison-Wesley, 1997);
  8. Ross Gelbspan, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists are Fueling the Climate Crisis-and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster (Basic Book, 2004);
  9. J. Hassol, Impacts of a Warming Climate (Cambridge University Press, 2004);
  10. Bruce Johansen, The Global Warming Desk Reference (Greenwood Press, 2002);
  11. Aaron M. McCright and Riley Dunlap, “Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement’s Counter-Claims,” Social Problems (v.47, 2000);
  12. Aaron McCright and Riley E. Dunlap, “Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy,” Social Problems (v.50, 2003);
  13. Kari Marie Norgaard, “”People Want to Protect Themselves A Little Bit’ Emotions, Denial and Social Movement Non-Participation The Case of Global Climate Change,” Sociological Inquiry (v.76, 2006);
  14. Kari Marie Norgaard, “”We Don’t Really Want to Know’ The Social Experience of Global Warming: Dimensions of Denial and Environmental Justice,” Organization and Environment (v.19, 2006);
  15. Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Climate Change Activities in the United States, 2004 Update (Pew Center on Global Climate Change, 2004);
  16. Eugene Rosa, “Global Climate Change: Background and Sociological Contributions,” Society and Natural Resources (v.14, 2001);
  17. Victor, The Regulation of Greenhouse Gases: Does Fairness Matter? Fair Weather? Equity Concerns in Climate Change (Earthscan Publications, 1999).

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