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Environmental concerns

Pollution data and trends;
past species extinctions

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The polluted environment and global warming:

The environment is polluted at an incredibly high rate, mainly through the use of fossil fuels for the generation of energy in industrial activity, coal burning, and car exhausts. This produces carbon dioxide and other harmful gases. Since the industrial revolution 250 years ago, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by 31%, CH4 by 151%, and NO2 by 17%.- in actual values CO2 increased from about 270-280 parts per million (ppm) to almost 380 ppm. 1 The current levels of concentration of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in the past 650,000 years, and the rates of increase are absolutely exceptional - the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is expected to increase by further 30% by 2050. 2 This is not surprising - every year we pump more than six billion tonnes of carbon emissions, despite a general consensus that this contributes directly to climate change. 3 CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a century or more. About three quarters of greenhouse gases come from burning fossil fuels. Most of the rest (with one exception) comes primarily from de-forestation of tropical rain forests. The one exception is methane CH4. which is twenty times more powerful than CO2. That comes mostly from agricultural sources.

The injection of the pollutants into the atmosphere leads to the greenhouse effect that makes the earth hotter. Because the so-called 'greenhouse gases' are composed of molecules of three atoms or more - CO2, CH4, NO2, etc., they thicken up the atmosphere and help trap incoming sunlight. While the planet has warmed up only by 1oF (0.55oC) in the past century, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted an average global rise in temperature of 1.4oC to 5.8oC between the years 1990 and 2100. Such a change would have a profound effect on the climate of the world - the world and human civilization would not have enough time to adapt. The extreme events to which climate change appears to have already contributed reflect an average rise in global temperatures of only 0.6oC. 4

The year 2005 was the warmest year globally since records were kept, while, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest in any century during the past 1,000 years. All of the warmest years have occurred since 1990, including each year since 1997. 1

Industrialized countries with less than a quarter of the world's population are responsible for about three quarters of the CO2 released by burning fossil fuels which still provide almost 80% of the world's total energy needs. 5 This just reflects the fact that, concentrated in the third world, nearly a third of today's world's population have no electricity and about 2.5 billion people have only wood or biomass for energy. Number one polluter is, of course, the United States, with the largest emission of greenhouse gases of any country in absolute terms. It is second after Australia in emissions per capita. With only less than 5% of world population, US accounts for approximately 20 to 25% green-house gases. 6 In 2002, 288 million Americans were producing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of 2.6 billion people in 151 poorer countries. It can get only worse: In 2003 the US emissions were up 14% above those in 1990, and projected was a rise by further 12% over the next decade. 7 The quantity of nitrogen oxides released into the atmosphere from automobiles, power plants, and various industries, doubled between 1950 and 1973, and the trend continues. 8

According to Wikipedia:

"The White House has come under criticism for downplaying reports that link human activity and greenhouse gas emissions to climate change, and there was suspicion that a White House official and former oil industry advocate, Philip Cooney, adjusted descriptions of climatic research that had already been approved by government scientists. Of course, the White House denied that Cooney watered down reports."

"in June 2005, State Department papers showed the administration thanking Exxon executives for the company's 'active involvement' in helping to determine climate change policy, including the US stance on Kyoto." 9

And what about Exxon? In his letter to the Guardian on 2005-JAN-29, Roger Hicks writes:

"A million good reasons to doubt global warming - each and every one of them a 25,000 dollar wad of U.S. bank note:

"Exxon makes $25 billion profit." (It was $40 billion in 2005.) Does anybody still remember the days when the tobacco industry's own scientists pontificated on the harmlessness of smoking? Roger Hicks wrote: 

"The tobacco industry had the financial clout to employ clever but unscrupulous (or ignorant) scientists and lawyers to help fight their corner, rationalizing the irrational, defending the indefensible, and justifying the unjustifiable." 10

Two cases of direct interference with reports on global warning have come to light quite recently:

bulletIn the US, according to an article in the Guardian of 2006-FEB-09, George Deutsch (who worked for George Bush's re-election campaign) quit as NASA's public affairs officer. In connection with his resignation it became known that Deutsch's involvement with NASA was part of an intensifying effort at the agency to exert political control over the flow of public information. Deutsch was linked to a campaign to stifle discussion by space agency scientists on global warming - he was described as a 'bit player' in a politically motivated campaign to stop scientists from speaking publicly on global warming. For example, scientists were ordered to remove a posting from the agency's website which showed that 2005 was the warmest year on record, and were repeatedly told to add the word 'theory' at every mention of 'big bang'. 11
bulletIn Australia, according to an article in the Guardian of 2006-FEB-14, Graeme Pearman, a former government scientists and climate director for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, claimed that Australian officials stopped him raising concerns about climate change, that he was gagged over it. He maintained that he was prevented from speaking about the risks of climate change at least half a dozen times. 12

It is worth noting that the US and Australia are the only major industrialized countries not to have signed the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

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Possible linkage of past global species extinctions with C02 level:

Popular science writer and paleontologist, Peter D. Ward, has written a book "Under a Green Sky: Global warming, the great extinctions of the past and what they can tell us about our future." The book cover features an attractive ocean view with a green sky and water. 13

Ward discusses the great extinctions of species that have happened during the past 500 million years. The best known is the extinction in the Paleocene era some 65 million years ago which caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Researchers have reached a near consensus that this extinction was caused by a massive asteroid slamming into the Yucatán Peninsula. Researchers had suspected that the other major extinctions were cause by earlier asteroid collisions:

bullet100 M years: Cenomanian/Turonian
bullet140 M years: Jurassic/Cretaceous Extinction
bullet180 M years: Toarcian Extinction
bullet195 M years: Triassic Extinction
bullet250 M years: Permian Extinction
bullet385 M years: Late Devonian Extinction
bullet425 M years: Late Ordovician Extinction
bullet460 M years: Late Cambrian Extinction

However, there is no convincing geological evidence of repeated asteroid impacts that correspond to these extinctions. A new theory has been recently suggested -- called "Greenhouse Extinction." They start with what are called flood basalts. These are massive volcanic eruptions of lava, either on land or under the oceans. Some of these exceed 2000 cubic kilometers (480 cubic miles) in volume. They release massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which causes the world's climate to heat up. This alters the oceans' circulation, which leads to blooms of green sulfur bacteria. The bacteria produces toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide which reaches 2,000 times the present amount. This destroys the ozone layer. The result is massive species extinction as a result of the high temperatures and from the poisonous H2S gas.

The Permian Extinction, which occurred 250 M years ago, was particularly devastating. More than 90% of all species and nearly 97% of all living things died.

The correlation between CO2 variations and extinctions is extremely close. Ward writes:

"The key to climate change seems to be both the level and the rate at which carbon dioxide rises in the atmosphere."

The source of the change is immaterial. The world is now undergoing a sudden and massive increase in CO2 levels due to human activity. Ward is concerned that continued increases will result in the disappearance of the ice sheets, a rise in sea levels by 60 meters (200 feet), tropical diseases flourishing in new regions of the world, a greenish tint to the oceans, H2S buildup and mass species extinctions. The Cenomanian/Turonian extinction occurred when the CO2 level was only about 1,400 parts per million; the world's current CO2 level is about 380 ppm, and is rising rapidly.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Kirby Alex: "Climate Change: Uncharted Waters?" BBC News, 2004-DEC-03.
  2. McDonagh Sean, "The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction," Columba Press, (2004). Overview: at: http://www.christian-ecology.org.uk/
  3. McDonagh Sean, "Care of the Earth Moves Higher on the Church Agenda," at: http://www.columban.com/
  4. Monbiot George, "Sleeping to Extinction," The Guardian, 2003-AUG-12.
  5. "Disposable Planet - Energy," BBC News, 2002, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  6. McDonagh Sean, "The Death of Life. A Challenge to Christians," at: http://www.columban.com/
  7. Houghton John, "Global Warming is Now Weapon of Mass Destruction," The Guardian, 2003-JUL-28.
  8. Birch Charles, "Regaining Compassion," New South Wales University Press, (1993).
  9. "Kyoto Protocol," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  10. Roger Hicks, letter to the Independent, 2005-JUL-25.
  11. Goldenberg Suzanne, "Pro-Bush NASA official quits over false CV," The Guardian, 2006-FEB-09.
  12. Goldenberg Suzanne, "I was gagged over climate change, says scientist." The Guardian, 2006-FEB-14.
  13. Peter D. Ward, "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future," HarperCollins, (2007). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Originally posted: 2006-JUN-25
Latest update: 2007-APR-18
Main author: Vladimir Tomek; article about Peter Ward is by B.A. Robinson

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