Global warming, atmospheric CO2 concentrations, IPCC, and carbon sequestration; just some of the terms being thrown around in today's media. But what does it really mean? For years, the scientific community has wracked their brains trying to find a way to communicate the science of climate change accurately to the public. This communication is the key to action. If more people understood the science, perhaps there is a greater chance of a movement against climate change. Let's take a moment to try to wade through some of the technical jargon.
There is a lot being said about atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Our society is heavily based on fossil fuels. If you think about it, most of what we need on a daily basis (food, transportation, electricity, etc.) is produced using fossil fuels. These fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide (CO2), among other things, but for the sake of brevity let's just focus on the CO2. In the pre-industrial era, the atmospheric CO2 concentration sat at about 280 parts per million. As a result of industrialization and technological progress, that number has increased to about 390 ppm.
Our planet is not able to process this much excess carbon. Naturally occurring carbon is absorbed by carbon sinks - areas such as forests and the ocean which absorb atmospheric CO2. Excess CO2 cannot be absorbed and remains in the atmosphere. While some gases, such as water vapor, are processed in the atmosphere in a little over a week, CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for over a century. In addition, many of these sinks, such as forested areas, are being destroyed; further reducing the planet's ability to process carbon. That means increased carbon emissions now will affect the well-being of many generations to come.
For as long as can be remembered, the term global warming has been used to describe what is happening to the planet. This, however, is an inaccurate term. The accepted term now would be climate change. As a result of climate change some areas of the world will actually decrease in temperature. For example, warming in one area may result in increased cloud production in another. Clouds reflect sunlight (and heat) effectively cooling that area. In actuality, the average global temperature will rise (by some estimates as much as 5oC), but the rise will not be uniform over all areas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change documented in the Copenhagen Diagnosis that in the last 25 years, the average temperature has risen about 0.19 oC per decade. While this doesn't seem like much, even small increases like this can lead to things such as an increased number of more intense storms.
Look at the massive flooding in Pakistan and Australia during 2010. These meteorological events can be linked to the current temperature increase of about 0.5 oC above pre-industrial temperatures. Closer to home, 2010 also brought substantial flooding for Central Massachusetts. The city of Lowell has experienced two 100-year floods in the last five years. The IPCC determined that the most the temperature can increase by so we can remain somewhat "safe" is 2 oC. Even this level of temperature rise can still result in many detrimental effects. However, in order to achieve only a 2 oC rise, global carbon emissions must reach their peak in between 2015 and 2020 then reduce. Each year that goes by without action reduces our chances of being able to meet the 2 oC goal.
While the facts might seem dire at first glance, there is hope. World leaders are attempting to make changes in carbon emissions with things such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Cancun Agreement. Although the United States refused to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol, we did agree to the Cancun Agreement in 2010. The country has pledged to reduce carbon emissions and help fight climate change. Furthermore, the "green" job sector is projected to advance, which will lessen our dependence on fossil fuels for energy. Though these factors may assist in the fight, there is still much room for improvement at all levels.
The key to fighting the worst effects of climate change will be communication and cooperation. No one country is completely to blame for climate change, and no one country can be expected to fix it on their own. Scientists, lawmakers and the general public must all be able to find a way to communicate in a way that is easily understandable and work together on this issue of utmost importance. While it may be overwhelming to look at the task before us, we mustn't forget that something can be done.
APRIL SANDLAND of North Attleboro is a junior biology major in the honors program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.