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The Reality Behind the Debate: Global Warming, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Abstract

Today, as in recent decades, global warming is debated as an irresponsible and unfounded concern or as a genuine, and largely man-made, threat.  Historically, cultures have been unable to grasp the true import of climate, but more modern advances increasingly lead to levels of knowledge substantiating global warming as a very real process.  Research mounts, and the tide indicates that, in a relatively brief span of time, the Earth’s climate is changing in a way not explicable as wholly natural.  In the following, it will be established that global warming represents a significant issue to all humanity.

Introduction

In recent decades, the phrase, “global warming,” has taken on a variety of differing and significant meanings.  To some, it evokes a man-made course indicating severe damage to the atmosphere and the land, as the repercussions of industry alter the natural balance of the Earth’s climate.  To others, it is an alarmist cry of a radical few, overly concerned with humanity’s ability to impact upon an atmosphere historically known as volatile.  Within the former faction, esteemed scientists and leaders join the global warming chorus, even as popular films seize upon the drama of the subject and offer apocalyptic visions of a world devastated by the horrors of extreme climate change; within the latter, evidence is produced pointing to both the planet’s natural processes of producing warmth and relatively recent fears that, in fact, a new ice age was imminent.  In all of this, one element remains stable: global warming is a subject of intense and ongoing debate, as believers and opposing forces conduct and report contrasting studies and viewpoints.

In a very real sense, those dismissing global warming hold to a conviction even believers must acknowledge as valid, in that the climate has been known to dramatically shift in unforeseeable ways in the past, and at no intervals offering clues as to the next such occurrence.  Nonetheless, mankind knows today a great deal about the geological and atmospheric components which dictate the climate of the planet, and even in regional arenas.  Technology is in place to weigh an enormous array of influences, man-made and natural, as well as to gauge important shifts in sea levels, glacier erosion, and other indicators of serious change within the climate’s stability.  While the Earth undergoes climate shifts beyond human control, mounting evidence points to discernible alterations which logic dictates as linked to human action, given how relatively recent human societies have been able to create such impacts.  More importantly, and somewhat removed from the global warming debate itself, the inescapable reality is that human societies are releasing into the atmosphere vast quantities of pollutants and artificial agents, and it is only rational to conclude that some effect is created by them.  As will be revealed in the following, global warming is not an unfounded cry of alarm, but an actual process fueled by over a century of global industrialization.

Background

Before any valid assessment of the realities of climate change and global warming may be made, it is necessary to first comprehend the unusual relationship between human culture and climate itself.  This is a relationship, of course, dictated by human perception; the climate, it may be safely assumed, is unconcerned with how it is perceived by those occupying the planet.  This perception of humanity, however, is critical.  As it has in the past greatly influenced thinking in regard to the “science” of climatology, the sheer impact of what climate means to humanity likely affects thinking even today.  Put more plainly, this is the all-encompassing environment in which life is possible; not unexpectedly, then, some rather grandiose and unscientific beliefs have been attached to it, as occurs in modern life.  It is, for example, probable that many who dismiss mankind’s ability to impact on the planet’s climate at least partially hold to a view embraced in the past, in that the immensity of the subject must demonstrate a kind of self-sufficiency impervious to human action.

As is commonly known, climate refers to temperature, precipitation, atmospheric pressure, and wind activity over a particular length of time.  It relies as well on land surface factors, as climate ultimately represents the planet’s biosphere, or habitable realm.  From the position of the sun  in relation to the Earth to volcanic activity emanating from the planet’s mantle, then, all these components exponentially affect one another to produce the livable – or unlivable – climate.  Given the universality and scope of the subject, then, it is hardly surprising that associations were long in place between climate and forces believed to be divine or supernatural.  The relationship was both pragmatic and speculative.  For example, ancient Asian civilizations began keeping records of weather occurrences for civic and governmental purposes, to record unusual climatic events and bad harvest years, and these realities were then transposed into the faith of the region.  The consequences of weather were accurately recorded, and reasons were then ascribed to any number of causes, from a lack of proper worship from the people to the less explicable anger of a deity.  The same pattern would continue in the West, as Medieval Europe began to chronicle unusual weather events.  By the Renaissance, and with the arrival of the printing press, more and more such records could be printed, distributed, and stored, and what emerges is a consistent record of Western weather conditions from those years (Behringer, 2010, p. 12).  Knowledge of a kind was being developed, yet it still largely served a less scientific purpose; extreme shifts in the weather, taken as signs of longer-lasting climate change, were the manifestations of supernatural activities.

Equally importantly, and interestingly, the Renaissance and later centuries held to European thinking very much linking mankind’s behaviors with the biosphere itself.  Just as earlier civilizations perceived violent climate change as a punishment, later thinkers believed that society can only evolve in concert with harmonious climate conditions.  Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, an historian and diplomat of the early 18th century, gained wide fame for documenting how the rises of the greatest civilizations were due to the nature of the land, air, soil, and climate.  In Do Bos’s theory, the wholesomeness of the air, when climate conditions were optimal, nourished genius and culture, just as the grapes of a vineyard produce different quality wines depending on years and seasons (Fleming, 2005,  p. 13).  Du Bos also predicted that the colonization of the Americas, with its deforestation, would produce a new evolution in human culture.  His Critical Reflections goes into astonishing detail, recording why salt levels in the soil of Poland produced a different sort of national characters, and asserting the imports of tropical products into Northern climates must change the native “air” (Fleming, 2005,  p. 15).

If all such ideas, ranging from primitive associations of divine justice with catastrophic climate change, to how the warmth of the air in France generates higher degrees of intelligence, seem at best specious, they nonetheless illustrate a crucial reality in any discussion of climate change: mankind’s awareness of the inestimable importance of climate has long been in place.  That the causes and facts were not understood does not weaken the strength of the meaning.  Relatively modern climatologists seek to link the evolutions of agricultural societies – and the beginnings of civilization – to climate change.  This is not all that far a stretch from the ideas of Du Bos, simply because there must be a powerful link between how human life may proceed and what the climate permits.  If it is generalizing, it is also nonetheless inevitable that long-term, favorable conditions of weather are likely to promote cultural growth, simply because the people have more liberty to concerns themselves with affairs not directly related to survival.

Such an understandable connection in place, it remains true that climatology is very much a modern science, and for several reasons.  The first of these is the irrefutable fact that, as climate is determined only over long periods of time, only the broader perspective enabled by the most modern era is equipped to so determine it.  Then, there is technology, which allows for a literal unearthing of information unavailable to previous eras.  The breakthroughs here have been many, and may be said to begin with Galileo’s 1597 invention of the thermometer.  By 1643, the barometer was devised, and the first international network of climate study was established in the 1650.  Survey stations were created in all European capitals, and information was exchanged and stored.  In regard to global climate, the British empire of the 19th century would be an enormous asset, as modern instruments were gathering climate data from India and Australia, and transfer of it were expedited by the new telegraph systems (Behringer, 2010,  pp. 13-14).  Equally importantly, the emphasis in these circles was on consistent data collection, and during all weather conditions.  Over these centuries, then, a pool of information was being steadily collected that would be of service to 20th century climatology.  In that century, the advents of ice core sampling and tree ring analysis would open up entirely new worlds of data, revealing epochs unseen for millions of years.  In simple terms, the storehouse of information was rapidly becoming immense.  The problem, as will be discussed, was what conclusions to draw from such a seemingly randomized history of ice ages, spectacularly long periods of drought, and erratic bursts of favorable climate.

Research

The first major stumbling block in global climate research occurred, not unexpectedly, due to a different sort of breakthrough.  Since the early 1800s, it was widely accepted that the sun was primarily responsible for the planet’s climate, and this view was reinforced in the 1900s by Charles Abbot.  Abbot held, however, that the sun was not a constant, and that varying levels of solar radiation and flares were actually creating climate issues.  By 1913, Abbot claimed to have established a correlation between sunspot cycles and the known ice ages.  The problem arose in matching the sun’s cycles to geologic records.  At this time, roughly four glacial periods had been identified, and they did not correspond with Abbot’s findings.  It would be the work of Serbian Milutin Milankovitch in the 1940s that would refine Abbot’s calculations which, in concert with new geological research narrowing ice age durations, would also establish the solar connection to these massive climate movements (Besel,  2007, p. 50).  A critical point had been identified, in that periods of intense solar activity coincided with what geology had isolated as the great freezing epochs of the planet’s history.

Complicating this, however, and even as Abbot and Milankavitch conducted their work, was new thinking regarding greenhouse gases.  Research was documenting that carbon dioxide levels were rising globally, and it had already been largely accepted that such gases, trapped in the upper atmosphere, increased temperatures.  At the same time, the weather was slowly and consistently cooling.  Debate became, in a word, heated, and two climate camps essentially evolved: those that felt that solar activity not yet understood was moving the Earth into a new ice age, and those believing adamantly that the science of greenhouse gases made such a possibility remote.  The greenhouse gas theorists, while dominant, were nonetheless controversial; scientists internationally issued warnings that the observed cooling was not what it appeared to be, even as evidence annually mounted refuting this (Besel, 2007,  p. 52).  By the 1970s, the solar “camp” was gaining in influence, and this was when widespread fears of a new and drastic cooling reached the public.  Governments were involved and science was funded to better determine the likelihood.  Radical solutions, ranging from creating a debris belt around the Earth to deflect radiation, to dying massive snow areas black to reflect the sun, were discussed in actual reports, as well as disseminated by the new media.  This has been seized upon by those who maintain that the modern fears regarding global warming are little more than a form of “scientific hysteria”; rather easily, they point out that, only several decades ago, which is an insignificant span of time in climate and geological terms, a very different dread was being expressed, and one that proved to be meaningless.

What this type of response ignores, however, is the fact that not all geologists and climatologists were anticipating a new ice age in the 1970s.  Research was attempting to define and relate that greenhouse effects could evince duality; trapped gases are likely to increase surface temperatures, but they may also produce a temporary and false cooling in that contaminants in the atmosphere, trapped in low-level clouds, prevented heat from reaching the surface.  The latter effect would be, again, transitory, while the former would be more lasting (Booker, 2011,  p. 25). Then, once the “scare” of the ice age subsided, a new momentum appears to have taken its place, and international accords were reached in regard to monitoring greenhouse gas emissions.  These gases, usually produced by the industrial burnings of fossil fuels, include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.  What is important here is that, prompted by both European and United States incentives, the evidence that such man-made gases were having an effect on the climate was too great to ignore.  In its report, in fact, the National Research Council does not equivocate.  It asserts in its opening that, as greenhouse gases have long lifetimes once in the atmosphere, they: “will change global climate for decades to millennia, or more” (NRC, 2011,  p. 1).  In no uncertain terms, developed nations are making efforts to assess emissions and sharing the information, and it seems unlikely that such efforts would be made were they not significant cause for concern.  That the oceans absorb carbon dioxide is understood; less certain is how effective natural processes may be in the face of emissions radically increased since the advent of the industrial age.

Beyond this, research irrefutably establishes an extraordinary proof of shifting climate in the form of glacier melting.  The digital library of the U.S. Geological Survey monitors over 67,000 glaciers worldwide, and the erosion is both consistent and increasingly rapid.  From 1988 to 2002, the data reports ice loss as having doubled; glaciers are retreating, and in almost every area of the planet’s surface.  The exceptions are regions in maritime wet areas, such as Sweden and Norway, where increases in snowfall stem the melting.  Even this snowfall, however, is a symptom of a larger warming due to shifting climate streams.  Meanwhile, Montana’s Glacier National Park has become something of a climate change icon.  The park’s original 150 glaciers had dropped to 37 by 2002, and it is expected that the last will be gone within a matter of decades (Johansen, 2009,  p. 369).   This park, as with the highly visible changes to glaciers everywhere, enters into climate change discourse as a tipping point, or “point of no return.”  The concept itself is largely theoretical, and is typically spoken of as a means of creating greater media interest, if not outright alarm.  To date, caution is exercised: “It is extremely rare for news articles to suggest physical tipping points have already been passed, particularly in the United States” (Russill, Nyssa, 2009, p. 343).  More exactly, it is unreasonable to anticipate any sort of rational response from either the public or the government when it is put forth that the damage to the climate is irreversible.  Nonetheless, it is important that tipping points are being discussed, for they indicate just how seriously the scientific community is viewing climate change.  More to the point, all the existing research today indicates that a tipping point of this nature is by no means a small consideration, for that same evidence points to man-made activities as promoting a rapid and unnatural global warming.

Discussion

It is tempting, in reviewing the history of climatology and the concerns regarding humanity’s impact upon the subject, to assess it in a manner not unlike that of early civilizations.  That is to say, the climate is an immeasurable sand highly complex system, one encompassing all life.  Then, it is inherently subject to profound forces completely beyond the scope of human influence, for good or for ill.  It is, for example, highly unlikely that mankind could advance technologically to actually affect solar flares or emissions.  Similarly, forces emanating from the core of the Earth itself, in the form of tectonic activity, earthquakes, and volcanoes, all have an immense effect on the land surfaces and the waters and atmosphere above them.  A plate shift alters sea levels, which then redirects streams of ocean warmth.  Volcanoes both emit extraordinary levels of heat and gases which have, on extreme occasions, clouded the atmosphere and blocked sunlight for years.  Given such forces, it is then somewhat easy to dismiss the seemingly insignificant factor of human activity.  Then, while perhaps pessimistic in outlook, the question must arise: why should modern societies work to contain emissions when, as in eras long before industrialization, natural forces reshaped the climate into uninhabitable states anyway?  Nations everywhere could resolve to end all emissions, sacrificing incalculable commercial and social interests going to the welfare of their peoples, only to see a Yellowstone erupt and, within a few short hours, render most of life on Earth an impossibility.

Certainly, there can be no rational arguing against such eventualities.  What is critical, however, is the recognition that such occurrences are exactly that: unforeseeable eventualities.  What such a point of view emphasizes, in fact, is how more essential it is that humanity do what it can, which translates here to refraining from industrial practices clearly damaging to the atmosphere.  If knowledge regarding the intricacies of climate continues to evolve, certain elements are established, and including that component of intricacy.  It is well known that the biosphere is complex, and that shifts to one component affect the others.  It is well known that natural processes dictate the nature of the climate and biosphere and, if humanity is still learning their functions and byways, they remain natural forces.  Consequently, any artificial interference is likely to upset the balances in place, and it is more than arguable that extensive and consistent emissions of carbon gases, generated by human industrial activity, are likely to have a harmful effect.  Equally probable is that such gases, inevitably trapped within the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere, must eventually impede natural warming to an extent that the weather is altered in so lasting a way, the climate changes.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 as a result of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, indicates the severity of global warming. Under the Protocol, the European Union and 37 industrialized nations agree to mutually monitor greenhouse emissions.  If the intent is admirable, the structure is less so, for the Protocol is essentially an agreement based only on honor.  More precisely, only one aspects exists to enforce compliance, that of suspension of trade imposed by other nations, and this has thus far not occurred (Helm, Hepburn, 2009,  p. 66).

Here, then, may be seen humanity’s reaction as a whole, which oddly echoes the primitive responses of ancient times.  That is: as long as we are still able to function as we have been accustomed, no true danger exists.  This is a point of view that ignores a vast and growing body of evidence, even as it refutes basic reasoning, for clearly there will be no options when the real damage occurs.  It is a bitter irony, but it may well be that all nations will resolve to end their contributions to global warming only when it is upon us, and no resolution will be of use.

Conclusion

The expanse of what climate actually is has staggered human conception since recorded history.  The enormity and influence of it is such that divine, rather than natural, forces were typically perceived as at play, and even later thinking somewhat anthropomorphized climate, rendering it something of a cultural element.  Developing science would begin to glean just how vast and impactful the subject is, just as new technologies and centuries of recorded information would come together to present identifiable cycles.  Not surprisingly, thinking in so immense an arena can go wrong, as in the ice age scare of the 1970s.  Even then, however, the truth was being isolated, and mounting evidence reveals a truly frightening trend.  Global warming is most definitely occurring, and there can be no efforts too rigorous to stem the man-made influences encouraging it.  Critics refer to such concerns as alarmist, but they are well founded.  Ultimately, global warming is not an irresponsible and manufactured issue, but an actual process at least partially fueled by over a century of global, man-made industrialization.

References

Behringer, W.  (2010).  A Cultural History of Climate.  Malden: Polity Press.

Besel, R. D.  (2007).  “Communicating Climate Change: Climate Rhetorics and Discursive Tipping Points in United States Global Warming Science and Public Policy.”  University of Illinois at Chicago.  Retrieved from http://vufind.carli.illinois.edu/vf-uiu/Record/uiu_5632429

Booker, C.  (2011).  The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is the Obsession with ‘Climate Change’ Turning Out to be the Most Costly Scientific Blunder in History?  New York: Continuum International Publishing.

Downie, D. L., Brash, K., & Vaughan, C.  (2009).  Climate Change: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Fleming, J. R.  (2005).  Historical Perspective on Climate Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Helm, D., & Hepburn, C.  (2009).  The Economics and Politics of Climate Change.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Johansen, B. E.  (2009).  The Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology. Vol. I. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

National Research Council (NRC).  (2010).  Verifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Methods to Support International Climate Agreements.  Washington: National Academies Press.

Russil, C., & Nyssa, Z.  (2009).  “The Tipping Point Trend in Climate Change Communication.”  Global Environmental Change  19, 336-344.  Retrieved from http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_4800/russill_2009.pdf

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