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Menopausal Mother Nature

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A heatwave – now do you believe in global warming? – Morning Star Online

THE recent heatwave that showed record temperatures across most of Britain and a lot more of the world had one small silver lining. 

It did convince some of the ignorant climate change deniers that perhaps global warning is a real phenomenon and not some awful scare story dreamed up by moaner journalists like me.

I, and a lot of other environmentalists, have been banging on about the change in our weather patterns and what they will eventually bring, for decades. Now, a couple of days where it was too hot to go out have made a far more convincing argument.

Scientists, and others, have been observing the long-term alteration in the Earth’s climate and weather patterns for at many hundreds of years. 

It took that long to convince the vast majority of the scientific community that human activity could alter the climate of our entire planet — and for the worse.

As far back as the ancient Greeks, people had proposed that humans could change temperatures and influence rainfall by chopping down trees, ploughing fields or building irrigation canals in the desert.

In the 1800s, experiments suggesting that human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases could collect in the atmosphere and insulate the Earth itself were met with more curiosity than concern.

In the 1820s, French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier believed that energy reaching the planet as sunlight must be balanced by energy returning to space, since heated surfaces emit radiation. Some of that energy, he reasoned, must be held within the atmosphere and not return to space, this must warm the Earth.

Fourier proposed that Earth’s thin covering of air — its atmosphere — acts the way a glass greenhouse would. His was the first mention of the “greenhouse effect.” 

Energy passes through the glass walls coming in, but is then trapped inside. Anyone who has worked in a greenhouse on a sunny day will recognise the effect.

Eunice Newton Foote is not as well-known as she should be. She was an early US women’s rights and anti-slavery campaigner. She earns her place in this article however for her work as a brilliant scientist.

She was the first scientist known to have examined the warming effect of sunlight on different gases and to have suggested that an increase in the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would change its temperature and have an effect on climate.

Her experiments using glass cylinders demonstrated that the heating effect of the sun was greater in moist air than in dry air. She detected the highest degree of heating occurred in a cylinder containing carbon dioxide.

Her work would foreshadow the work of Irish scientist John Tyndall, who also zeroed in on which gases played the biggest role in absorbing heat.

Tyndall also explored exactly what kinds of gases were most likely to play a role in absorbing sunlight. Tyndall’s laboratory tests in the 1860s showed that coal gas (containing CO2, methane and volatile hydrocarbons) was especially effective at absorbing energy.

He eventually demonstrated that CO2 alone could absorb multiple wavelengths of sunlight.

By 1895, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius became curious about how decreasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere might cool Earth.

In order to explain past ice ages, he wondered if a decrease in volcanic activity might lower global CO2 levels. His calculations showed that if CO2 levels were halved, global temperatures could decrease by about 5°C Celsius (9°F).

Next, he wondered if the reverse were true. Arrhenius returned to his calculations, this time investigating what would happen if CO2 levels were doubled. 

The possibility seemed remote at the time, but his results suggested that global temperatures would increase by the same amount — 5°C (9°F). Today we know his numbers weren’t far off the mark.

Back in the 1890s, however, the concept of warming the planet was remote and even welcomed — just as it is by some ignoramuses today — “Wouldn’t it be nice if every day was warm and sunny.”

Arrehenius was out there in front. He wrote: “By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid [CO2] in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth.”

Today we realise that the greenhouse theory was an oversimplification, since outgoing infrared radiation isn’t exactly trapped by Earth’s atmosphere but absorbed.

The more greenhouse gases there are, the more energy is kept within Earth’s atmosphere.

By the 1930s, at least one scientist would start to claim that carbon emissions might already be having a warming effect. British engineer Guy Stewart Callendar noted that the United States and north Atlantic region had warmed significantly after the Industrial Revolution. 

Callendar’s calculations suggested that a doubling of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere could warm Earth by 2°C (3.6°F). He would continue to argue into the 1960s that a greenhouse-effect warming of the planet was under way.

While Callendar’s claims were largely met with scepticism, he did something to draw attention to the possibility of global warming.

That attention played a part in garnering some of the first government-funded projects to more closely monitor climate and CO2 levels.

By the late 1950s, CO2 readings would offer some of the first data on climate change. This would corroborate the global warming theory.

Eventually an abundance of data, along with elaborate climate modelling would show the dire consequences that global warming would bring if it was real. But still not everyone believed it

The dawn of advanced computer modelling in the 1960s began to predict possible outcomes of the rise in CO2 levels. Computer models consistently showed that a doubling of CO2 could produce a warming of 2°C or 3.6°F within the next century.

In the early 1970s, a different kind of climate worry arrived: global cooling. As more people became concerned about pollutants people were emitting into the atmosphere, some scientists theorised the pollution could block sunlight and cool the Earth.

In fact, Earth did cool somewhat from 1940-70 due to a post-war boom in aerosol pollutants which reflected sunlight away from the planet. But as the brief cooling period ended and temperatures resumed their upward climb. 

The early 1980s would mark a sharp increase in global temperatures. Many experts point to 1988 as a critical turning point when watershed events placed global warming in the spotlight.

The summer of 1988 was the hottest. Headlines screamed: “Heatwave” — sound familiar? 1988 also saw widespread drought and wildfires particularly in the United States.

The US panicked. Nasa scientist James Hansen delivered testimony and presented models to congress in June of 1988, saying he was “99 per cent sure” that global warming was upon us.

One year later, in 1989, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established under the United Nations to provide a scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts.

As global warming gained currency as a real phenomenon, researchers dug into possible ramifications of a warming climate. Among the predictions were warnings of severe heatwaves.

Other predictions were for droughts and more powerful hurricanes fuelled by rising sea surface temperatures.

Other studies predicted that as massive glaciers at the poles melt, sea levels could rise between 11 and 38 inches (28 to 98 centimetres) by 2100 — enough to swamp many coastal towns and cities. 

Government leaders began discussions to try and stem the outflow of greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the most dire predicted outcomes. The first global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, the Kyoto Protocol, was adopted in 1997.

Kyoto called for reducing the emission of six greenhouse gases in 41 countries plus the EU to 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels during the target period of 2008 to 2012. US president Bill Clinton signed up.

By March 2001, a new US president George Bush announced the US would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, saying the protocol was “fatally flawed in fundamental ways” and citing concerns that the deal would hurt the US economy.

Exactly the same “economics are more urgent than the environment” arguments were on the lips of every one of the candidates for leader of the Tory Party and our new prime minister in recent weeks.

As you would expect among those encouraging scepticism over global warming was and is Donald Trump. On November 6 2012, Trump tweeted: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”

A more reasoned view came from Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg in August 2018.

Thunberg became well-known after she protested outside the Swedish parliament in 2018, when she was just 15. She held a sign saying: “School Strike for Climate,” to pressure the government to meet carbon emissions targets.

Greta was not the only young person understanding the real threat of global warming — sometimes much better than their parents.

Various annual UN climate action summits have declared 1.5°C is the socially, economically, politically and scientifically safe limit to global warming by the end of this century, and set a deadline for achieving net zero emissions to 2050.

The leading Tories might be pulling back, but sensible people know that this target or better is essential to save our world and along the way avoid a few more of those heatwaves.

Sorry, must go now. I can hear the ice-cream van outside.

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