Latest update: July 14th, 2013
It comes across as a classic Right-Left dispute. Liberals, led by Al Gore, claim global warming is due mainly to human activity and something must be done before it is too late. Conservatives question that and are quick to accuse the Left of scare tactics fueled by a desire to expand the powers of government. Yet if we put our emotions aside, reasonable discourse can take place and rational conclusions can be drawn.
According to the U.S. National Academy of Science, average surface temperatures on earth have increased by over one degree Fahrenheit over the past 50 years. Some regions in the Arctic and Antarctic have warmed by substantially more (4.5 degrees F) while the portion of the earth covered by ice or snow the year round has declined by 10 percent and glaciers are melting. Since land is not as reflective of the sun’s heat as ice and snow, this sets off a vicious cycle of increased warming. The Inuit peoples of the Arctic have experienced sufficient climate change so as to require unprecedented migration and/or changes in their lifestyle, while polar bears are dying to due lack of ice floes. Every one of the past 13 years is among the 17 warmest years on record. Anyone who would deny these facts might want to consider joining the Flat Earth Society.
The question is, what are the causes of this significant climate change? Conservatives say such change is naturally occurring and that there have been alternating warmer and colder epochs throughout history. They attribute the current warming largely to changes in the amount of heat reaching earth from the sun, naturally occurring variations in the earth’s orbital pattern, and increased volcanic activity. Many of them believe man is simply not powerful enough to have a significant bearing on the earth’s climate.
Liberals, on the other hand, attribute the warming mainly to increased emissions of greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide and methane, due mainly to the burning of fossil fuels (oil and coal) and also to widespread deforestation. The primary greenhouse gas, however, is water vapor, which many scientists say has been increasing due to the increased CO2 and methane.
The greenhouse effect, by which atmospheric gasses keep the earth warm, is necessary. Otherwise, the planet would be uninhabitable. It is the increase in greenhouse gasses that is seen as cause for concern, with atmospheric CO2 having increased by nearly 20 percent over the past 50 years and methane rising at an even higher rate. There are those who say that as the polar icecaps melt, ocean levels will rise and low-lying areas will be permanently flooded.
It clearly appears that the majority of scientists studying the problem attribute most or at least a significant portion of it to human activity. But there are many who insist the changes are natural and man is not to blame. The fact that the majority holds to a certain opinion does not necessarily prove it. However, even if one could absolutely prove that fossil fuels do not cause global warming, that would hardly make them innocent of causing any harm.
For example, fish (and fish oils) constitute an important part of the human diet and it is undeniable that dangerous levels of mercury are now found in some ocean fish, particularly tuna. All that mercury didn’t get there due to people throwing away their old thermometers. Rather the mercury is spewed into the air due to the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal. From there it is carried by rain and snow into the world’s water systems. It is now increasingly believed that ingesting mercury can cause significant neurological harm, especially to children. In addition, the burning of oil and coal continue to cause acid rain, leading to the loss of fish in our lakes and streams.
Even more dangerous are the vast amounts of carbon monoxide (CO) spewed into our atmosphere, mainly from motor vehicle exhaust. CO is known to harm the central nervous system and is particularly dangerous to those with heart disease. Along with nitrogen oxides, another common pollutant caused by fossil fuels, CO is known to cause the formation of ozone, the most irritating air pollutant and the main component of summertime smog.
Today the occurrence of asthma is at record levels, with more than 15 million Americans suffering from it. Often set off by air pollution, its symptoms range from discomfort in breathing to death, with over half a million asthmatics hospitalized and over 5,000 dying annually in America. Not surprisingly, it is much more common in highly developed parts of the world than in underdeveloped regions.
Less common than asthma but causing many more deaths is emphysema. Generally attributed to cigarette smoking, emphysema can also be set off by pollution in the air. Likewise bronchitis, though associated with colds and flu, can also be caused by breathing unnatural fumes or other pollutants.
Except for the oil companies, gasoline is a no-win proposition. In an attempt to oxygenate gasoline in order to reduce CO emissions, a compound known as MTBE was added to the fuel, until it was discovered to be an exceptionally dangerous carcinogen that has found its way into much of our urban water supplies. It has recently been banned by a number of states, though some oil companies knew of its dangers as early as the 1980’s. Now the oil companies are looking to add ethanol to their gasoline in place of MTBE – though it has been shown to cause ozone levels in the air to go up even more.
Even if global warming did not exist in any form, it would be in humanity’s interest to phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and to do so as quickly as possible. Anyone who doubts that should speak to the parents of an asthmatic child. Fortunately, environmentally friendly alternatives do exist.
Seeking to reduce its dependence on foreign oil following the “oil shock” brought on by the 1973 Yom Kippur War, France turned to nuclear power plants, which now produce 80 percent of that country’s electricity, with a perfect safety record. The nuclear waste can be recycled to a certain extent but must ultimately be stored underground. French scientists are currently working on trying to find ways to completely consume the radioactive byproducts.
Because nuclear power does not contribute or either air pollution or global warming, many U.S. environmentalists are becoming increasingly open to it. Some, however, remembering the accidents at Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island, remain fearful, Overall, nuclear power has been proven to be the most energy-efficient form of generating electricity.
Far less controversial is hydroelectric power, which has been around for a long time and currently accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. electricity output. Unfortunately, most of the really “good spots,” such as Niagara Falls, are already taken. But America still has considerable potential for additional smaller hydroelectric plants. With no waste materials affecting either the air or the ground, much can be said for them. The only drawbacks are the comparatively high cost of the initial construction (which is recovered over the long run) and the fact that extreme environmentalists do not want to see rivers tampered with in any way (though any negative effect on fish and other wildlife can be kept to a minimum).
In recent years there has been considerable growth in the use of wind-generated power, which now accounts for five percent of all electricity produced in the European Union. At present, wind turbines have been developed that can function efficiently in areas where the wind speed averages 10 MPH.
As for transportation, electric, hydrogen-powered and even solar-powered vehicles are in various stages of development. Most advanced, currently, are electric cars.
In 1996 General Motors began marketing the battery-powered EV1 in California and Arizona. The engine was quite peppy and did not require a multi-stage transmission. The company went so far as to air commercials declaring “The electric car is here” and that it would soon be as common as toasters. With demand quite high, GM decided to only lease the cars and not sell them.
Once the leases were up, however, the company suddenly demanded the cars be turned in, even though many customers begged to be allowed to keep them. Then, for some reason, GM ordered just about all of the EV1s completely destroyed. According to the 2006 documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? this was done at the behest of the major oil companies, whose executives are not about to sit idly by while demand for their products gradually dries up.
The oil companies do, however, tolerate the so-called hybrid cars. These are more costly and complex as they have both electric and gasoline powered engines and a number of models are now on the market. Hybrids currently average about 50 miles per gallon of gas.
Some conservatives say that the laws of supply and demand are such that the free market can meet our environmental needs with a minimum of government interference. This is true, theoretically speaking. But it’s a fact of life that many businesses, especially the ones that feel big enough to make their own rules, do not always compete fairly.
The question of the needs and desires of individual corporations versus the needs and desires of society as a whole was an issue when the Sherman Antitrust Act was introduced back in 1890 and it remains an issue for us today.Harry Eisenberg
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