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Global Climate Change

How do CO2 and other GHGs relate to climate change?

Greenhouse gases are not inherently harmful substances. In fact, they are absolutely essential for allowing life, as we know it, to exist on this planet. The thin atmospheric blanket of greenhouse gases surrounding the Earth is responsible for trapping heat energy from the sun, creating Earth’s unique ‘human-habitable’ environment. Greenhouse gases have gained notoriety in recent years because human caused activities, such as fossil fuel combustion and widespread deforestation, have resulted in an excess of these gases in the atmosphere (read more here for additional information about greenhouse gases). In short, more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leads to more trapped heat, with cascading effects that range from long-term global climate shifts to discrete events that affect particular locations and species. Climate change refers to a change in climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity; those changes alter the chemical composition of the global atmosphere and are in addition to the natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods. For a thorough discussion of the fundamental science behind global climate change, we encourage you to visit the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


What does the latest science tell us?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the leading scientific body addressing the issue of global climate change. The panel, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their pioneering efforts, released their Fourth Assessment Report in 2007. The Synthesis Report (download here) is easy to read and understand, and contains the following clear statements about humankind’s influence on the global climate:

  • “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.”
  • “Observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases.”
  • “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations. It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica).”
  • “Adaptive capacity is intimately connected to social and economic development but is unevenly distributed across and within societies.”
  • “Many options for reducing global GHG emissions through international cooperation exist. There is high agreement and much evidence that notable achievements of the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol are the establishment of a global response to climate change, stimulation of an array of national policies, and the creation of an international carbon market and new institutional mechanisms that may provide the foundation for future mitigation efforts.”

We encourage you to read the Synthesis Report, as well as the IPCC Fourth Assessment.

The current atmospheric concentration of CO2 is approximately 392 parts per million (ppm), according to NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. Expert agreement is that atmospheric CO2 must be maintained at 350 parts per million (at most) to avoid dramatic changes in the global climate system. For more discussion, refer to NASA publication: Target Atmospheric CO₂: Where Should Humanity Aim (Hansen, et al. 2008).


Can we still do something about the problem?

Yes we can. ClearSky Climate Solutions is part of a wave of new enterprises all over the world dedicated to tackling the issue of global climate change. With so many diverse actors working on this problem, a wide variety of solutions have been proposed. Solutions oriented around government responsibility and policy action, economic mechanisms, technological fixes, and personal lifestyle choices all aim to minimize and reverse the drivers of climate change, and adopt approaches for mitigation and adaptation.

The global community has initiated action addressing global climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was formed in 1992, while the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 as a binding agreement for participating nations to regulate greenhouse gases emissions. Signatory nations must commit to reducing emissions 5% below 1990 levels during the first reporting period, which runs from 2008-2012. The Kyoto Protocol initiated three mechanisms for countries to meet this goal, including Emissions Trading, Joint Implementation, and the Clean Development Mechanism. For more information about these mechanisms and the Kyoto Protocol, please click here . Recent negotiations at the COP17 UN Meeting in Durban, South Africa made it clear that the initial framework of the Kyoto Protocol will be dramatically altered after 2012 – leading to a protocol that includes all countries taking emissions reduction targets, not just developed countries – and it will also dramatically improve the international governance of climate change mitigation actions, with more robust and standardized monitoring/verification as well as embrace a compliance carbon market place in the next phase of the framework.

Nations, corporations, NGOs, research groups, and other groups of all kinds have become increasingly attentive to the issue of climate change. This attention has resulted in impressive advances in knowledge, research and information about climate change as it pertains to all of the actions of human endeavor and their impacts on the natural world. We now have a much more accurate understanding of the process of climate change and the projected impacts, as well as the relative contributions of greenhouse gas emissions from our actions, such as energy generation, food production, transportation, and natural resources management. In a 2004 study, researchers Stephen Pacala and Robert Sokolow made headlines with their analysis showing it would be possible to completely halt (and reverse) the increase in CO2 emissions through large-scale adoption of several technologies that are already in use (Science, 2004). It seems their strategies in several areas are quickly becoming reality. For example, worldwide wind energy generation capacity has grown exponentially since the mid-1980s and recently surpassed 120,000 megawatts.

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