Will Climate Change Ever Change the Political Climate?

Dr. Jeffrey W. Mirick

Part 2: The Planet


The EPA:  In the 1960s there were several environmental disasters that included the Cuyahoga River fire, the New York City Thanksgiving Smog, and the Santa Barbara oil spill.  The fire on the Cuyahoga River was caused by oil, chemicals, and other pollutants in the river.  Incidents like these had been happening for years.  In response to these events, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect human and environmental health.  In the 1970 State of the Union he said

The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?

Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.

With the establishment of the EPA, regulations were in place to prevent the dumping of pollutants and chemicals into the rivers and atmosphere.  In 2014 the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA does have the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other factories.  In 2015 President Obama instituted the Clean Power Plan that would limit carbon emissions from existing and new power plants, which was first proposed by the EPA. 

In 2019 President Trump replaced the “Clean Power Plan“ with “Affordable Clean Energy.”  Unfortunately, President Trump’s plan effectively undoes or weakens many of Obama’s environmental regulations.  The scientists, who were making recommendations on environmental and human health issues for the EPA were replaced by businessmen and chief executive officers and the once-environmental and human-health mission of the EPA changed to a mission that favors polluters, big oil companies, and coal fire power plants over human and environmental health.  How quickly we forget the mistakes of the past.  The fact that the political leaders are still debating a course of action for global warming shows how far we have come since 1970.

Greenhouse gases:   The most abundant greenhouse gas is water – the second most abundant is carbon dioxide.  The abundance of water vapor in the atmosphere adds to the warming of the planet.   As the temperature of the planet warms, so will the abundance of water in the atmosphere, which in turn will increase the rate of global warming.  It is a never-ending climate feedback loop.  

The third most abundant greenhouse gas is methane, which is a stronger infrared absorber than carbon dioxide.  Some of the sources of atmospheric methane includes fossil fuel production, livestock, landfills and waste, biomass burning, etc. The methane plot [2,3] shows the trend in atmospheric methane for the past thousand years.  The concentration of methane in the atmosphere has not been as high as 2019 levels (1850 ppb) for at least a million years.  As seen in the plot the methane concentration levels began rising in the late 1800s, as a result of the industrial revolution.  Although methane has a smaller atmospheric concentration than carbon dioxide, it is a stronger infrared absorber and will speed up the warming of the climate.  The plot shows how the atmospheric concentration of methane has changed over the past 1000 years. 



Forests and Oceans:  What do oceans and forests (trees and all types of vegetation) have in common?  They both absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.  The forests absorb nearly 28% of all carbon dioxide emissions while the oceans absorb another 26%.  The remainder, about 50%, of all carbon dioxide emissions stays in the atmosphere.  

Deforestation and fires are the two greatest threats to rain forests.  When there are fires in the rainforest, carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere.  Where there is deforestation, the size of the rainforest is reduced, which in turn results in less carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere.  The Amazon rainforest typically produces between 5 and 10 % of the oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere – which is contrary to the 20% figure that has been stated in many of the news articles.   However, the good news is that the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere is pretty stable and is not influenced too much by the fires and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.     

The biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest is also under attack due to the massive fires this year, which will affect everyone.  Up to 1 million of the estimated 8 million plant and animal species on Earth are at risk of extinction, according to the nearly 150 scientists and researchers who produced the report.  They found nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history [4].  The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured these images of several fires burning in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, and Mato Grosso on August 11 and August 13, 2019 [5].


During the process of photosynthesis, a process that is used by plants, trees, and other vegetation, water plus carbon dioxide plus sun light is combined to produce sugar (in the form of glucose) and oxygen.  The carbon dioxide in this process is absorbed and stored by the trees and other plants.  An argument used by some climate change skeptics and politicians is that more carbon dioxide is beneficial to plant growth, which in turn would produce better crops and forests, and absorb more carbon dioxide.  Although there is some degree of truth to this, it will not last indefinitely.  The limitation will depend on water and nitrates in the soil and vegetation stress that comes about due to droughts and heat stress.  On average one acre of trees and vegetation can absorb about 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide annually [6]. 

The oceans absorb about a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions, but as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, the oceans also become more acidic.  Some creatures are able to adapt to the changing ocean chemistry, while other creatures fail to adapt.  As the ocean warms, the coral becomes stressed and loses algae.  Algae is a source of food for the coral and without algae the coral turns white and is more vulnerable to diseases.  This condition is known as bleached coral.   If it is prolonged, the coral will eventually die.  This has been seen happening in the Great Barrier Reef in the waters off of Australia.     


Solar Minimum:  The total radiation output of the sun oscillates between periods of low activity (with few to no sun spots) and periods of high activity (with several sunspots).  This oscillation of the solar output is brought about by the reversal of the sun’s magnetic field every 11 years.  The last solar maximum was expected to be in 2013, but there was little solar activity and fewer sunspots.  A prolonged solar minimum could result in some slowing of global warming, but so far there is no evidence of this in the data.  The last prolonged solar minimum, the Maunder Minimum, from 1645 to 1715, also corresponded to a “little ice age” where much of North America and Europe had much colder temperatures and global temperatures dropped by 1.3oC (2.3oF).   


Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Country:  As seen in the bar charts for the year 2017, the country responsible for the largest carbon dioxide emissions is China at about 11 billion metric tons, followed by the United States at about 5 billion metric tons, and India at about 2.5 billion metric tons.  But if we break down the emissions by population, it is the United States that emits more carbon dioxide per person than any other country, followed by Russia, Japan, Germany, and then China, and India, as seen in the right chart below for 2017.  The United States is a significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions per person and the United States needs to play a major part of any global plan to address global warming. 


Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Source and by Type:   From the pie chart, power generation and transportation are equally responsible for about two thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions (mostly carbon dioxide).  Cement production is also major source of carbon dioxide emissions in industry.  Coal burning power plants account for about one third of carbon emissions and are responsible for about 0.3oC (0.5oF) temperature rise since 1880.  The temperature increase from all sources is estimated to be 1oC (1.8oF).



The Planet:  Everything that makes life possible on Earth is contained within the planet’s biosphere – which includes the oceans, the land, the troposphere, the stratosphere, all the way to the exosphere and the Earth’s magnetic fields.  The troposphere contains 80 to 90% of the Earth’s atmosphere, which extends outward from the planet’s surface to an altitude of 10 kilometers.  The troposphere contains about 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 0.9% argon, .04% carbon dioxide, and a small amount of other gases including methane.  This is the regions where weather patterns are formed.

President Trump, as he frequently does, mocked global warming.  In response to the tremendous amounts of snow and near record setting cold temperatures earlier this year he tweeting


 "... Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old-fashioned Global Warming right now!"


He has repeated this claim several times.  Many in the GOP and President's Trump’s base actually conflate weather (or polar vortex) with climate change. If it is repeated enough times than people will  come to believe that global warming may not be as serious as the scientists make it out to be - BUT it is serious and has many expected and unexpected consequences - temperature extremes, warmer oceans, rising oceans, coastal flooding, excessive melting of ice fields and glaciers, stronger storms, wildfires, droughts, threat to agriculture, wildlife, public health, and local conflicts fighting over resources and territories are all consequences of a warming climate. We see the warming of the climate in the data and we see the effects of a warming climate on the planet.   


During the summer, the United States experienced record high temperatures throughout the country.  As pointed out by numerous sources, weather is the short term (day to day) state of the atmosphere while climate is the average state of the atmosphere over a much long-term period of time (often years).  Climate change describes how the atmosphere is changing year to year over several years.  The fact that each year the planet is experiencing new temperature extremes is an indication that the climate is changing.     


Greenland Ice Sheets:  The largest island in the world is Greenland, which is approximately the size of Alaska and has an ice sheet that covers 80% of its land (Antarctica and Australia are considered continental land masses).   The ice sheet of Greenland is the second largest in the world – Antarctica being the first – with an average thickness generally more than 2 km (1.2 miles) and a maximum thickness of about 3 km (1.9 miles).  Typically, during the winter season snow accumulates on the icefield and during the summer months not all the snow melts.  The remaining snow left after summer becomes part of the icefield and there is a net gain of ice and the ice sheet grows thicker.  The temperature on the ice sheet is generally between -31oC (-23.8oF) in the north central region and -20oC (-4oF) in the southern regions.  Typically, the temperatures stay well below the freezing point on the ice fields, but on August 1st, 2019, the temperature rose above the freezing point.  From July 30th to August 3rd 2019, 55 billion tons of cold fresh water from the melting of Greenland’s ice sheets were dumped into the ocean, which was 40 billion tons more than the average water runoff from 1981 to 2010.  On August 2nd, 2019 Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice, which is the largest “single day” loss in recorded history.  This was driven primarily by the hot days in Europe in July 2019.   If the entire icefield in Greenland was to melt, it is estimated the ocean level would rise by approximately 20 feet, which will cause major flooding in all coastal areas around the world.   Since 1960 the ocean levels have risen about 5 inches, and about half of that is attributed to the ice sheet melting of Greenland.  Miami is about 6.5 feet above mean sea level. 


Satellite measurements from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and global positioning system (GPS) stations in Greenland have indicated that from 2003 to mid-2013 the net ice melt in Greenland has increased.  For the next 12 to 18 months (2013 to 2014) there was very little ice loss [7].   By 2015 the ice loss had accelerated again at an alarming rate and has continued to this day due to the warming of the climate. This, in turn, will cause the ocean levels to rise, resulting in greater coastal flooding as the icefield continues to melt.   


The Arctic:   The temperatures in the Arctic range from -34oC to 0oC (-29oF to 32oF) in January and can drop below -50oC (-58oF), while the average July temperature ranges from -10oC to 10oC (14oF to 50oF).  The Arctic sea is bordered by land (Alaska, Finland, Northern Canada, Island, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Iceland, and Greenland).  The Arctic sea ice grows in size during the winter months and shrinks during the summer months and the physical extent of the ice even changes from year to year.  However, on average, scientists have seen the Arctic ice get smaller when comparing the physical extent of the sea ice in September 1984 with the size in September 2012, as seen in the figure.  The sea keeps the temperatures in the Arctic slightly warmer when compared to Antarctica.  Ice loss in the Arctic Is a function of “natural climate variability and anthropogenic warming caused by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations” [8,9].  Some models predict that the Arctic sea ice will be gone by the end of the century.  The warming of the Arctic is about twice as fast as the rest of the planet.  Polar Bears, Arctic wolves, Arctic fox, Pacific salmon, and Seals all live in the Arctic.  The changing habitant and a warming climate are threats to their survival.


One Planet:  As stated earlier, everything that makes life possible on Earth is contained within the planet’s biosphere – which includes the land, the oceans, and the atmosphere.  Some species will adapt to the changing climate while others will go extinct and be lost forever.  This in turn, will be felt up the food chain where some species feed on others.  Inaction is not a solution to global warming - empathy is needed.  The data, the changes in the planet, and the science points to one conclusion.  Make no mistake, climate change is happening and the burning of fossil fuels, coal, deforestation, and development in rain forests n are the principle culprits!  The accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere causes the climate to warm and human activity is pumping nearly 50 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year!   The choice is to pay now or pay more later in terms of lives lost and money.  References 10 to 18 lists other sources of information that details some of the consequences of global warming.      


In the 1940s it took five years for the United States to develop the world first atomic bomb.  In the 1960s it took the United States seven years to send man to the moon and return him safely to Earth.  The United States has the capability to solve the problem of global warming.  The main obstacle is the political will to do anything about it - President Trump refuses to participate in climate change talks at the G7 summit, has withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords, and continues to mock and presents  misinformation on climate change.  Part 3 of the series on climate change will include solutions and what can be done to mitigate the impact of climate change.


1.)    http://old.grida.no//climate/vital/index.htm

2.)    https://www.climatelevels.org

3.)    https://www.methanelevels.org/#sources

4.)    https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment

5.)    https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145464/fires-in-brazil

6.)    http://urbanforestrynetwork.org/benefits/air%20quality.htm

7.)    Michael Bevis, Christopher Harig, Shfaqat A. Khan, Abel Brown, Frederik J. Simons, Michael Willis, Xavier Fettweis, Michiel R. van den Broeke, Finn Bo Madsen, Eric Kendrick, Dana J. Caccamise II, Tonie van Dam, Per Knudsen, and Thomas Nylen, Accelerating changes in ice mass within Greenland, and the ice sheet’s sensitivity to atmospheric forcing, PNAS February 5, 2019 116 (6) 1934-1939

8.)    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-will-all-the-ice-in-the-arctic-be-gone/

9.)    Assembled from NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using data from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 AMSR-2 sensor on the Global Change Observation Mission 1st-Water (GCOM-W1) satellite. - http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=79256

10.) NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). 2016. Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry: Sea level rise. Accessed June 2016.www.star.nesdis.noaa.gov/sod/lsa/SeaLevelRise/LSA_SLR_timeseries_global.php.

11.) The international Energy Agency, Global Energy and CO2 Status Report, https://www.iea.org/about/

12.) Report of The Environmental Pollution Panel President's Science Advisory Committee, Theh White House, November 1965

13.) United States Global Change Research Program, Fourth National Climate Assessment Vol I + II - completed in November 2018

14.)  United Nations Climate Change Annual Report 2017

15.)  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (https://www.ipcc.ch)

16.)  Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense, January 2019 https://climateandsecurity.org/2019/01/18/new-pentagon-report-the-effects-of-a-changing-climate-are-a-national-security-issue/

17.)  Paris Climate Agreement, United Nations, 2015