Thursday, October 19, 2006

October 30, 2006

One-minute primer on global warming

In this first week of EarthlingAngst, I want to run through a few basic facts about what causes global warming, what the consequences are, and what can be done about it. Some of you already know all this. But for those who don’t, or who need a review, here goes:

The cause
Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases that escape into the atmosphere and trap heat on the Earth. There’s strong scientific consensus that these gases are mainly the result of human activity. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is 80% of the problem, and comes from fossil fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas. The United States has just 5% of the world’s population but emits 25% of greenhouse gases (GHG). A lot of the damage comes from electricity plants and motor vehicles. And these gases take 100 years to diminish, so the problem is cumulative.

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 380 ppm in 2005, with half the increase since 1965. In 2050, at the current rate, it is likely to be as much as 600 ppm, which could raise temperatures 3 to 10 degrees F, which is considered dangerous and beyond the tipping point for drastic climate change. The earth’s temperature has closely paralleled the ups and downs of CO2 in the atmosphere for centuries.

The consequences
We can already see some of the consequences of global warming:
• More powerful hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons
• More flooding
• More droughts
• More and larger wildfires
• Severely damaged coral reefs
• Eroded beaches (sea levels have risen 10-12 inches in a century)
• Rapid retreat of the Arctic polar icecap
• Melting ice in Antarctica and Greenland
• Endangered wildlife (such as polar bears).

Future threats include a shortage of drinking water, seas inundating coastal areas, and more and deadlier heat waves.

The solutions
Two Princeton scientists, Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, say we have the technology to solve the problem for the next 50 years and bring emissions below the 1970s level if we do the following:
• Make more efficient use of electricity
• Design buildings and houses to use less energy
• Increase fuel efficiency in vehicles, with hybrids, fuel cells and cars that get better gas mileage
• Use more mass transit and fuel-efficient trucks
• Use more renewable energy like wind and biofuels
• Capture and store carbon from coal-fired power plants and industry.

News update

1. Climate change inevitable for Northeast, report says
The climate of the U.S. Northeast will change substantially, according to a new report from scientists collaborating with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Already, in the region, temperatures are rising, especially in winter, and the number of extremely hot days in summer has gone up. Snow cover has decreased and spring arrives earlier. Without strong action to cut the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, by the end of the century:
• Winters could be 8-12 degrees warmer, and summers 6-14 degrees hotter.
• Sea levels could rise between 8 inches and 3 feet.
• Many cities could expect about 25 days over 100 degrees annually.
• The winter snow season could be cut in half.
Even with a changeover to substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions, the next few decades will see some changes, according to the report, “Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast.” Just based on past emissions, temperatures are likely to rise 5-7.5 degrees in winter and 3-7 degrees in summer by the end of the century. And sea levels will rise between a few inches and almost 2 feet. The extent of change will depend on the emissions choices the Northeast and the world make today, the report said. (Source: The Union of Concerned Scientists,

2. Supreme Court to weigh EPA’s role in global warming
In Massachusetts vs. EPA (05-1120), 12 states including California and Illinois have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying it should regulate global warming pollution under the Clean Air Act. The EPA’s position is that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and that the agency prefers voluntary action to government regulation. The Supreme Court expects to hear oral arguments in late November or early December, with a ruling likely by next June. (Sources: San Francisco Chronicle and Illinois Environmental Law and Policy Center.)

3. California sues automakers over greenhouse gases
California sued six of the world’s biggest automakers, charging that greenhouse gases from their vehicles have caused billions of dollars in damages. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California, is the first to hold manufactures liable for damage caused by their vehicles’ emissions. Seeking damages for past and ongoing contributions to global warming, the suit said California is spending millions to deal with reduced snowpack, beach erosion, and endangered animals and fish. The lawsuit is the latest chapter in the fight between the state and auto industry over greenhouse gases. The state adopted rules to force automakers to cut tailpipe emissions, but those regulations have been blocked by lawsuits from the auto industry. (Source: Reuters)

4. Germany to lead G8 and EU in fight against global warming
Germany will take over leadership of both the G8 and European Union next year and Chancellor Angela Merkel has made climate change her top priority. She said her goal is to “convert the big emitters” (of carbon dioxide), which likely means the U.S., the only G8 nation not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Merkel is a former environmental minister and holds a doctorate in physics. She told a meeting of conservationists in September that efforts to stop global warming without cooperation of “our American partners” were doomed to failure. “We urgently need agreements for the period after 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol expires,” she said. (Source: Deutsche Welle,

5. Illinois pledges to reduce state emissions
Gov. Rod Blagojevich has committed to reduce the state’s global warming pollution 6% by the year 2010. Illinois was the second state (after New Mexico) to join the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), in which the 100 members make commitments to reduce emissions from their facilities and motor vehicle fleets or buy credits from members who exceeded their targets. CCX members include industrial companies, utilities, universities, cities and NGOs. Illinois also increased its appropriation for Amtrak. Starting Oct. 30, Amtrak’s schedule in Illinois will nearly double. Trains emit significantly less carbon dioxide per passenger than either cars or airplanes. (Sources: The Environmental Law and Policy Center and the State of Illinois.)

Do something

Sierra Club endorses candidates for Congress
The Sierra Club is endorsing environment-friendly candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. To check out your state and district, go to

League of Conservation Voters releases 2006 scorecard
If you want to see how your representatives in Congress voted on environmental issues, you can go to and plug in your Zip code. Twenty senators and 80 reps scored a dismal 0%, including Sens. George Allen (VA), James Inhofe (OK) and Mitch McConnell (KY). In four states, California, Illinois, Maryland, and Vermont, both senators scored 100%.

Buy compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)
This is the simplest, most effective action you can take at home and it will save money in the long run. These bulbs, available at many hardware and home-improvement stores, use one-third the energy of regular incandescent light bulbs and last up to 10 times longer, an average of 7 years. If every household in the U.S. changed just one bulb, it would eliminate emissions equivalent to those given off by 800,000 cars. In the Chicago area, ComEd is discounting these energy-efficient bulbs to just 99 cents till the end of the year. To learn more about that, go to The bulbs should be used in lamps, but not in enclosed light fixtures. CFLs can also be ordered online, from numerous sources, including and Once you’ve taken the trouble to change your bulbs, you may think more about turning lights off when you leave a room and opening blinds or curtains to let in natural light.