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Sarah Miller GEOL 381 Dr. Clark March 3, 2016

Global Warming Science: Could warming temperatures be good?

Empirical evidence and climate models make it very difficult for global warming

skeptics to question whether the earth’s climate is changing. There is general consensus

that the global average temperature is increasing rapidly, and will likely continue to warm

at a similar rate if left uninterrupted. However, there is substantial disagreement over the

causes for this change and the kinds of impacts that climate change will have. This paper

will focus on the latter debate: whether warming temperatures will be generally beneficial

or harmful. I will discuss both sides of the controversy, beginning with the voices that

claim global warming will be beneficial, following with evidence that argues for the

negative effects of warming, and finally concluding with my personal analysis of the

issue.

Those who think global warming will be positively impactful have a variety of

arguments, but many of them fall under an umbrella claim, one that says rising global

temperatures will actually make the earth more inhabitable, not less. Steve Goreham, a

leading climatism skeptic, says that the earth’s climate has changed in similar ways

before, citing the Medieval Warm Period and Roman Climate Optimum as examples

(Goreham, 2016). Figure 1 (next page) is a graph used by Goreham to demonstrate the

oscillating temperatures over the last 10,000 years.

According to Goreham, there is strong evidence to suggest that living things have

always adapted to these climate changes, and that life and vegetation actually flourishes

under increased temperatures. One example he provides is the discovery of a white

spruce stump that could be dated to 5000-6000 years ago, a period with a similarly

warming climate.

years ago, a period with a similarly warming climate. Figure 1: Avery (2009), adapted from Dansgaard

Figure 1: Avery (2009), adapted from Dansgaard (1984)

Other scientists and scholars, such as Thomas Gale Moore (2008), agree that a

warming earth would be made more inhabitable: there would be longer growing seasons

in places that typically experience snow and frost in the late fall, winter, and early spring

months, and an increase in temperate weather combined with increased carbon dioxide

levels would nurture plant growth. Goreham affirms the latter point (a concept referred to

as carbon fertilization), noting that carbon dioxide is “green,” and necessary for the

process of photosynthesis in plants. Extended growing periods and higher numbers of

warm, sunny days would only enhance vegetative growth.

The apparent benefits for northern countries would be especially great. Moore

cites studies done in Europe and the United States that show a higher correlation between

cold temperatures and death rates than the relation between high temperatures and death

rates. He concludes that higher global temperatures would decrease the likelihood of

season-related deaths in countries that would regularly experience extremely cold

temperatures.

Another northern country—Greenland—is used to highlight additional potential

benefits. Greenland’s current climate is similar to the Medieval Warm Period (Moore,

2008), and a National Geographic report discusses the positive impacts global warming

has had on the country. These include increased and diversified crop harvests, increased

livestock growth, and warmer coastal waters resulting in increased availability of cod

fishing (Owen, 2007).

in increased availability of cod fishing (Owen, 2007). Figure 2 : Moore (2008) Another argument for

Figure 2 : Moore (2008)

Another argument for the earth’s increased inhabitability with global warming is

related to changes in extreme weather events. Moore (2008) claims that the frequency of

storms is not a significantly increased risk, and that the frequency of higher-intensity

hurricanes is actually declining. He cites Figure 2 as evidence of this. Some of the

scientific reasoning Moore gives has to do with the correlation between temperature and

air pressure. He says that the extreme contrast in temperature between Arctic and

equatorial regions propels global airflow, and that in reducing the temperature disparity,

the movement of storms and extreme winds will be diminished.

It’s important to note that Moore (1988) also recognizes the potential for some

negative effects related to global warming. He speaks of the impacts on ecological

systems and biodiversity, saying that it is humans’ responsibility to mitigate harm in

these areas. He also references the possibility of drier conditions in some areas (but

wetter conditions in others) and increased water salinity due to rising evaporation rates.

In any case, Moore justifies these impacts, saying that, “People living in the temperate or

colder regions of the world will experience positive effects that outweigh the costs.”

will experience positive effects that outweigh the costs.” Figure 3 : NOAA As a transition point

Figure 3 : NOAA

As a transition point for moving into the other side of the debate, I think it is

helpful to analyze some model-projected data. Figure 3 shows NOAA’s prediction for

precipitation changes by the end of the 21 st century if global warming continues at its

current rate. Proponents of the first side would point out that there is significantly

increased annual precipitation in several key areas, namely, northwestern South America,

mid-eastern Africa, Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, and large regions across the northern

hemisphere. While these instances are notable and would have some true benefits, they

do not obscure the loss of precipitation that would set in motion a series of positive

feedback effects.

For example, when temperatures rise, soil evaporation accelerates and plants

accelerate transpiration (i.e. they are losing moisture). This effect, “evapotranspiration,”

is expected to outweigh the net impact of increased precipitation, thus resulting to

declining vegetation and crop yields (Cline, 2008). This in turn takes away from the

earth’s supply of oxygen-producing, carbon dioxide-consuming plants and trees,

hastening the effects of carbon emissions on global warming. In places with decreased

precipitation, the feedback effect is similar. Vegetation struggles without sufficient water

supply, giving way to arid or deforested regions. In regions of high biodiversity such as

the Amazon Rainforest, the domino effect would be catastrophic.

Amazon Rainforest, the domino effect would be catastrophic. Figure 4: Cline (2008) Agricultural Yields Without Carbon

Figure 4: Cline (2008) Agricultural Yields Without Carbon Fertilization Effect

Another issue is the science behind Goreham and Moore’s “carbon fertilization”

claim. While it’s true that plants use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, the actual benefits

of continued increase coupled with global warming are questionable at best. Figure 4

(previous page) shows projected global agricultural yields—taking into account warming

temperatures, changing precipitation, and increased (non-beneficial) carbon dioxide

levels.

and increased (non-beneficial) carbon dioxide levels. Figure 5: Agricultural Yields With Carbon Fertilization

Figure 5: Agricultural Yields With Carbon Fertilization Effect

Figure 5 accounts for the same factors, but assumes carbon dioxide is indeed a

fertilizer for certain crop types such as wheat, rice, and soybeans. Figure 5 is somewhat

consistent with Moore and Goreham’s theories, in that northern regions could benefit

agriculturally. However, most of the highest-populated regions—particularly developing

countries—would still suffer dramatically. A final look at a graph (Figure 6 on next page)

projecting crop yields until 2100 serves as further confirmation that long-term effects will

be negative.

Figure 6: Crop Yield Effects Another central issue of global warming is sea level change.

Figure 6: Crop Yield Effects

Another central issue of global warming is sea level change. Sea levels may rise

for a number of reasons, including glacial melting and an increase in ocean volume.

Ocean thermal expansion models predict that a uniform ocean warming of 3°C would

raise sea level by 2.4 m. However, even just half a meter would displace millions of

people living in coastal and delta regions (Clark, 2016). Changes in sea level would

additionally affect the communities and ecological environments that depend on

consistent freshwater ecosystems to survive. Impacts on rivers would include changes in

flow and volume (increasing flood risk), as well as water nutrient levels (affecting

surrounding plant and animal life). Increased water salinity due to disturbed water supply

would also be devastating for countries lacking the resources and technology to

counteract those effects.

Extreme weather events also have the potential to be dangerously affected by

global warming. The National Resources Defense Council claims that higher evaporation

rates in summer and fall months (and the resulting loss in soil moisture) will increase

risks of drought and wildfire. The Council also cites evidence of more Category 4 and 5

hurricanes in the last 30 years, despite decreases in frequency of storms. Scientific

consensus states that more intense precipitation over most areas is very likely, more

extreme high temperatures are very likely, and increased risk of drought over mid-

latitude continental interiors is likely (Clark, 2016). To summarize, global warming is

most likely to produce an increase in intensity of severe weather (hurricanes) as well as

increased risk of natural disasters like drought and wildfire.

Extreme events are certainly devastating to terrestrial regions, but they also have

substantial impacts on human health. Contaminated water can cause outbreaks in disease

and infection. Droughts can result in malnutrition, mass starvation, and weakened

immunity. Wildfires put people at risk for prolonged smoke inhalation. Hurricanes and

other extreme storms most obviously put lives at risk, but also leave communities

struggling to recover afterwards.

Other human health issues that arise from global warming include heat stress,

allergy and respiratory problems, and the spread of disease. While relationship between

heat and death is somewhat uncertain, there is evidence that more frequent and extreme

heat waves will result in higher numbers of heat-related deaths. The National Resources

Defense Council cites the 2003 European heat wave (70,000 deaths) and the 1995

Chicago heat wave (739 deaths in one week) as examples. In relation to respiratory

problems, rising temperatures could increase ground-level ozone smog production.

Coupled with high temperatures, this increase in pollution has been shown to correlate

with increased death rates (Clark, 2016). Finally, there is the spread of disease.

Developing and under-resourced areas will be affected the most. Figure 7 (next page)

details vector-borne diseases expected to spread, the populations affected, and the

likelihood of effect.

Figure 7: Clark (2016) Diseases like malaria are expected to spread because the malaria-carrying mosquito

Figure 7: Clark (2016)

Diseases like malaria are expected to spread because the malaria-carrying

mosquito requires optimum temperatures of 20-30°C and at least 60% humidity to

survive. A small increase in global temperatures would allow the mosquito to spread into

regions it wouldn’t otherwise be able to inhabit (i.e. typically cooler, drier, or higher

elevation regions). While many northern, developed nations would have the tools to

respond, developing nations—where malaria is most likely to be spread—simply do not.

In summary, I have discussed two sides of the global warming debate: those who

believe warming will have positive net impacts, and those who think the effects of

warming will be slightly varied, but, overall, strongly negative. I must agree with the

latter group. While there does seem to be some merit to a few of the first group’s claims

of benefits, I find it problematic and unhelpful that much of the data seems concentrated

in northern, highly developed regions. The science backing several claims (i.e. carbon

fertilization, effect of precipitation changes, crop yields) seems somewhat inconsistent,

decontextualized, and lacking global applicability. In contrast, the evidence and scientific

backing for claims of negative impact is much more comprehensive and globally

relevant. From a common sense perspective, the potential for devastating global damage

simply seems unequivocally greater than any small potential for good.

Sources

Clark, J. (2016). Academic lecture. Wheaton College.

Cline, W. R. (2008). “Global warming and agriculture”. International Monetary Fund.

Retrieved from: https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2008/03/pdf/cline.pdf

Goreham, S. (2016). Academic lecture. Wheaton College.

Goreham, S. (2013). “Hot weather and climate change—a mountain from a molehill?”.

The Heartland Institute. Retrieved from:

http://news.heartland.org/editorial/2013/07/04/hot-weather-and-climate-change-

mountain-molehill

Owen, J. (2007). “Global warming good for Greenland?”. National Geographic News.

Retrieved from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/10/071017-

greenland-warming.html

Moore, T.G. (2008). “Global warming: the good, the bad, the ugly and the efficient”.

EMBO Press, 9 (S41-S45). Retrieved from:

http://embor.embopress.org/content/9/1S/S41

Moore, T.G. (1988). “Climate of fear: why we shouldn’t worry about global warming”.

Cato Institute.

The Natural Resources Defense Council. (n.d.). “The consequences of global warming”.

The Natural Resources Defense Council. Retrieved from:

http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/fcons.asp