“In reality, climate change is actually the biggest thing that is going on every single day.” Bill McKibben


“The Arctic is the epicenter of global warming.” The Economist, Sept. 21-27, 2019


Global climate change is a complex issue — one impossible to cover in one opinion piece. This piece, Part 1, will speak about the crisis that is global climate change.

Climate change means a “statistically significant variation in the mean state of the climate or in its viability over a long stretch of time.” (K. Dow & T.E. Dowling, "The Atlas of Climate Change," Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2006, p. 15).

Though oxygen and nitrogen make up 99 percent of our atmosphere, they do not influence the temperature of the Earth. Rather, carbon dioxide and methane gas trap heat, thus creating a “greenhouse effect.”

Here’s how it works. The sun sends shortwave radiation that passes through the Earth’s atmosphere without being absorbed by the atmosphere. However, outgoing infrared radiation is absorbed by CO2 and methane gas that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Why so? Both carbon dioxide, methane gas and nitrous oxide have three or more atoms, plus they have frequencies that line up with the infrared radiation discharged by the Earth. Some of that heat comes back to the surface of our planet. This raises the temperature of the Earth. (See Jason West, “Climate explained,” The Conversation, September 13, 2019).  

It’s astounding that carbon dioxide has such a good effect on the environment when the pre-industrial levels were at 410 ppm. However, today we have too much of a good thing when carbon dioxide and methane levels are very high, thus having a deleterious effect on the temperature of the Earth. These high levels are caused in large part by burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas. 

How so? Carbon dioxide contains a mere 0.041 percent of our atmosphere, yet its effect on the planet is enormous. Perhaps this should not surprise us. I would note that when I was first diagnosed with diabetes, my doctor put me on metformin. It was a small pill that had a great effect on my health, though it was a tiny mass of my body’s weight. 

Also, it’s worrisome that carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere up to 200 years, just as mercury can accrue or accumulate during the lifetime of a large tuna or mahi mahi, no matter how long it lives.

The results of a warming world are multiple: (1) There’s a world-wide scarcity of water. The scarcity of water, not terrorism nor fundamentalism, is the most urgent problem facing the Arab world. The Arab Spring uprisings were caused in part by rising prices for food and the breaking down of natural ecosystems due to the water crisis in the region. (See B. Chellaney, “Arab World’s Biggest Problem,” Informed Comment, September 27, 2016).

(2) Temperatures in the Antarctic and Arctic region are rising at an enormous pace, due to the emission of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the Earth’s atmosphere. Once the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions melts, it will be gone forever.

Soil in my garden consists of 5 percent carbon. However, in the Arctic and Antarctic regions the soil contains 20-50 percent of carbon, since they are rich in organic matter. We’re talking then of 1.1 to 1.5 trillion tonnes of carbon and methane released into the Earth’s atmosphere, as the planet gets warmer.

A preview of what’s to come is this: In July 2019, the tundra in Siberia warmed and dried up so much, it caught on fire for weeks. (See “Graphic Detail,” The Economist, Sept. 23, 2019, p. 93).

(3) Also, if all the ice in Greenland melts, the world’s oceans would be 25 feet higher than they are right now. This would cause flooding in places like Miami, Bangladesh, New York City, Mumbai, New Orleans, etc. You get the picture.

(4) There has been a 76 percent decline in the biomass of insects according to a recent peer-reviewed study in PLOS ONE on Oct. 18, 2017. This means that a large number of animals higher up the food chain like birds, bats and amphibians will be greatly affected by this loss of insects, as will humans. Insects eat organic matter and pollinate plants, among other things they do for the planet.

(5) There are 3 billion fewer birds today in the U.S. and Canada than there were in 1970. The loss of habitat, domestic cats and windows are to blame for this decline. (See “Decline of the North American Avifauna” in Science 19, September 2019).  

It’s impossible in a few words to describe the impact of climate change on our health and on the world’s economy. Here are two examples to ponder: Between 2000 and 2016, glaciers in the Himalayan mountains lost about 8 gigatons of ice annually, due to higher temperatures. (A gigaton is one billion tons). This compares to 4 gigatons in earlier years.

Since 1961, the world has lost about 10.6 trillion tons of ice and snow. That amount would cover the 48 states in the U.S. with four feet of ice. At the current glacier loss rate, glaciers will be extinct at the end of this century. Two billion people in South Asia depend on the Himalayan glaciers for drinking water and for food production. How will they survive, when these glaciers melt?

For most of its 855-mile run, the Yamuna River in Delhi, India is a black, foul sludge. In many areas it remains still with a foam of industrial chemicals, floating plastic, and human waste. By the time this river meanders through Delhi, it cannot sustain animal life.

About 275 out of 445 rivers in India, including the sacred Ganges river, are heavily polluted. Diarrhea remains the fourth leading cause of death in India. Why so? Contaminated water.

India produces more than 16 billion gallons of sewage daily. About 62 percent wind up untreated in nearby bodies of water. (See Wall Street Journal, “Troubled Waters,” by Krishna Pokharel & Preetika Rana, Oct. 21-22, 2017).  

Part Two will address this question: “What can be done to limit the damage caused by global climate change.

Richard Penaskovic is an emeritus professor at Auburn University, who taught religious studies for 30 years.

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