Sunday, 29 April 2012

Climate Change is NOT Global Warming

By Ryan Pearson
There have been a few things in the public arena in this past week that I feel obliged to make comment on. This is the first of them. Earlier in the week there was a documentary, and subsequent debate on QandA on the ABC titled "I Can Change Your Mind About...Climate". The documentary featured an environmental activist, Anna Rose, and a 'skeptical' politician, Nick Minchin, each trying to convince the other that climate change does or does not exist. While I believe there is overwhelming evidence in one direction (no, not the boy band), neither really succeeded. There are a number of reasons for this, but for this blog I really wanted to focus on what climate change actually means. And to make an attempt to wade through some of the mystery that led to the actual topic barely even being addressed in a documentary about the subject.

Firstly, the entire focus of the documentary, and subsequent question time was about global warming. Now, don't get me wrong, global warming is a part of climate change, but it's far from the whole story. Each side was trying to prove or disprove the fact that humans are causing the globe to warm, and whether or not there would be negative effects from this. They argued to no end, and found 'experts' designed to back up their case on the issue. They argued over whether it would rise, how much it would rise by, and whether a rise would do any damage, yet missed the fact that global warming is but one tiny part of human induced climate change.

They each made partly correct statements that didn't tell the whole truth. Even Nick Minchin admitted that humans were causing excess carbon dioxide (CO2) to enter the atmosphere, yet he claimed that CO2 is good for humans, and for the atmosphere, claiming that it wouldn't cause excess global warming because it makes up such a small fraction of the atmospheric gases, and that water vapour would counteract any effect that increased CO2 would have. Now, I'm not saying he's right, not at all, but even if he was right, there are many other devastating effects that increased CO2 would have.

This is but one of them... you see, the atmosphere and the oceans exist in equilibrium. This means that increasing or decreasing the concentrations in one part of the 'cycle', will have flow on effects throughout the entire system. These are not trivial effects. The below diagram shows 5 reactions that take part in the carbonate system equilibrium. Now, I know you don't all have chemistry knowledge so I'll spare you the how and why, but what this means is that as atmospheric CO2 increases, it leads to Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) dissolving.
The Carbonate System Equilibrium Equations.

"So what? Why the hell do I care if some crappy molecule dissolves way down in the ocean?" you might ask. Well, let me tell you. CaCO3 is the principal ingredient that goes into making shells for crustaceans (crabs, shrimp, lobsters, etc), and for mollusks (oysters, pippies, snails, mussels, clams, etc). Now, considering crustaceans are some of the single most abundant organisms in the entire world, and that they form the major food source for larger marine species... what do you think will happen if their shells dissolve and they die out? Not only will we directly lose one of our major food sources, but many of our other marine oriented food sources will also disappear. All of the flow on possibilities are actually unimaginable, but food shortage, fishing industry collapse, and a decrease in marine oriented tourism revenue (diving, snorkelling, and fishing) are a few of them. And this is just one of the factors involved with climate change.

Other expected outcomes from human induced climate change include increased weather variability and frequency in extreme weather events. Yes, that includes cyclones, tornadoes, flooding, drought, & bush fires. Hmm... Australia (and the rest of the world) hasn't seen much of that lately has it? *rolls eyes*. Another possibility is sea level rise, considering the bulk of the worlds population lives on the coastline, even a small change could be devastating. We could lose entire island countries. Keep in mind that in the Earth's past, the sea level has been as much as 70m higher than it is today, so current estimates of a few metres are not unrealistic. Food and water scarcity, combined with sea level rises could lead to millions upon millions of refugees, and war over resources would almost definitely increase that problem.

I know that this sounds alarmist, but none of these issues are out of scope when it comes to climate change. In the show, one of the sceptic 'experts' visibly laughed when Anna Rose said that the world could be destroyed. Now, she may have laughed because she was picturing the world exploding, or caving in on itself or something just as dramatic, which I'll admit isn't likely. But our planet is undoubtedly changing, and it is not unreasonable to expect that it will one day become uninhabitable by the human race. 

The thing is, even if 97% of climate scientists are wrong and we do act, what's the worst that could happen? We make changes to counteract climate change, it costs a bit of money, and we live in a cleaner world anyway. If they're not wrong, and we don't act... what's the worst that could happen? Famine, poverty, war, and ultimate extinction of the human race (along with the bulk of the other species we drag down with us). I know my choice, what is yours?

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