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Climate Change: Our Future

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are warming the planet and must be substantially lowered soon to prevent harm


All environmental issues are, and will be, affected by global warming and the attendant changes in climate. This RACC module is a survey of current thinking of the large majority of climatologists and environmental organizations about the many issues of climate change. Each segment contains hypertext to direct the inquisitive reader to deeper levels or interesting asides.

The module is not meant to be a course in climate change. It is meant to be helpful to those who wish to be themselves helpful.

And, by the way, all errors you might find are mine.                     

—Fred Fevrier (updated December 2017)

Climate Change Module - Sections (click to advance) or download this PDF/Print Verision


Evidence of Warming is Strong

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CO2 Is the Main Cause of Global Warming

  • Warming, to be explained by science and common sense, requires a new or increasing heat source.
  • The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing as warming increases. CO2 has long been thought a greenhouse gas, or an atmospheric gas that reflects heat from the sky back to Earth.
  • No warming mechanism other than the increasing of atmospheric CO2 fits the timing and strength of warming. This excludes other heat sources, like increasing sunlight, cosmic rays, volcanic activity, increase in Earth’s core temperature, plate tectonic heat release, etc. Other greenhouse gases add fractionally to warming except water vapor, which is a greenhouse gas whose increase depends on temperature only.
  • Scientists (Feldman 2015) made daily measurements of infrared heat radiated down to Earth from the overhead clear sky at two locations over 10 years. They measured only heat coming from CO2  in the air that was heated by sunlight and heat reflected from the Earth. At the same time, they estimated daily atmospheric concentration of CO2 overhead. They found that measured heat on the ground from the sky increases when the overhead CO2 concentration increases. They also found that the amount of heat radiated down decreases when CO2 in the sky above decreases in concentration. Thus, increasing atmospheric CO2 is increasing the warming of the Earth’s surface.
  • Scientists (Feldman) found something else, of even greater importance.  They determined that the total amount of increased heat coming down to the ground from CO2 radiation increase alone explained most of Earth’s increased warming during that 10 year period. Now we are sure that increasing atmospheric CO2 is the major cause of global warming and climate change.
  • Scientists were not surprised by Feldman’s results. Scientists measured physical properties of CO2 and long ago surmised that CO2 trapped heat in the atmosphere (called the Greenhouse Effect) had kept Earth warmer than expected. Weather balloon and airplane measurements of CO2 and local atmospheric temperatures strongly suggested CO2 as the cause of global warming. Feldman proved it.
  • Measurements made by satellites(outside of Earth’s atmosphere) of heat radiated out to space show a decrease over time as Earth’s surface warming increases, consistent with the notion that CO2 is preventing heat from escaping the atmosphere.
  • A great majority of published climate scientists and US science organizations support the fact of global warming caused primarily by rising manmade CO2. Also see and see.

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We Must Lower CO2 Emissions Soon to Slow Warming

  • Inter-national agreements (IPCC 2015) have set 3.6°F as an obtainable global average temperature rise above preindustrial (1750) levels.  A higher temperature increase will have greater consequences.
  • Scientists have estimated that to have a 60% chance of keeping the temperature increase below 3.6°F, we must release not more than 1000 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 to the atmosphere ( one gigaton = one billion tons) over the next 25 years.
  • The global CO2 release rate is currently about 35 Gt/year and increasing. See here.
  • The greater the amount of CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels, the higher Earth’s temperature will rise and the worse the impacts will be. So, the sooner, the better applies.

The amount of CO2 that would be released by burning all fossil fuel reserves far exceeds the safe limits on emissions.  Scientists estimate that 80% of coal, 50% of gas, and 30% of oil reserves must be unburned (left in the ground) to limit the temperature increase to 3.6°F, avoiding the extreme scenario.

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Delaying Lowering CO2 Emissions Means Increasing Warming and Climate Change Harm

  • Once emitted, a substantial amount of  CO2 remains in circulation for “centuries”. So the warming effect of CO2 released today lasts a long time. Not producing CO2 is far preferable to trying to remove the gas from smokestacks or the air. Removal of CO2 from air is slow and expensive, and storage is problematic.
  • Climate models predict that higher CO2 levels will cause hotter summers, more intense and longer-lasting heat waves, stronger storm systems, more intense flooding events, and intensified periods of drought.  See  MIT video
  • Even moderated warming (lowered CO2 emissions) will affect food production. Unchecked warming (continued increasing CO2 emissions, sometimes called “business as usual”) could seriously disrupt global food output due to heat, local extremes of drought and flood, and increased soil water evaporation.
  • If all the Earth’s ice melts, the oceans could rise up to 240 feet, flooding hundreds of millions of homes and hundreds of major cities worldwide. We could expect wide social displacement, albeit over many centuries, with major risk of political instabilities on all scales. See here.
  • Sea level rise of 6 feet is predicted by 2100 in Virginia and the world. Storm events will destroy homes, businesses, and civil infrastructure, with the need to rebuild or “retreat.” (Important: websites constructed before March 2016 use the old prediction of 3’ of sea level rise by 2100; new science and insurers now says 6 feet).  
  • Rising sea level will likely continue until CO2 greenhouse heat from the sky decreases. Scientists have called for future lowering of CO2 level below 350 ppm, thus hopefully slowing the melting of ice that causes sea level rise.
  • More intense ocean acidification from increased atmospheric CO2 beyond IPCC targets may prevent calcification of the shells of sea creatures that remove enormous amounts of carbon from the sea (and thus the air), resulting in still more warming.

Climate change will adversely affect health and mortality. Heat stress, augmented infectious disease patterns, falling air quality, homelessness, flooding will each take a toll. See here. WHO here.

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Long Timescale Considerations are Ominous

Stabilizing Earth’s temperature will require a long time after CO2 emissions are controlled

IPCC climate projections, 2014, of lowered CO2 scenario: Even though emissions are lowered “today”, actual CO2 levels rise for some time, but temperature takes longer to plateau, while melting of ice and rising sea level continue for possibly thousands of years, to a maximum 240 feet.

  • The longer we wait to lower CO2 emission rates, the longer it will take for Earth’s climate to stabilize and the higher will be the stabilized temperature.
  • Global CO2 emissions are currently increasing. The recent 2016 Paris Conference of Parties (COP 21) accords signed by 195 countries stated "that much greater emission reduction efforts will be required in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 ̊C” by 2050.
  • Many factors known to affect climate are included in models that calculate future conditions. Some of these factors have poorly understood strengths.  Examples of these are: atmospheric aerosol reflection of heat, other greenhouse gas emission rates, change in ocean CO2 uptake affected by acidification, emission rate of soil CO2 caused by soil warming and water loss, methane emission by thawing tundra, tree and plant CO2 uptake rate change as warming increases, ocean emission of methane from hydrates, and others. See Climate Forcing or more advanced Climate Forcing.
  • Presently unknown effects that are not now foreseen may well come into play at higher average temperatures. This possibility is unsettling. See here

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Hurdles to Reducing CO2 Emissions

  • Background:  a substantial amount of emitted  CO2 remains in the air for a very long time (centuries).  Newly emitted CO2 rapidly redistributes worldwide to affect the entire globe.
  •  Fossil fuel reserves are currently worth about $28 trillion. The reserves have no immediate economic value if left in the ground. Fossil fuel companies and their investors are reluctant to accept the move to carbon-free energy sources. See here.
  • The world’s transportation, heating, cooling, and electrical generation systems are based largely on oil, gas, and coal. Lowering CO2 emissions enough to help Climate Change is impossible without converting to wind and solar energy (renewable energy) and/or nuclear fission or fusion (if developed). But any conversion will require massive investment, innovation, and public willingness to change and adapt.
  • Developing countries are reluctant to give up current systems and practices based on fossil fuels and forest burning they cannot afford to replace. They see the large carbon footprint of persons living in developed countries and point out that it is many times that of their citizens, and that the developed world should partly finance developing world changes toward CO2 mitigation.
  • Developed countries do not want to disadvantage their economies with massive investments and new taxes unless other developed countries are committed likewise. So mutual agreement is a delicate but critical element in reducing CO2 emissions worldwide.
  • The world population, 7.4 billion, is still growing, mainly in the developing world. Since every person has a carbon footprint, world CO2 emissions will tend to increase on the basis of population growth alone.
  • Public understanding of the reliability of climate science and its projections has been undermined by disinformation disseminated by the fossil fuel interests. See also here and here and here and even here.
  • We each are different in our degree of willingness to accept some responsibility for a share of climate change. The carbon footprint exercise shows that we all make CO2 and we all have opportunities to reduce our CO2 footprint.
  • The willingness to act to diminish one’s carbon footprint varies widely, in part because “action” implies for some a denial of pleasures many of us expect: meat at every meal, vacations by air travel, pleasure drives in the family car, long hot showers, food grown on other continents.
  • Current US political funding methods include the unlimited influence of vested interests on regulation and public policy, coupled with the infusions of public misinformation about Climate Change and intimidation of outspoken scientists, have resulted in a Climate Change policy gridlock in the US. See Video

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The Plan to Lower Our CO2 Emissions

  • We need to reduce our carbon footprint, as a country and as individuals. All countries of the Earth must be encouraged to do likewise.
  • We must slow way down or stop our use of coal, oil, gas, and forest destruction. We must make electricity with energy sources that don’t need burning. Germany has already converted most of their electric power generation to wind and solar (called renewables). Why can’t the United States do this?
  • To limit temperature rise to 3.6°F, we must replace gasoline motors with electric motors and insulate homes and buildings more efficiently. See: US CO2 emissions.
  •  Our electricity can easily be generated by “renewables”: solar, hydroelectric, and wind  (and nuclear, possibly) to power the electric grid. If only solar panels were used, the land area required to power the whole of USA today would be 3 Texas counties. See Elon Musk.
  • Other areas of needed change: air travel, cement use, forest burning.  
  • We need to negotiate and cooperate with the other 194 countries that signed on to the IPCC Paris December 2015 accords.

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Toward Climate Mitigation

Moderating Climate Change Requires Coordinated Action by Citizens, Governments and Corporations Worldwide

  • The origin and volume of CO2 being emitted by all countries globally clearly points to the idea that any solution must arise from negotiation, mutual agreement, and cooperation. The IPCC is the venue for this to occur. Governments of the world must continue to cooperate on Climate Change agreements.
  • Satellites in orbit now can detect and measure the real time sources of CO2 emission. Verifiability is in place.
  • The United States needs to further incentivize the people, corporations, utilities, and state and local governments to install effective wind and solar electrical generation while de-incentivizing coal and oil-based electrical generation that increases CO2. See here
  • The United States needs to consider a Carbon credit and/or carbon fee/tax or other dis-incentive scheme that as fairly and evenly as possible directs societal behavior toward lower net carbon emissions. Tax policy needs to point corporate behavior toward lower CO2 emissions and needed innovation investment. The aggregate fees might be directed to CO2 capture, and fees themselves might be tied to CO2 capture cost (estimated currently at $25-50/ton when scaled up).
  • Utility companies should envision a new role. They must be encouraged to support home-owner solar installation grid connections.
  • Informed citizens must be the driving force for these changes if Government lags. Voting can drive change.
  • Selling fossil fuels to non-complying nations should be prohibited.
  • Sweden’s decarbonizing success. Germany’s progress. California’s doing it. Canada electrifying but still pumping oil.
  • Fossil fuel recovery tax incentives must be stopped.
  • Methane leaks need an aggressive legal framework to plug.

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We Need Innovation Now

  • Improved renewable energy generation and storage systems are required to reduce CO2 emissions.
  • Higher efficiency, very large batteries and electrical storage systems are needed for all grid and large transportation applications of electrical motive power. Innovation need in this area is extreme.
  • Safer, very long-term radioactive waste storage must be solved before nuclear energy may be acceptable to the public (if ever).
  • Perovskite-based solar cells offer superior efficiencies but need further development.
  • Power grids need upgrading and hacker protection
  • Railroads should be electrified  (here read the commentary by railroad engineers, as the article gives scant mention of CO2 emissions), both passenger and freight. See impediments.
  • Fossil fuel burning coupled with efficient smoke stack CO2 capture with long-term/permanent underground storage might prove helpful and acceptable; full scale demonstration projects have been unsuccessful.
  • Large scale carbon capture and storage technologies are needed to lower atmospheric CO2 and to price carbon credit schemes.
  • Uber driverless electric cars with improved public transportation may satisfy the need for private vehicle ownership for many.
  • Video conferencing is replacing much business travel. Improved, standardized video conferencing will further replace business travel.
  • Next-gen video travelogues of high quality offer advantages over travel itself: security, comfort, and economy: they may dent airplane travel tourism someday.
  • And many more.

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What We Can Do

  • Learn more about climate change and its many aspects; stay informed.
    Online course: here. Another: here. Text and climate model runs: here.
  • Learn about uninformed points of view. See here , Arguments and Resources; Mis-informers.
  • Take the time to estimate your Carbon Footprint. See Carbon Calculator ; take time with the Calculator and see how much you can learn from it.
  • Receive Climate Change email news: regional CAAV, Climate Central, UCSUSA, NRDC                                                                                      
  • Talk about climate change to neighbors, friends, and family. Easy is good, scary is not.
  • Think about what changes you believe need to come about to improve the outcome of climate change and talk to your state and national elected representatives involved in those decisions. See EDF, action UCSUSA; these sites have petitions to sign and send to key lawmakers.
  • Write a letter stating your point of view to newspapers or magazines.  Enter the email addresses of your elected State and US representatives in your computer and let them know what you think is important.
  • Join a local or national group that parallels your point of view and furthers your knowledge base. List of 47 US organizations
  • Be aware that effort to reduce your carbon footprint cannot replace the need for necessary national carbon policy change. If you must choose to direct effort toward only one, choose policy change.
  • Try to accept new landscapes that arise from needed new technologies like solar arrays. Challenge yourself to see necessary changes in a positive light. No mitigation will be the greater burden.
  • Sign up for a custom Google search engine for Climate Change News, Desmog here

You can help Climate Change and saving money at the same time. . (The next 9 suggestions will definitely save you money)

  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle if you don’t already.
  • Change the lightbulbs to LED lights (Energy Star), starting with the most-on, most used lights in your home. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that you will save approx. $200 for every 5 bulbs you replace, all while using up to 75% less energy.
  • Seal leaky windows and doors with weather stripping. See here.
  • Buy Energy Star-rated high efficiency appliances, heating, and cooling equipment.
  • Learn to fix leaky toilets and faucets; then fix them.
  • Consider installing solar panels. Currently, a 30% tax credit, dollar for dollar. (See here).
  • Use a bike to get around. Or even walk.
  • Buy a fuel-efficient (electric second car?) car when you do. And keep your tires up.
  • Take the train for intercity travel – and join an organization that offers rail ticket discounts.  Amtrak currently serves Staunton, Charlottesville, and Lynchburg, and is scheduled to serve Roanoke in the not-to-distant future – no security lines and wifi on board!
  • OK, here’s a 50 thing list. Wig out.
  • Plant trees and capture from 3-8 tons of CO2/year per acre. Mature trees have been recently found more effective at CO2 capture than was previously thought.
  • Stop junk mail at this website.


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