By Nicholas McCallum - Staff Writer
One of my favorite courses during my undergrad years at the University of Western (Ontario) was an elective introductory class to astronomy wherein some four hundred students were enrolled, all squeezed into our auditorium seats with those folding tablet arms that were barely big enough to fit our textbooks. The universe fascinates me, and I find it quite amazing that despite its sheer size, everything we know about the cosmos comes down to observations made from or about Earth. By studying the composition of our home world and its place in the solar system, scientists have been able to learn much about our neighboring planets and beyond, but there’s a certain level of symbiosis at play, because as we continue to learn about other planets, we in turn gain a further understanding of our own.
Eventually it came time to study planetary atmospheres, and to be honest, it was refreshing to hear a member of the science community stand up and tell a crowded auditorium of young minds ready to learn (more or less) that the global warming recorded over the past fifty years or so, is primarily due to human activity. This may not be news to many people today—indeed, NASA cites that 97% of the scientific community agrees that Earth’s current warming is a result of humanity’s influence—but at that time it was a relatively “recent” discussion in public and political circles, even though scientists had been warning us long before then.
I recall the professor mentioning how, if Earth’s average global temperature were to increase by only a few degrees, it would undergo what’s called a runaway greenhouse effect, whereby “our planet would heat up until the oceans were completely evaporated and the carbonate rocks had released all their carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.” Essentially, Earth would turn into another Venus, and that would be no bueno.
The reason that I’m ranting on about some first year science course is because, as I was masochistically perusing news media a while ago, an article from the CBC caught my eye. According to a recent study published in the journal, Nature Climate Change, the regions “around the Arabian Gulf are likely to approach and exceed this critical threshold [of temperature] under the business-as-usual scenario of future greenhouse gas concentrations.” To be clear, they aren’t talking about the runaway greenhouse effect, but rather that, because of global warming, the rising temperatures in these areas will become extremely unsafe for humans to the point that the body’s natural method of cooling down (ie. perspiration) will be rendered ineffective.
A day or two after I saw that article, the BBC reported that the plans submitted by the UN to reduce carbon emissions “in their current form, won’t keep temperatures from rising by more than the 2C danger threshold.” Here, I believe, they are speaking about the runaway greenhouse effect, referring to it as a “threshold”—that point of no return. However, officials remain quite optimistic, as “UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, said the plans were an excellent first step,” and that “observers say the 2.7C figure is a substantial improvement on 3.1C, which was the estimate when the plans were assessed last December .”
But fast forward a few months to today, after the historic Paris climate agreement, and the effects of a warming Earth are already becoming quite apparent to anyone paying attention. Apart from the polar caps continuing to recede, Alberta is experiencing a much earlier dry season, which helps account for the flames that wreaked havoc on Fort McMurray and that persistently rage in the province's north. Over in India, seasonal heat waves have shattered regional record highs, reaching temperatures of 51C (123F) in some areas that is causing the very roads to melt. I don't want to seem alarmist, but climate change is no longer a topic up for debate—it's happening, and thankfully public opinion is not a required factor in the scientific method.
Therefore, I think it's time we pop our heads out of the sand and face this challenge head-on, not in some pseudo-democratic, condo-committee fashion, but as a species that takes responsibility for its resource-ravaging existence, refusing to succumb to ignorance or selfishness. Earth may be our world, but it isn't only our world; we share it with millions of other creatures whose survival depends upon the decisions we make going ahead. Shall we preserve this pale blue dot of the universe, or suck it bone-dry at the expense of a cultivated—but not necessarily cultured—hubris?
Citation: Bennett, Jeffrey O., et al. The Cosmic Perspective. 5th ed. San Francisco, CA. Pearson Education, Inc. 2008. Print.