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Climate change is a natural phenomenon that takes place cyclically every few hundred thousand years. However, unlike the past occurrences of climate change, what sets apart the climactic change of this century is that it is more of an outcome of human activities. Owing to the callousness of human beings and total disregard to the environment, the amount of greenhouse gases, including Methane, CO, CO2, water vapor and Ozone, has increased in the atmosphere considerably, leading to global warming (TNC, 2015). The increased temperature of the earth has already made noticeable impacts, including torrential downpours, melting of mountain glaciers, excessive droughts and flooding, an increase in the frequency of devastating natural calamities, depletion and degradation of natural resources, such as water and soil. The climate change, precipitation, soil degradation and shortage of water would make cumulative effect on agricultural production, including variations in plant tolerance, changes in crop yield, and prevalence of crop disease, insects, pests, and weeds (Spencer and Altman, 2010). As per the report produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), sustainability of natural resources will come under serious threat in the next few decades. This report shows that some states within the USA, which are already susceptible to water sustainability, are likely to face increased water shortage in the coming decades. These areas include California, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Florida, Montana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Texas (Spencer and Altman, 2010). This paper would discuss in greater detail how climate change, global warming and greenhouse gases pose a threat to the sustainability of the environment.
Carbon cycle along with water cycle and nitrogen cycle are the three most important environmental cycles that are essential for sustaining life on earth. There are several types of carbon cycle. Geological carbon cycle takes over millions of years. Biological or physical carbon cycle is the most common form of carbon processing. Photosynthesis is the first step in the carbon cycle where trees take CO2 from environment and sunlight to create sucrose and fructose. Then these carbohydrates become the source and foundation of energy that fuels almost all the living cells including human beings (ELC, 2008). In ocean also, this cycle starts with microorganisms converting energy and CO2 to sucrose. Plant eating animals then get the energy from plant cells and use the energy to respire back the CO2 in the atmosphere (ELC, 2008). Animal eating animals also get the energy from the carbohydrates and fats (created from the processing of carbohydrates) and again respire back the CO2 in the air. Trees then again use that C02 to create more carbohydrates and the energy cycle starts again. Ocean carbon cycle is a little more complex, but the basic concept is same.
Human beings are creating disruption to this natural carbon cycle. Extracting oils and natural gas from beneath the earth surface disrupts the geological carbon cycle. It usually takes geological carbon reserve millions of years to return to the atmosphere slowly. Sometimes, it may not return to the atmosphere at all. However, in total disregard to the carbon cycle, human beings extract geological carbon and burn it to run industries and cars. This way the C02 of the geological carbon cycle is coming back to the atmosphere quickly and the percentage of C02 (greenhouse gas) is going up (ELC, 2008). This is accelerating the process of global warming, causing the polar ice to melt and bringing other challenges to the sustainability of the environment, which would be discussed in greater detail in the later part of this essay.
Greenhouse Gas Effect and Global Warming
It is estimated that between 1906 and 2005, the average surface temperature of the earth has increased significantly by 0.74±0.18 °C. The earth is increasingly getting hotter. If the average temperature data of this century is compared to that of the previous century, it would be seen that in the last 120 years, out of the 13 hottest years, 11 years fall into the period between 2000 and 2011. The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) has marked the years, including 1998, 2003, and 2010 as the hottest three years in the world history. All these facts indicate that the earth has become hotter than ever.
The increase in the average temperature of the earth, known as global warming, is mainly caused by the higher concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The sunlight that falls on the earth's surface can either be absorbed by the earth or reflected back into space. After absorbing the sunlight, the earth releases some energy back into the atmosphere as heat, known as infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases, such as CO2, H2O, methane (CH4) absorb this energy generated by the earth, blocking the loss of heat to space (EPA #1, 2014). Thus, greenhouse gases function like a shield, turning the earth hotter than ever unnaturally. This process is known as the greenhouse effect.
Human activities have significantly contributed to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The main human activity that has led to greenhouse gas effect and the consequent global warming is greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, such as natural gas, coal, and oil. Aside from this, deforestation, burning of wood products, toxic waste, and certain chemical reactions triggered by the industrial and agricultural practices also add to the greenhouse gas effect (EPA #2, 2014).
Effect of Global Warming on the Environmental Sustainability
The climate change has already impacted the earth noticeably. It has resulted in the loss of ice on the sea, shrinking of glaciers, acute heat waves, rise of the sea level, and heavy downpours. In recent years, the frequency of the occurrence of natural catastrophes has also increased substantially. Tsunami in Japan and Indian Ocean, Katrina in Southern United States, and Icelandic volcanic eruption are the few examples of natural calamities caused by global warming (TNC, 2015).
Owing to increased average temperature of the earth and variation in weather patterns, the sustainability of the natural resources is also coming under threat. Beginning in the 20th century, the precipitation rate and its intensities have increased in the world. These heavy downpours, coupled with solar radiation, greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, and the overall increase of average temperature are hastening the process of soil erosion (Spencer and Altman, 2010).
Global warming is also intensifying the problem of water shortage. Already, owing to the accelerated growth rate of world population, the water consumption in the world has increased dramatically, and it is expected to further escalate in the coming decades. However, in comparison with the dramatic increase of water consumption, the supply of fresh water resources is limited. Only a minute percentage (1%) of the fresh water available on the earth's surface is potable and useful for satisfying agricultural and other human needs (Speer, 2012). The existing fresh water bodies are also endangered by the over exploitation and wastage of water, global warming, and pollution (Spencer and Altman, 2010). According to the prediction made by NASA, global warming will intensify the water scarcity problem by 20% in this century by raising the sea level, causing extreme severities of droughts and floods, and melting mountain glaciers (NASA, 2015). Already, due to acute drought, Lake Chad in Central Africa has dried up by 90%, putting the lives of about 20 million people, around Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon depending on the Lake Chad Basin for water, in sheer uncertainty (UNEP, 2002).
The Disappearance of Lake Chad (UNEP, 2002)
Society’s Impact on the Environment
Human beings as a society make an impact on the environment and get impacted by it. Civilization for human beings has acted both as a boon and curse. A curse because the advancements human beings have made in their lives have made a direct or indirect impact on the environmental sustainability. Every action adopted by human beings to improve the quality of life has led to an impact on the environment. For instance, varied agricultural practices, such as irrigation, the use of chemical fertilizers, and the widespread use of farm machineries that run on fossil fuel have led to the degradation and degeneration of soil and water (TNC, 2015). The high powered pumps, pipelines, and dams used for agricultural purposes have caused a huge depletion of fresh water resources such rivers, lakes, and aquifers (TNC, 2015). It is estimated that despite the crisis of water looming large, 80% fresh water is wasted after irrigation practices.
The modern society consumes a large amount of electricity the production of which makes a huge impact on the environment. Much of the electricity is generated in the world by burning fossil fuels, which in turn enhances the greenhouse effect and contributes to climate change. Nuclear power plants impacts the environment through nuclear fuel cycle processes, which release radiation into the atmosphere, and the released radioactive particles pose a danger to the health of human beings, plants, and animals. Besides, the nuclear power plant disasters such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Three Mile Island accident, contribute to a persistent environmental impact because the effect of harmful radiation released into the atmosphere by these disasters takes millions of year to efface from the earth.
The consequences of human activities that have accelerated global warming is likely to impact human health, transportation systems, economy, infrastructure, and food, energy, and water supplies. Climate change will especially impact people living in and around areas susceptible to coastal storms, drought and flooding (TNC, 2015).
Climate change occurs cyclically every few hundred thousand years, but the climate change of this century is different from the past happening of climate changes, because this time human activities played a significant role in contributing to the climate change. Due to the total disregard of human beings to the environment, the amount of greenhouse gases has increased substantially in the atmosphere, leading to global warming. The actions of human beings are also disrupting the natural carbon cycle. As a result, the average temperature of the earth has increased dramatically in the last century. In fact, out of the 13 hottest years in the last 120 years, 11 years fall into the period between 2000 and 2011. The effect of global warming is already noticeable in the earth. The climate change has led to the melting of glaciers, the loss of ice on the sea, heat waves, increased rate of precipitation, rise of the sea level, extreme flooding and droughts and frequent natural catastrophes like tsunami, earthquakes, and storms. Global warming is also posing challenge to the sustainability of the natural resources, such as water and soil. If human beings do not change their ways that are causing the global warming and degradation of natural resources, then their action will not only jeopardize their own existence, but will also pose a threat to the sustenance of other living organisms on the earth.
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) #1. 2014. Causes of Climate Change. [Online] Available at <http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/causes.html> [Accessed 3nd March 2015]
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) #2. 2014. Overview of Greenhouse Gases. [Online] Available at <http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases.html> [Accessed 3nd March 2015]
Environmental Literacy Council (ELC). 2008. Carbon Cycle. [Online] Available at <http://enviroliteracy.org/article.php/478.html> [Accessed 3nd March 2015]
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). (2002). Lake Chad. [Online] Available at <http://www.grida.no/climate/vitalafrica/english/14.htm> [Accessed 3nd March 2015]
NASA (2015). The current and future consequences of global change. [Online] Available at <http://climate.nasa.gov/effects/> [Accessed 3nd March 2015]
Spencer, T. and Altman, P. 2010. Climate Change, Water, and Risk: Current Water Demands Are Not Sustainable. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). [Online] Available at 2015 <http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/watersustainability/files/WaterRisk.pdf> [Accessed 3nd March 2015]
Speer, M. (2012). 5 Reasons Why Water Conservation is Important for Your Family. iFame Media. [Online] Available at 2015 <http://www.isustainableearth.com/water-conservation/5-reasons-why-water-conservation-is-important-for-your-family> [Accessed 3nd March 2015]
The Nature Conservancy (TNC). (2015). Climate Change Impacts. [Online] Available at 2015 2015 from <http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/urgentissues/global-warming-climate-change/threats-impacts/wildlife-at-risk.xml> [Accessed 3nd March 2015]
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