3 Minute Look at the “Gravest of dangers to life on this planet”

 

There are many reasons to strive towards a more sustainable business model. Personally, what pointed me in the direction of sustainable development is the threat of modern climate change.

Let’s take a quick look at what climate change is and why it’s often misunderstood.

A look back in time

Over the last million years the Earth has warmed and cooled in a cyclical pattern. Paleo records show a natural cycle where every 100,000 years the Earth naturally completes its climate cycle. The Earth is currently experiencing a warm period. But geologically speaking, this is normally short lived. A warm period typically lasts for between 10-20,000 years followed by an ice-age lasting 80-90,000 years.1 However, we are now on course to veer away from the natural cycle into uncharted territory because of the pace at which the Earth has continued to warm outside of its normal range.2

Something unusual is happening

In 1880, scientists began recording temperatures after observing a warming trend. At that time, it seemed inconceivable to think that human impact could change something as complex as the Earth’s climate. But the disturbance of the Earth’s global carbon cycle in the use of fossil fuels for the manufacture of goods and transportation would later debunk that myth. The Industrial Revolution not only gave birth to a new world that delivers many of the creature comforts we know and love today, but also to a world that is experiencing an exponential increase (parts per million) in carbon dioxide (CO2).

Things are warming up

The term “global warming” refers to the warming of the entire planet. Although not necessarily felt in one isolated area, it refers to a small overall increase of air temperature surrounding the Earth. This increase is due to the amount of heat caused by trapped rays of sunlight.

As sunlight hits the Earth, some sun rays bounce off, and some are trapped in by the layer of atmosphere that surrounds the Earth. This is a good thing, because it keeps Earth at a comfortable temperature that allows life to exist on our planet. The atmosphere protects us and is made up of two layers:

  • the upper layer, called the Ozone Layer, protects us from dangerous radiation from the sun
  • the lower layer is made up of various natural greenhouse gasses including Carbon Dioxide (CO2), and help keep Earth’s surface at a reasonable temperature.

This process is called the greenhouse effect and is illustrated in Figure 1.


Figure 1 The Green House Effect

Source: Environmental Science for Dummies, Wiley
http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118167147.html

However, the increasing level of CO2 in the air means that fewer rays of sunlight can make it back out through the atmosphere again as they bounce off the Earth, so remain trapped.

So what?

The Earth is known as a “closed system”, where matter doesn’t feely enter or leave. Instead, anything within the system constantly gets recycled. The build-up of CO2 gas results in changes in global temperature causing many serious health problems for our planet.

Tariq Banuiri and Hans Opschoor (2007), authors of a working paper titled, “Climate Change and Sustainable Development”3, say:

“There is virtually no doubt today that climate change is already happening, that it is caused by the emission and accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, that it poses the gravest of dangers to life on this planet, and that much of its impact is already “locked in” because of past actions, but the most extreme costs could be avoided if policy responses are put in place immediately.”

So the problem is not climate change, for that is a natural phenomenon. But it is instead “modern climate change”; the rapid pace of this imminent force caused by human impact that is reason for urgent behavioral and social change.

How does too much CO2 get into the air?

Carbon is the most basic element of all life. It is found just about everywhere on Earth where life exists or did exist at one time. As with many things in life, there is a cycle that is involved that transports it around. Thanks to volcanic activity and chemical reactions, carbon gets moved between the earth (rocks, soil, and ocean) and the atmosphere, and back into the earth again. This natural process can take 100-200 million years to complete the cycle.

However, two main things significantly speed up this process: the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. The release of carbon usually happens naturally at a much slower rate than it does when carbon is released from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. CO2 is emitted from the burning of these products and gets released into the atmosphere in the process. Additionally, the clearing of large amounts of land means that the trees and plants that would otherwise capture this CO2 through photosynthesis, does not occur.4 The result is that the gas becomes stored in the atmosphere.

So what is CO2 and why is it a problem?

When Carbon combines with Oxygen it turns into gas. When too much CO2 is in the air, the greenhouse effect blankets the Earth by preventing those rays of sunlight from pushing back through the atmosphere as they bounce off the Earth. This results in the heat from those sun rays to be trapped and stored, ultimately leading to the artificial warming of the Earth.

Science tells us the Earth’s temperature is rising. And, it is rising at an alarming rate, as seen in Figure 2. Because the Earth is an entire ecosystem, the warming is global – meaning, it affects the whole planet.

Figure 2 Global Mean Surface Temperature

Source: NASA Earth Observatory, Global Warming
https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page2.php

If we don’t do something to rectify this situation soon, scientists predict a smorgasbord of cause-and-effect treats in store for 2050 and beyond.

Can you change human behavior?

Now we have a grasp of the science, how do we get change to happen?  The answer is, it’s difficult. Unfortunately, we have to be introspective enough to look that far into the future. And we usually only react to immediate problems. Unfortunately, education and social change may not happen fast enough to address the threat of modern climate change. Often we only tune into what’s immediately important to us. It’s the Theory of Selective Exposure.

Or can you change the way you react to it?

They say you can’t change someone’s behavior but you can change the way you react to it. If that’s the case, we have to look at things from a different perspective.

Perhaps we need to lift the direct responsibility off the consumer, for now. Maybe it’s too much of a big ask for each individual to take responsibility. The task seems too big. Perhaps we should therefore look to business instead to help us face this problem collectively.

Next steps

Now we understand some of the problems surrounding this global issue, we can move towards finding solutions. And if we start with business, its decisions would trickle down to the end consumer. After all, consumers buy what businesses make. Businesses vote with their wallets too and they control a much larger chunk of change than any individual. Who makes their materials? How were they made? Would their customers be happy if they knew where those materials came from? Consciousness might grow deeper, prices might come down, and hopefully the positive effects will follow.

As of September 2016, it’s now too late to stop modern climate change.  We’re now past the tipping point. But the good news is, it’s not too late to slow it down.

The decisions of everyday business could make a world of difference.

 

Sources

1.  OSS Foundation (2017) Milankovitch Cycles.

2.  OSS Foundation (2017) Global Warming Natural Cycle.

3. Banuiri, T. and Opschoor, H. (2007), Climate Change and Sustainable Development, DESA Working Paper No. 56.

4. Climatica (2017) The Carbon Cycle.

5. Spooner, A.M. (2012) Environmental Science for Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

 

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