‘Climate Project’ brings global warming close to home
by Rob Poggenklass · News · March 20, 2007

Al Gore's group of advocates is hoping to educate as many people as possible about the science of global warming, why it’s getting worse and what each of us can do to stop it.

MOUNT VERNON—In the last 650,000 years — about three times as long as modern humans have walked the Earth — levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been higher than they are today. Historically, as the amount of carbon dioxide has risen, so have global temperatures, because heat from the sun becomes trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere.

This phenomenon, global warming, is part of a larger trend of climate change, catalyzed by the actions of human beings. Although we’re to blame, we’re also the best candidates to reverse global warming’s potentially devastating effects for our planet.

That is the grim yet optimistic message of The Climate Project, a group of advocates called to action by Al Gore and his Oscar-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” The Climate Project’s messengers are touring the United States with an updated version of the presentation Gore gave in his 2006 documentary. They’re hoping to educate as many people as possible about the science of global warming, why it’s getting worse and what each of us can do to stop it.

One of those Climate Project messengers is Tony Thompson, an Elkhart, Iowa native and a 2000 graduate of Cornell College. Thompson is pursuing a master’s degree in strategic leadership toward sustainability at Karlskrona, Sweden. After a January stop in Nashville, Tenn., for training at The Climate Project, Thompson spent last week in his home state of Iowa. On March 8, he returned to Cornell, in a presentation jointly sponsored by the student environmental club and the College Chaplain’s office.

The problem

Global warming is caused by the collection of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in the Earth’s atmosphere. Thompson made an analogy: think of coating a basketball with a layer of latex paint. The thickness of that one layer of paint, he said, would be comparable to the thickness of the atmosphere in relation to the Earth. In other words, the atmosphere is not very thick.

Using carbon dating, scientists are able to examine ice cores near the north and south poles to study oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the ice. Because the ice has been around for thousands of years, scientists are able to learn how much carbon dioxide and oxygen were present in the atmosphere throughout Earth’s history. By comparing these carbon dioxide levels to other evidence of global temperature trends, scientists have found that there is a close correlation between high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and high global temperatures. Similarly, low levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere correspond with ice ages.

Scientists have found that in the last 650,000 years, until about 30 years ago, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere never exceeded 300 parts per million. Today, however, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 380 parts per million. Because high levels of carbon dioxide throughout history have indicated periods of global warming, the current measurement of 380 ppm suggests that the Earth is warming because greenhouse gases are trapping heat.

Scientists began measuring the average global temperature more than a hundred years ago. In the last 16 years, the Earth has experienced the 12 hottest years on record. Both 2005 and 2006 set records for being the hottest years in recorded history.

Increased global temperatures are often depicted by a zig-zag line, which indicates two trends. First, there’s the general trend upward over the last 30 years or so, with the hottest dozen years all having occurred since 1991. Then, there’s a brief decline during the summer and autumn seasons in the northern hemisphere. This is because there is far more land mass in the northern hemisphere, which allows the Earth to absorb more heat when its northern half is tilted toward the sun.

The evidence

While some members of Congress have disputed that global warming exists, or that it’s caused by human carbon emissions, Thompson said that scientists are in complete agreement on both of these issues. Of the 928 peer-reviewed articles published on the topic in scientific journals, Thompson said that not one claims that global warming does not exist.

As a contrast, Thompson said that of the 636 global warming articles published by the media through 2006, 53 percent of them raised doubts about the existence of global warming or the idea that it has been catalyzed by human carbon emissions.

Perhaps the most startling evidence of global warming is the Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The ice shelf is part of the West Antarctica Ice Shelf, which is roughly the size of Greenland. Scientists believed the Larsen Ice Shelf to be extremely stable, and said it would last centuries, if not millenia.

But in 1995, pieces of the ice shelf began melting into the ocean. Over a period of 35 days in 2002, pieces the size of Rhode Island broke off and melted.

“We should be worried for the penguins’ sake but it’s more than the penguins we should be worried about,” Thompson said, referring to penguins’ natural habitat of Antarctica.

Signs of global warming are also evident at the north pole. The U.S. Navy has for many years used submarines in the Arctic Circle. The Navy is able to measure the thickness of the ice because its subs can only puncture ice that is three feet thick or less. In the last few years, Navy subs have surfaced in areas farther north than they’ve ever surfaced before.

In the Alaskan tundra, trucks depend on frozen dirt roads in order to carry loads from one place to another. But in the last 30 years, the number of tundra travel days have declined from more than 200 to fewer than 80, because the roads are no longer frozen as long as they used to be.

Thompson also pointed to increased storm intensity in the last few years, a result of increased ocean temperatures around the globe. As water becomes warmer, Thompson said, storms gain in strength. This is evidenced by recent trends of powerful hurricanes (northern hemisphere) and cyclones (southern hemisphere).

What can be done

Thompson said there has been some reluctance to deal with global warming for a number of reasons. One is that the problem is occurring on such a grand scale that it’s difficult for any one person to believe he or she can make a difference.

The problem is also often framed as a choice between what’s good for the economy and what’s good for the environment. Thompson said that dichotomy is a false one, and he points to the CEO of Wal-Mart, who has already made changes such as using less plastic packaging to cut that company’s contributions to global warming. Thompson said that both economists and environmentalists should be concerned, for many of the same reasons.

“In business, waste is bad,” Thompson said. “In the environment, waste is bad.”

Because of the potential damage to the environment from global warming, and because the U.S. imports much of its supply of fossil fuels, some view the issue in terms of national security. That list includes retired General Wesley Clark, a 2004 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“If you look at all the scientific projections on where it’s headed, you have to view the consequences of it as potentially so severe, it has to be considered a national security problem,” Clark said in 2006. “There’s just no other way to deal with it.”

Thompson said that the problem will only be corrected if many people get involved, because there are so many ways we use the fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. He said we can recycle more, we can use more energy-efficient lighting and we can reduce our use of oil-dependent automobiles.

“There is no single bullet that’s going to solve our problem of global warming,” Thompson said. “It’s more like a silver buckshot.”

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