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1. What is global warming?

Global warming is an increase in the average temperature of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans.  Some people believe that global warming is a myth, or that scientists disagree that global warming is happening.  This is likely due to several industry-funded efforts to discredit legitimate scientific efforts and confuse the public and the press about the status of global warming science.  In reality, global warming is a widely-accepted theory among scientists, well-supported by physical evidence.
[1] Scientists have observed and measured temperatures in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans for the last several decades, and have found that they are getting warmer.

2. Why is global warming happening?

The vast majority of scientists believe that global warming is caused by the increasing concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  These gasses act like a blanket, trapping extra heat from the sun, and causing the Earth to get warmer.  The most important gasses are carbon dioxide and methane (which are produced by the fossil fuel industries) and certain carbon-based compounds (like Freon and other CFCs) manufactured by chemical companies.

3. Who is responsible for global warming?

Scientists have concluded that humans are contributing to global warming by adding large amounts of heat-trapping gases (like carbon dioxide, methane and CFCs) to the atmosphere. The fossil fuel and chemical industries are the main sources of these gases. As a result of these emissions, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 31% since pre-industrial times.
As the concentration of these gases grows, more heat is trapped by the atmosphere and less escapes back into space. The increase in trapped heat changes the climate, and affects weather worldwide.  In some places it causes unusually intense precipitation, in others it causes hot or dry spells and in others it makes storms more severe.

4. When will global warming start having an effect on the world?

According to scientists working for the IPCC (the international body established to study the effects of global warming), Global warming is already having an effect on the Earth’s climate.

Examples of observed climatic changes:

  • Increase in global average surface temperature of about 1°F in the 20th century.
  • Decrease of snow cover and sea ice extent and the retreat of mountain glaciers in the latter half of the 20th century.
  • Rise in global average sea level and the increase in ocean water temperatures.
  • Likely increase in average precipitation over portions of the Northern Hemisphere, and over tropical land areas.
  • Increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events in some regions of the world.

Examples of observed physical and ecological change:

  • Thawing of permafrost.
  • Lengthening of the growing season in middle and high latitudes.
  • Poleward and upward shift of plant and animal ranges.
  • Decline of some plant and animal species.
  • Earlier flowering of trees.
  • Earlier emergence of insects.
  • Earlier egg-laying in birds

5. What areas will be affected most by global warming? How will global warming affect me?

The extent to which global warming will impact you personally will depend on where you live.  If you live in a low-lying coastal area, you will probably be most affected by increasing tropical storm activity and rising sea levels.  If you are a farmer or rancher in the west or Midwest , you will experience longer and more severe summer droughts and less fresh water in your streams and rivers.  If you live near the Mountains, you will have less snow pack, which can significantly reduce your summer water supply.  If you live in a city, you will have more frequent and severe heat waves, and a correspondingly higher risk of power failures.

6. How much will global warming cost?

There are several ways to measure the cost of global warming.  One is through insurance rates.  As the earth gets warmer, people are exposed to new or higher risks.  For example, farmers have a higher risk of drought and crop failure and residents of low-lying coastal areas have a higher risk of having their homes destroyed or damaged by hurricanes or flooding.  The insurance industry expects hurricane-related losses in the to increase by $27 billion per year during average storm seasons, and by $100-150 billion per year during severe storm seasons.[2]

Other studies suggest that the economic consequences of global warming could be much worse.  A recent report by the British government warned that global warming, if it's left unchecked, could cost nations 5 to 20 percent of their gross economic product.  That would be enough to dismantle the global economy and trigger a massive, worldwide depression.[3]
How serious are the risks?

Very small changes in the world’s temperature can have big impacts on humans and natural ecosystems.  At the end of the last ice age global average temperature was only 5°C lower than it is right now, and that slight temperature change put New York City was under a glacier several thousand feet thick.  If we continue on our present course, Scientists expect the that the Earth's average surface temperature will increase between 1.4°-5.8°C by 2100.  This seemingly small change will have huge impacts on everything from the weather to wildfires to sea levels.

 8. How does global warming relate to the hole in the ozone layer?

Although they are often interlinked in the mass media, there is little connection between global warming and ozone depletion. In some ways the hole in the ozone layer increases global warming (by allowing more radiation into the atmosphere) and decreases it (by allowing more radiation to escape into space).[4]  The overall impact of ozone depletion on global warming is very, very small.

 One of the biggest reasons for the public’s confusion about this issue is the fact that many of the chemicals (CFCs) that create the hole in the ozone layer are also powerful heat-trapping agents.  In other words, CFCs contribute to both the hole in the ozone layer AND global warming.  However, the ozone hole itself does not significantly contribute to global warming.
9. What can I do to help?
You can do many simple things to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses like replacing standard light bulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescents, recycling aluminum cans, taking shorter showers, walking, riding a bicycle or taking the bus to work, or buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle.[5]


[1] An interesting case study on the public’s perception of global warming can be found here.

[2]  Association of British Insurers, Financial Risks of Climate Change (2005).

[3]  Thomas Wagner, Britain sees a climate crisis, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (October 31, 2006).

[4] The hole in the ozone layer has other minor impacts on global warming.  For example, it impacts the rate of algae growth in the oceans, and consequently the rate of carbon absorption by the oceans, but these impacts are very small.

[5] A short list of things you can do to help fight global warming can be found here.