13 Short Answers To The Most Common Questions About Global Warming

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The issue can be overwhelming. The science is complicated. Predictions about the fate of the planet carry endless caveats and asterisks. So here a list of quick answers to often-asked questions about climate change. This should give you a running start on understanding the problem.

1. How much is the planet heating up?

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As of October 2015, the Earth had warmed by about 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, when records begin at a global scale. That figure includes the surface of the ocean. The warming is greater over land, and greater still in the Arctic and parts of Antarctica.

The number may sound low, but as an average over the surface of an entire planet, it is actually high, which explains why much of the world’s land ice is starting to melt and the oceans are rising at an accelerating pace. The heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day.

Scientists believe most and probably all of the warming since 1950 was caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. If emissions continue unchecked, they say the global warming could ultimately exceed 8 degrees Fahrenheit, which would transform the planet and undermine its capacity to support a large human population.

2. How much trouble are we in?

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The risks are much greater over the long run than over the next few decades, but the emissions that create those risks are happening now. Over the coming 25 or 30 years, scientists say, the climate is likely to resemble that of today, although gradually getting warmer. Rainfall will be heavier in many parts of the world, but the periods between rains will most likely grow hotter and therefore drier. The number of hurricanes and typhoons may actually fall, but the ones that do occur will draw energy from a hotter ocean surface, and therefore may be more intense, on average, than those of the past. Coastal flooding will grow more frequent and damaging.

3. Is there anything I can do?

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You can reduce your own carbon footprint in lots of simple ways, and most of them will save you money. You can plug leaks in your home insulation to save power, install a smart thermostat, switch to more efficient light bulbs, turn off the lights in any room where you are not using them, drive fewer miles by consolidating trips or taking public transit, waste less food, and eat less meat.

4. Will reducing meat in my diet help the climate?

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Agriculture of all types produces greenhouse gases that warm the planet, but meat production is especially harmful – and beef is the most environmentally damaging form of meat. Some methods of cattle production demand a lot of land, contributing to destruction of forests; the trees are typically burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Other methods require huge amounts of water and fertilizer to grow food for the cows.

5. What’s the optimistic scenario?

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In the best case that scientists can imagine, several things happen: Earth turns out to be less sensitive to greenhouse gases than currently believed; plants and animals manage to adapt to the changes that have already become inevitable; human society develops much greater political will to bring emissions under control; and major technological breakthroughs occur that help society both to limit emissions and to adjust to climate change.

The two human-influenced variables are not entirely independent, of course: Technological breakthroughs that make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels would also make it easier to develop the political will for rapid action.

6. What’s the worst-case scenario?

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That is actually hard to say, which is one reason scientists are urging that emissions be cut; they want to limit the possibility of any worst-case scenario coming to pass. Perhaps the greatest fear is a collapse of food production, accompanied by escalating prices and mass starvation. Even with runaway emissions growth, it is unclear how likely this would be, as farmers are able to adjust their crops and farming techniques, to a degree, to adapt to climatic changes. Another possibility would be a disintegration of the polar ice sheets, leading to fast-rising seas that would force people to abandon many of the world’s great cities and would lead to the loss of trillions of dollars worth of property and other assets. Scientists also worry about other wild-card scenarios like the predictable cycles of Asian monsoons’ becoming less reliable. Billions of people depend on monsoons to provide water for crops, so any disruptions could be catastrophic.

7. Will a tech breakthrough help us?

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As more companies, governments and researchers devote themselves to the problem, the chances of big technological advances are improving. But even many experts who are optimistic about technological solutions warn that current efforts are not enough. For instance, spending on basic energy research is only a quarter to a third of the level that several in-depth reports have recommended. And public spending on agricultural research has stagnated even though climate change poses growing risks to the food supply. People like Bill Gates have argued that crossing our fingers and hoping for technological miracles is not a strategy — we have to spend the money that would make these things more likely to happen.

8. How much will the seas rise?

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The ocean is rising at a rate of about a foot per century. That causes severe effects on coastlines, forcing governments and property owners to spend tens of billions of dollars fighting erosion. But if that rate continued, it would probably be manageable, experts say.

The risk is that the rate will accelerate markedly. If emissions continue unchecked, then the temperature at the Earth’s surface could soon resemble a past epoch called the Pliocene, when a great deal of ice melted and the ocean rose by something like 80 feet compared to today. A recent study found that burning all the fossil fuels in the ground would fully melt the polar ice sheets, raising the sea level by more than 160 feet over an unknown period.

9. Are the predictions reliable?

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Climate science does contain uncertainties, of course. The biggest is the degree to which global warming sets off feedback loops, such as a melting of sea ice that will darken the surface and cause more heat to be absorbed, melting more ice, and so forth. It is not clear exactly how much the feedbacks will intensify the warming; some of them could even partially offset it. This uncertainty means that computer forecasts can give only a range of future climate possibilities, not absolute predictions.

10. Why do people question climate change?

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Most of the attacks on climate science are coming from libertarians and other political conservatives who do not like the policies that have been proposed to fight global warming. Instead of negotiating over those policies and trying to make them more subject to free-market principles, they have taken the approach of blocking them by trying to undermine the science.

This ideological position has been propped up by money from fossil-fuel interests, which have paid to create organizations, fund conferences and the like. The scientific arguments made by these groups usually involve cherry-picking data, such as focusing on short-term blips in the temperature record or in sea ice, while ignoring the long-term trends.

11. Is crazy weather tied to climate change?

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Scientists have published strong evidence that the warming climate is making heat waves more frequent and intense. It is also causing heavier rainstorms, and coastal flooding is getting worse as the oceans rise because of human emissions. Global warming has intensified droughts in regions like the Middle East, and it may have strengthened the drought in California.

12. Will anyone benefit from global warming?

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Countries with huge, frozen hinterlands, including Canada and Russia, could see some economic benefits as global warming makes agriculture, mining and the like more possible in those places. It is perhaps no accident that the Russians have always been reluctant to make ambitious climate commitments, and President Vladimir V. Putin has publicly questioned the science of climate change.

However, both of those countries could suffer enormous damage to their natural resources; escalating fires in Russia are already killing millions of acres of forests per year. Moreover, some experts believe countries that view themselves as likely winners from global warming will come to see the matter differently once they are swamped by millions of refugees from less fortunate lands.

13. Is there any reason for hope?

If you share this with 50 friends, maybe.

Scientists have been warning since the 1980s that strong policies were needed to limit emissions. Those warnings were ignored, and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have since built up to potentially dangerous levels. So the hour is late.

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