First, I want to make some general statements of fact. We are definitely experiencing climate change. The climate change that we are experiencing is man made. It is something that has its beginnings in the great Industrial Revolution but has taken off dramatically since about 1980. With all that said, I am certain that I have now distanced myself greatly from most conservatives and certainly from those great wise pundits such as Rush Limbaugh. It is ignorant to ignore what is right in front of our faces. But if you are a skeptic, keep reading. I hope to show you why climate change has escalated and what we really need to do if we want to slow it down. There is a lot of misinformation about climate change, its causes and what man has done in various parts of the world over the last few hundred years.
Below is a chart tracking average global temperature and five year averages for the past 130 years or so. No doubt we have seen a statistically significant warming trend. The first spike on this chart has its origins in the 1920s and 1930s, years we remember more for the Great Depression. But even in the midst of global recession, industry was changing. Plants were becoming larger and required more power. Germany was arming itself for war. Stalin was beginning to industrialize Russia to escape the vast poverty and unrest that was sweeping that country. Japan was industrializing and was beginning to dominate Asia as it sought to expand its empire on mainland China, Korea and beyond. Even in America, there were changes afoot. Most of this expansion was being powered by fossil fuel, primarily coal. And, at this time, the coal being used was not very clean. We were also on the brink of an expanded automotive age, and gasoline powered engines were popping up all over the globe. Henry Ford and others had made the car affordable for the masses. And, these engines pumped out a lot more smoke than the cars of today. These engines were being used not only for pleasure but for war. By the 1940s, war was in full swing and the entire world’s industrial output was at its maximum capacity. All of this translated into the release of gases that began to accelerate the deterioration of the ozone layer and creating an environment in which global temperatures began to rise. At the time, science was not too interested in these events as the focus was on more important things, like survival. Anyhow, the below chart shows the steep slope of global temperature change during this time period.
After the war, western nations continued to experience domestic industrial expansion during good economic times. We also began to see science begin to explore the dangers of the growing use of fossil fuels on the natural environment. In industrialized cities, the danger first presented itself as smog that choked city residents and made life in those cities miserable. Remember how we used to look at pictures of Los Angeles and wonder how those poor people lived in such an awful place. Now, we look at Los Angeles and see a sunny place with pleasant year-round weather. If it weren’t for those earthquakes and a very high cost of living, it might be a good place to live.
Why did this change? Mostly because of all the environmentalists screaming for change. We had to clean up our air (and our water, for that matter). We had expanded industrial output with little concern for what it was doing to the environment. So, we created cleaner ways to burn fossil fuels and mostly banned the use of the types of coal that were worst in terms of releasing dangerous toxins into the air. We also began to explore alternative energy sources such as nuclear power. As a result, even though industrial output in the Western World continued to increase at a brisk pace, pollution slowed down and the rise in global temperature stabilized. Look at the chart.
Western nations were regulating what could be put into the air and water. We found out that many dangerous toxins had been allowed to spew from smokestacks and to flow from factory reservoirs during what I will call the period of ignorance. We just didn’t know how bad it was. As a result of this awareness and the actions taken, air and water quality started getting better and global temperature stabilized. Humorously, looking back, this period is also when some climate scientists began to speak of global cooling and the devastation that it would cause. These were the guys that were using bad science but the data was so conflicting and the science was so new that bad results were to be expected.
It is also worth noting that America has become one of the cleanest places on the planet. We can still do better, but our standards are among the strictest and most effective in the world. I just wish we could stop littering our highways with trash. One thing we should be proud of is the fact that there are more trees in what is now the United States than when the first settler set foot in the first English colonies. American natives were notorious for clearing land because they were farmers too! More trees mean a more effective natural system to help us clean out bad gases from our air.
Beginning about 1980 (probably starting in the 1970s), another spike with a statistically significant slope began to develop in average global temperature. What was going on? It really took until the 1990s for the first scientists to recognize this trend and to begin to measure in real terms the depletion of the ozone layer and changes in polar ice patterns. But because the science was new and techniques to get a handle on what was happening were so new, there were (and still are) many skeptics. What was happening now?
The greatest change was the industrialization of the most populated areas of the planet – Asia. For example, in the chart below, the GDPs of China and India are tracked over time.
As can be seen, GDP began to dramatically increase in China in the late 1970s and in India in the late 1980s. The speed of industrialization also picked up in other countries such as South Korea and Hong Kong, that while significant, likely did not have the impact on pollutants as did the changes in China and India. So, while Europe and America regulated their industry and significantly cleaned up what toxins were being released, a whole new Industrial Revolution was beginning to take place. And this revolution moved at a faster speed than any other. It began with the opening up of China along with the post-war search for cheaper and cheaper sources of manufactured goods that was made possible by new trade agreements between the East and the West.
There was and still is almost no regulation of the release of toxins and pollutants into the air and water in China and very little of any real regulation in India. These countries use the dirtiest forms of coal and no filtration. Their tremendous industrial output spews billions of tons of dangerous gases into our atmosphere over and over and over again.
For example, the following chart shows how many metric tons of coal are being produced in China each year. And, notice how much steeper the slope of this curve is getting. Almost all of China’s production is being consumed in China. Since the year 2000, China has more than tripled the amount of dirty coal it produces and burns. Also note that China now produces about three times the amount of coal as the United States.
As a result of this new Asian Industrial Revolution, the average global temperature has increased in a statistically significant way. Europe and America have continued to try to regulate industrial emissions, contributing to the reason why manufacturing output is actually declining in these economies – it makes it more expensive. In addition, Asian wages are among the lowest on the planet. Asian governments and companies, many in partnership with European and American interests, have continued to move the world’s manufacturing capacity away from areas that try to control emissions to areas that look the other way. Until we wise up to this fact, there will be no significant change and we will continue to see climate change in a significant way.
What should we do? First, we should not agree to continue to shift the world’s manufacturing capacity to Asia. Certainly, Asian economies should be allowed to expand normally but the ground rules should be the same for everyone. Wages should be such that people can survive and prosper along with the industries that employ them. Industrial expansion should be regulated and managed so that greed does not allow the destruction of our planet.
Alternative energy sources are good for us. Our efforts to recycle and to use alternative fuels for our cars should continue to be encouraged. And, despite the fears, nuclear power may be one of the only ways to produce enough energy to maintain standards of living and keep a cleaner environment. However, the only real way to save the planet is to bring under control the massive pollution that is being produced in Asia. All of the solutions that I have heard do little to really accomplish this objective. Anything else is no better than pissing in the wind!