Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Global warming and environmental sustainability

The logo for this series on global warming

Global warming is the number one environmental problem today. There are many other problems, I admit, but this one stands out especially because of its truly global nature. One thing that can and must be done is to strive for environmental sustainability. Environmental sustainability has been defined as the maintenance of the factors and practices that contribute to the quality of environment on a long-term basis.

In recent posts I have examined the implications of economic and social sustainability for global warming. The focus this time will be on the environment. I cannot deal with all the environmental problems that the world currently faces -- that would require an entire library -- but only with a few of those that contribute substantially to global warming. Even here I will be selective and merely suggest the nature of the problems.

This donut is yet another way to illustrate the complex interrelationships of all these factors  
In 2009, 2,500 climate experts from 80 countries agreed that there is now "no excuse" for failing to act on global warming and that without strong carbon reduction targets "abrupt or irreversible" shifts in climate may occur that "will be very difficult for contemporary societies to cope with" (quotations italicized).

The atmosphere is one area that deserves more attention.  Proper management of the atmosphere involves an assessment of all aspects of the carbon cycle to identify opportunities to address human-induced climate change. This has now become a major focus of scientific research because of the potentially catastrophic effects there may be on biodiversity and human communities.

Other human impacts on the atmosphere include air pollution. These pollutants can include toxic chemicals, particulate matter that produces photochemical smog and acid rain, as well as the chlorofluorocarbons that degrade the ozone layer. Man-made particulates such as sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere have contributed to global dimming, which may have disturbed the global water cycle by reducing evaporation and rainfall in some parts of the world. Admittedly, global dimming can also create a cooling effect that may have partially masked the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming, but this does not negate all the negative effects.

The ocean also influences climate and weather and, in turn, the food supply of humans and other organisms. Scientists have warned of the possibility, under the influence of global warming, of a sudden alteration in circulation patterns of ocean currents that could drastically alter the climate in many regions of the globe.

Major human environmental impacts also occur in the more habitable regions of the ocean fringes. Ten per cent of the world's population live in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to sea level rise. Because of their vastness oceans are often used as a convenient dumping ground for human waste. Parenthetically, the pirates in Somalia, in addition to their criminal activity, are protesting the dumping of nuclear waste off the coast of their lawless country.

Nor should we neglect the importance of forests on global warming. For example, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about 90% of the carbon stored in land vegetation is locked up in trees and that they sequester about 50% more carbon than is present in the atmosphere. But studies show that the stress of a temperature rise of only 2.5 degree above preindustrial levels would release enormous quantities of this carbon.

Changes in land use currently contribute about 20% of total global carbon emissions. In 2007, climate scientists of the IPCC concluded (with at least a 90% probability) that atmospheric increase in CO2 was human-induced, mostly as a result of fossil fuel emissions but, to a lesser extent from changes in land use. Stabilizing the world’s climate will require wealthier countries to reduce their emissions by 60–90% over 2006 levels by 2050.

Not all the human activities mentioned thus far that impact on the environment result in global warming, but many do. There is much more that could be cited; these will have to do. In this post I can only give a few examples, yet I hope they suffice to indicate the scope and urgency of the problem.

Is global warming possible when there is environmental sustainability? Of course, since global warming is not just due to human activities. There are many natural factors, such as oceanic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, deviations in the Earth's orbit, plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions and changes in greenhouse gas emissions that also play a role.

However, there is now a widespread consensus among scientists that human-induced alterations of the natural world are a major cause of global warming. So much so that the term "global warming" has become shorthand to describe these human-specific impacts.

Through environmentally sustainable activities we can reduce the effects of global warming. Economic and social sustainable activities can also help, as I mentioned in previous posts. Although we cannot separate the three pillars as they are called, because they are so intimately connected, yet they can be distinguished, as I tried to do in this brief series.

The recent decision by the Canadian government to reduce both the number and scope of environmental assessments shows how the economic, political, and environmental issues can become intertwined. Carbon taxes and trading are further examples of this. They vividly illustrate the complexity of the modern world, where everyone makes polite noises about saving the environment, but few are prepared to pay the cost.

There will be costs -- enormous costs, in fact. But the alternative is an impending catastrophe. I only hope that it is not already too late, since we may have passed the tipping point. Again, I do not want to be another Casandra -- we all know what happened to her. Something must be done quickly in terms of the three pillars and sustainable development. After all, most of us are not Luddites. But are we collectively willing to pay the cost? This is the only Earth.

We must not waste it. We have been given the enormous responsibility of taking care of this world. You may not agree with the last statement, but it is integral to my own theology. It is also what inspired me to write this series. I want to do what I can every day to save the environment. This series too is only a small contribution, but I hope it helps. All of us must do our part.

My intention is not to convert everyone to become environmentalists; my motivation, rather is a heuristic one: simply, to widen my own knowledge and, hopefully, yours as well. In my next post I want to reflect on the influence that this knowledge might have on theology. In view of the crisis posed by global warming, I will ask whether there should be an ecological theology and, if so, what form it should take. Stay tuned!


  1. this helped me a lot thanks :))

  2. Dear Mr. Helleman,
    Would you please tell me how can i have an access to the conceptual framework so-called Factors influencing increased environmental sustainability of Mr. Dennis Hopkins. Thank you in advance