When many people hear about global warming, it conjures images of the world’s temperature getting just a little warmer. NASA’s website asserts, “the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.”

An increase of 1.4° Fahrenheit does not seem extreme. Actually, it seems relatively mild. Unfortunately, that is not how global warming works. We do not experience a slightly mild increase in temperature worldwide. We experience, instead, extremes in climate change. However, when added together they result in an average temperature increase of only 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit) across the Earth’s surface.

Cyclical events, such as night, day, change of seasons, precipitation patterns, can fluctuate significantly on a local basis. However, the global temperature depends on how much energy the Earth receives from the Sun, minus the amount it radiates back into space. The amount of energy the Earth receives from the Sun is almost constant over the course of a single year, but does vary significantly with the 11-year sunspot solar cycle. For the most part, the amount of energy the Earth receives from the Sun is predictable. However, the amount of energy radiated by the Earth depends on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and that is what is causing global warming. The chemical composition of the atmosphere is changing, particularly the increasing amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2). It is the increase in greenhouse gases that is causing the Earth’s temperature to rise. Some refer to this phenomenon as the “greenhouse effect.”   

One or two degrees (Fahrenheit) average temperature change may not appear like a big deal, but historically a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. Likewise, a one to two degrees increase is now causing the sea level to rise. The sustained increase in temperature between 1880 and 2009 caused the sea level to increase an average of eight inches. The measured sea level increase on the United States East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico is even higher by several inches. Since 1993, the average annual rate of global sea level rise is accelerating. This increase in the average sea level is largely due to melting ice at the polar caps and the thermal expansion (i.e., expansion due to heat) of the ocean. If the current trend continues, recent studies project sea level increases from six to twenty feet by 2100. While six feet sounds manageable, it would represent a loss of land mass for the United States equal to Massachusetts. If the sea level increase is twenty feet, the United States coastline would be unrecognizable and the land loss would equal 48,000 square miles, displacing five percent of the United States population. The same would be true of all countries that border the world’s oceans. While there is still debate regarding how much the sea will rise, none argues the contrary.

In addition, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), seven million people die each year from prolonged exposure to air pollution directly caused by burning fossil fuels. In highly industrialized urban areas, each breath could be equivalent to puffing on a cigarette. We humans may find a way to engineer around this toxic environment by using special air and water filters in our homes, cars, and workplaces. However, numerous species will not be as fortunate. In fact, experts predict that one-fourth of Earth’s species will be heading toward extinction by 2050. By 2100, those same experts warn that humanity may face extinction.

There is little doubt that human activity is playing a significant role in global warming. NASA reports carbon dioxide levels have increased nearly 38 percent as of 2009 and methane levels have increased 148 percent since the 1750 Industrial Revolution. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide averaged in the mid 200 parts per million (ppm). Today, NASA reports it is over 400 ppm and it is on a trajectory that continues to increase.  

Where does all this carbon dioxide come from? The preponderance of evidence argues climate change, air pollution, and acid rain results from burning fossil fuels to power the machines of modern civilization. If you live in modern society, everything you use relies on fossil fuels, in one form or another. For example, consider any product. Fossil fuels may be essential for powering the machines that make the product, be a critical ingredient in the product, and/or be necessary to ship the product to market.

Unless we change the current trajectory of increasing greenhouse gasses, expect climatic disasters, including storms, heat waves, floods, and droughts. Currently, California and Arizona are experiencing scorching temperatures. Tomorrow, wherever you are, it may be your turn to experience a climatic disaster.

Fixing global warming first requires we recognize it is a reality and attributable to human activity. Although many fossil fuel phase-out initiatives are taking place at the state and local levels, in reality, we are a nation unprepared for the inevitable. Some nations, like Sweden, do have a plan to fade out fossil fuels. Most, though, ignore the risks. However, we all share the same planet. When the climate passes the tipping point, it will affect everyone. When air pollution becomes an even more potent killer, it will not discriminate. It will affect everyone.

This is not a political issue or a matter of opinion. It is a scientific issue and a matter of life and death.