As scientific evidence continues to suggest that the Earth’s climate is changing, it is becoming clear that global warming should be a priority in efforts to sustain healthy human existence.
Many authoritative bodies are publicly recognizing the urgency for change regarding global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that most changes of global warming are in direct relationship to human activities. The Pew Center on Climate Change notes that global warming is largely the product of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases from human actions, such as deforestation, industrial processes and fossil fuel combustion. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, it produces around 25 percent of global carbon emissions, and the dangers are growing rapidly as the world population increases.
Evidence of Global Warming
The average global surface temperature has increased by roughly one degree since the beginning of the 20th century, and the five warmest years in history have all occurred within the last decade. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) is now higher than at any point in the last 420,000 years, and the evidence of the effects of global warming is mounting.
Many environmental indicators make themselves evident in a growing number of ways, including:
- Extreme Heat - When high temperatures combine with high humidity and last for several days (amounting to a heat wave), or when temperatures at night fail to drop, extreme heat can be devastating to a community. Higher temperatures are noted as being the most human-influenced; the fewer heat-trapping emissions released into the atmosphere, the cooler the average temperatures on Earth.
- Poor Air Quality - Sunlight, hot air and pollution from automobiles or power plants combine to generate ground-level ozone (smog), which affects the quality of breathable air. As temperatures rise, smog increases.
- Allergens - Rising temperatures and larger absorptions of CO2 into the atmosphere stimulate many plants to mature earlier and produce more potent allergens. Ordinary allergens, such as poison ivy and ragweed, respond well to higher concentrations of CO2. Allergy-related health issues, such as lung and sinus infections or asthma, can lead to more illnesses and complications.
- Natural Disasters - Changing precipitation patterns and prolonged heat have the ability to create droughts, which can cause forest and peat fires, which are not only an immediate danger to human life but also contribute to the greenhouse effect and poor air quality. A heated atmosphere also holds a greater amount of moisture, increasing the chance for extreme rain and flooding in certain regions. As water levels grow, rising seas and rivers are far more likely to endanger communities with flooding. Warmer ocean temperatures can breed more intense tropical hurricanes and typhoons, contributing to grand-scale disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
- Widespread Diseases - Scientists predict rising temperatures will bring changes in “disease vectors,” the devices that spread some diseases. Insects formerly blocked by cold winters are already moving to higher latitudes, and warmer oceans, rivers and lakes can also cause ruthless cholera outbreaks and dangerous bacteria existence in certain kinds of seafood.
Public Health Initiatives
The effects of warmer temperatures can cause a plethora of health problems, including heat cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Adaptation to the rising heat is possible, but the body's inability to shed heat through increased perspiration and circulation can cause death, and unclean air and water availability in relation to global warming can cause serious, chronic health problems. As recently as 2002, there were approximately 146 million individuals in the United States alone that live in counties with poor air qualities. Public health officials are taking important stands to promote health going forward, in both regional, national and global levels.
- The 1977 Federal Clean Air Act - One of the original initiatives for combating brutal effects on the environment, this plan required power plants to use the best available pollution control technology when building new plants or when modifying existing plants. However, this act exempted existing plants having to meet these requirements immediately. At the time, Congress assumed that the older plants would eventually be updated or retired.
- Northeast Regional Green House Gas Initiative - Several Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states have joined forces to combat greenhouse gases through the Northeast Regional Green House Gas Initiative, which exists to lessen or eradicate CO2 emissions through a cap-and-trade system. This system uses a market-based approach to reduce the total carbon emissions allowed by a particular industry within a certain, definite region. For example, defined regulations will determine the amount of permissible carbon emissions for power plants at a level that is lower than current emissions. Individual plants are given permits based on the level of emission. If their emissions are reduced, the plant is allowed to “trade” or sell their additional permits to plants that exceed their emission level. The program overall promotes the limitation of carbon emissions while still allowing for some flexibility.
- Healthy Air Act - An example of a statewide effort can be seen in the passing of the Healthy Air Act in 2006, which promoted the reduction of carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants. Maryland closed the loophole left by the 1977 Clean Air Act with the passage of the 2006 initiative, which requires power plants to reduce four major emissions – mercury (a neurotoxin), particulate-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate-forming sulfur dioxides (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2 ), which is a greenhouse gas.
- United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - The United States signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 with the goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations. By 1995, it was clear that a stronger, more binding agreement was needed. Governments around the globe negotiated, eventually leading to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which set a stronger standard by calling for individual emission target settings for different countries. One hundred sixty-six nations have ratified the protocol. However, although a leading negotiator in its development in 1997, the United States rejected it in 2001.
- Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants - This 2012 global initiative placed special recognition on the absolute benefits of climate, health, food and energy by reducing short-lived climate pollutants. The focus of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants is in the reduction of black carbon, hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs) and methane. The founding partners of this initiative are Sweden, Canada, Bangladesh, Mexico, Ghana, Sweden and the United States, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program. The coalition serves to aid in the development of national action plans, the raising of awareness and the improvement of the scientific knowledge surrounding pollutants and their impact on the world's population.
The world's population is growing with every passing year, and with that growth comes additional global warming. Public health officials and policymakers are determined to place a global focus on the issue and continue to develop means of eradiating the pollutants that are harming the world's population.
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