Two of the most frequent questions clean energy folks get is “What is causing such unprecedented global warming and climate change?” and “Why is it so hard to just move to clean energy? This is, of course, after the whole “is climate change actually happening” dance is over with. There are different levels of answers to these questions. The simplest one is fossil fuels.
Fossil Fuel Fallout
Carbon dioxide and other air pollution is collecting in the atmosphere like a thickening blanket, trapping the sun's heat and causing the Earth to warm up. Coal-burning power plants are the largest U.S. source of carbon dioxide pollution -- they produce 2.5 billion tons every year. Cars are the second-largest source, creating nearly 1.5 billion tons of CO2 each year. To compound the issue, deforestation has occurred at an unprecedented rate across the globe. Plants (including trees), use carbon dioxide and release oxygen.
Although local temperatures fluctuate naturally, over the past 50 years the average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded history. The 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1990.
Global warming is already causing damage in many parts of the United States. In 2002, Colorado, Arizona and Oregon endured their worst wildfire seasons ever. The same year, drought created severe dust storms in Montana, Colorado, and Kansas, and floods caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Texas, Montana, and North Dakota. Since the early 1950s, snow accumulation has declined 60% and winter seasons have shortened in some areas of the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington.
Of course, the impacts of global warming are not limited to the United States. In 2003, extreme heat waves caused more than 20,000 deaths in Europe and more than 1,500 deaths in India. And in what scientists regard as an alarming sign of events to come, the area of the Arctic's perennial polar ice cap is declining at the rate of 9 percent per decade.
From the Beginning: The Industrial Revolution
It started in the mid-1700s in Great Britain when machinery began to replace manual labor. Fossil fuels (namely coal) replaced wind, water, and wood, and were used primarily for the manufacture of textiles and the development of iron making processes. By the 1800s, the use of machines to replace human labor had spread throughout Europe and North America. With the Industrial Revolution came exponential population growth, increasing energy demands.
It was the fossil fuel coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution. While this propelled human progress to extraordinary levels, it came at great cost to our environment and to the health of all living things.
The use of fossil fuels was so heavily relied upon to fuel the Industrial Revolution that it became firmly interwoven into human progress and the economy (and consequently, into politics). Changing this energy system will drastically alter the very way we have lived our lives...which is why some have to be shoved toward clean energy, practically against their will.
But, there is hope! We have all seen it. Fossil fuel use is in decline and clean energy technologies are spreading like wildfire.
Where do we go from here? Stay tuned for Part 2...