Skip to main content

Primer on Climate change, Global warming and other related matters

The wildfire burning in California, USA, heat waves in Delhi, India, diminishing biodiversity in Upper Guinea and land loss due to sea levels rise in the Caribbean.

Climate change and global warming are firmly rooted these days in our daily diet. At every turn, one screaming newspaper headline or internet podcast reminds us of impending doom if we don't take heed. You would have to live under the proverbial rock, to be unaware of at least, one, of the burning climate issues threatening humanity. Politicians, movie stars, scientists, even the pope have had to wade in on the issue. They've been gross amounts of climate advisories, published, for the conscious individual on how to co-exist with his environment. Nature is a veritable beast when provoked and the headlines italicized above, are some of the real-life consequences of its fury in the past year alone. The home planet is a delicate system of networks that function by a cue of 'give and take' and one negative turn can spiral other disastrous actions. Since this also is our only habitable zone, it is imperative we act in a responsible manner to the planet. That record set straight, lets us examine the different angles to the issues of climate change and global warming.  
We shall pivot our discussion of the why on the scientific consensus and end it up with policy advisory for the continent at the most risk to the triggers of climate change. The history; there is no better starting point than to go back in time; when humans first began to redirect natural climatic feedback systems built over the ages. The start of this human imprint is traced to England, and the time period is after the age of discovery.

 The Industrial Revolution 

By the turn of the 18th century, the British empire was the leading light among nations in most endeavours of mankind. Its brilliant scientist had harnessed the power of coal to electrify its cities, industrialize and to move goods across far distance. With continental commerce and trade as well as an expanding empire, its innovations caught on across Europe and far reaches of the earth. This time saw the movement from agrarian economy to mass production. The steamboat, cotton gin and locomotive trains represented the spirit of that era.  However, these massive upgrade to living conditions also had a downside. The great leap of mankind was made possible by the worst of nature gift; fossil fuel.  Coal, the dirtiest of the lot was the commonly used energy source at the time. That in turn, created a problem from which the world has not come out. 

the cost of the revolution
As the people of England burned coal to provide cheap energy, they invariably started the process, that we at this present time, not only have not come out of but made worse. Fire is said to be a good master but a bad servant, the same could have been said of coal. Coal became the foundation on which the world's energy and in turn, the economic prosperity we have enjoyed was built on. The other fossil fuels of oil and natural gas were soon co-opted into the energy mix as population soared and cities expanded.  Energy-intensive sectors like aviation, automobile, agriculture also benefited from these readily available fuels while cleaner power alternatives were abandoned due to cost. 
Fossil fuel, we now know has a negative externality. An externality is a positive or negative consequence to a third party from an action that has no direct bearing to them. The externality of fossil fuel is noxious greenhouse gases. As the revolution spread so did this hidden externality parri passu.  Even if we blame that bygone era, we are also not different if we don't amend our fossil fuel addiction. 
In humankind history, the industrial revolution was not the first time, energy was created by combustion of coal or conversion of one energy form to another, that was how our early ancestors lived by, but never on a scale of this magnitude was so much deployed and in so many varied ways from that period to now. We have changed the planet forever; the energy sources we have extracted and used has also become a source of an intractable problem; release of heat-trapping gases.

Greenhouse gases (GHG)

What are they?
Atmospheric compounds with three or more atoms in their molecules. They absorb and emit energy in the infra-red range. The infra-red frequency of the energy spectrum is closely associated with heat. These gases are important to regulating earth surface temperature and equally culpable in the changes of earth natural thermostat. When the sun beams its radiation, and on rebound back to the skies they interact with the GHG. Common examples are Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water vapour (H2O) and Nitrous oxide(N2O). 

Are Global warming and Climate change one and same?

The short answer is NO.
Global warming is the rise in the average ground and air temperature across the globe. When you take the mean of the temperature across the latitudes and longitudes, it is clear temperatures have increased upwardly since the 1970s. Global warming is a symptom of a disease, a warning sign something is wrong.
Climate change or any of its monikers: climate chaos and climate destabilization is the disease. It encapsulates the wide-ranging consequential changes on earth; its altered chemistry, physical composition and behavioural biology as the global temperature rises. Melting of the sea ice, rising ocean levels, flooding, drought and loss of soil, the spread in diseases, the increase in the location range of vectors and mutation of microbes have all been linked to climate change.

How did we get here?

 Humans did it. By adding substantial amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel.  It is important to note that prior to the Industrial Revolution there have been events of global warming (historic warming and cooling periods) but these actions were triggered by natural processes such as the solar cycle, volcanic eruption and our planetary orbital and rotational patterns. The difference now is that the natural cycles have taken a back seat and it is not in doubt that the present climatic changes are driven by anthropogenic processes. Our machines, our cars, our homes mostly rely on the energy from the same polluting sources to power them. Our comfort has grown but so also has our harm. Homo sapiens has laid a heavy imprint on earth that has altered the course of nature.

Understanding how the temperature of the earth works

The Aztecs worshipped the sun as did the ancient Egyptians. 
The sun plays a cardinal role on our planet. It facilitates photosynthesis, keeps our planet from flying off through the action of gravity and also supplies us with adequate light and heat via radiation. This last part is most important to understanding climate change and global warming. Convection, conduction and radiation are the three ways in which heat is transferred from one body to another. The sun via radiation directly controls how much heat we get on earth. But equally important is the atmosphere.

The atmosphere

The sun is not alone in regulating calefaction on earth. Now, pay attention. The presence of atmospheric composition is key to maintaining global temperature. Without the atmosphere around us, each night, temperatures locally where the sun is no longer focused would drop precipitously and those living there would struggle to survive. The atmosphere made up of invisible atoms and molecules ensures that the time of dusk till dawn as the earth turns to a new day, our temperature conditions are optimal and remains that way. Beyond this two, the ocean, wind currents, ice, trees and land cover all play varying roles in heat transfer within the planet.  Atmospheric composition is also a feature of other planets in our solar system but none has the balance quite right like our home planet - the Goldilocks zone. The invisible atoms and molecules are also the greenhouse gases we earlier spoke about. Their usefulness is now apparent; they help trap heat which keeps us comfortable but when in excess, the temperature gets too hot and discomfort us. If the balance is not maintained between the sun and the greenhouses gases, then living conditions quickly becomes problematic; this is why scientists are worried and the crux of the climate change issue. How to limit emissions of greenhouses gases below the industrial age and therefore keep temperatures scales worldwide from rising.
We cannot control the amount of sunlight we receive but we can prevent putting out more and more greenhouses gases.

Putting it all together with the Energy budget

Around us is the presence of an atmosphere. It thins and finally disappears the farther we go into space. Energy in the short wavelength spectrum from the sun reaches the earth atmosphere. Some of that energy makes its way past the atmosphere strikes earth surface giving direct heat. Furthermore, the earth surface with its land, trees, buildings, and ocean absorb this energy and radiates back as thermal energy. The outgoing long wavelength thermal energy vibrates the atmospheric GHG molecules, producing heat. The infrared energy and heat produced are multi-directional adding a layer of warming to the planet in addition to the direct heat from the sun. In the absence of the greenhouse gases, the sun alone cannot keep our planet from freezing. With its presence, as the earth daily rotation shifts it away from the sun, temperature levels don’t plummet. What then is the problem? Too much of anything is bad. Remember, our sister planet, Venus is inhabitable because the levels of carbon dioxide are prohibitive. 

The table below gives the approximation of the processes affecting the solar radiation with the atmospheric matter and earth surface.

Incoming radiation

Reflectance by clouds, particles, snow etc

Absorption in the atmosphere

Absorption on the earth surface

Solar- earth radiation balance

How much Carbon dioxide is too much?

Keeling Curve
  Understanding the carbon dioxide output is critical to our fight against global warming; it has the longest residence time in the atmosphere compared to the other GHG. It is also the most emitted greenhouse gas. Charles David Keeling with his work starting in 1958 charted the first continuous CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The rise and rise of CO2 shown famously in the Keeling curve (above) has created unprecedented warming in recent times culminating with 2016 been the hottest year ever, in recorded temperatures
 Thankfully earth processes such as thermal radiation, evaporation and convection alleviate some of the warming enabling heat to escape back to outer space. If this process were not there, our planet would heat up till we vapourize. The bulk of solar absorption and therefore heating takes place on the earth surface while the loss of radiation and thus, cooling takes place at the atmospheric levels.
These varied interactions between the atmosphere and the energy from the sun are the whole purpose of understanding the energy budget. It gives an idea of how much insolation is coming in and how much we are letting out to keep the lid on global temperature.

Other important concepts to help us

Climate forcings are factors natural or man-made that alters the sun-earth energy budget leading to either warming or cooling of the earth. Positive forcing leads to warming while negative forcing infers cooling is taking place.  The Milankovitch cycles, volcanic eruptions and solar cycles are some of the natural climatic drivers; anthropogenic forcing include burning of fossil fuel and deforestation.

Carbon sink and source
Any material form that captures carbon is a sink while any that produces it is a source. A sink and a source are interrelated as any sink could be  a source tomorrow as seen in the cases with stored carbon in fossil fuel turning into
The oceans are the best carbon sink, extracting a mind-blowing 50 per cent more carbon than the atmosphere of all carbon from the atmosphere. Marshes, mangroves and forests are next in line, while artificial carbon sinks are presently been developed nothing comes close to nature for now. The carbon sequestration of oceans is invariably creating another problem for the habitats of the water; acidic conditions. 
Ocean acidification deals with the chemical reaction from water and carbon dioxide combining to create carbonic acid which is harmful to the delicate ecological balance in the marine environment. 

Climate doubters?
What of those who say the earth has undergone these extreme rises in cooling and heating even when human activities were limited to hunting and foraging and that our legitimate activities such as mechanized agriculture, mass transit system, etc are not responsible for the issues. The climate doubters. They have amplified their stance even as the evidence mounts against them. 
They are correct to a limited extent. Earth has had periods of long cooling and warming events driven by natural processes but having shown the mechanism of how earth energy budget works and the role of greenhouses gases, the fingerprints of human activity is culpable and driving climate change we see around us. If we agree that carbon dioxide is a problem, what then is driving the increase in the atmospheric output of that gas? Human activity. 

Common fallout of climate change for everyone include;
Depression and other mental issues
Rising sea levels
The spread of diseases and mutation of vectors
Poor food yield and soil degradation

What can be done
Some of the damage has already been committed and we have crossed the threshold. There is a time lag between our actions and how earth systems respond to triggers. It is nigh impossible to roll back some of the harm our past actions have caused earth even if we were to stop burning fossil fuel now and acting more responsibly.  It takes some time for our actions to send outputs on the global climate register. An example is ocean acidification- the bleaching of corals taking place now was caused by actions decades earlier. As is global warming.

Africa's risk to Climate change and Global warming

Africa needs an adequate wholesome response to climate change and global warming. The continent already suffers excruciating poverty, low infrastructural development and seats at the bottom of the human development index. Little wonder it ranks as the most vulnerable to the threats posed by global warming( IPCC reports). There is a paradox - Africa contributes the least amount of greenhouse gases but is the most vulnerable to climate change and global warming. Hence the need for the international community as it has done in the past with the war on terrorism, disease and malnutrition, HIV and in deepening state institutions to stand with the people and government of these vulnerable people as they combat this monstrous problem, with financial aid and technology transfer. 

 African countries can propel its future built on clean energy and thwarting climate destabilization by deploying measures and strategies that are multifaceted. The recommendations are by no means exhaustive;

1. Coordinated environmental policy framework-  the saying a chain is only as strong as its weakest point is apt in the environmental discourse. The solutions are not near effective when discussing environmental problems if they don't tackle all angles. The first step is to recognize that all the nations on the continent have to work together in coordinating their responses to the threats. With porous borders and weak institutions across the continent, what affects one nation invariably affects the others. African nations, therefore, through the instruments of its shared organization like the AU, and other regional bodies such as ECOWAS, SADC working in tandem, must adopt a common climate issue stance and deploy harmonious policies. A collegiate approach works far better than individual nations acting in isolation. For example, the green wall strategy adopted against desertification in the sub-Saharan nations has had some success. Such a centralized approach must be deployed against a common enemy such as rising sea levels, erosion, drought, etc. The 54 nations that make up the continent needs a proactive actionable climate change pact- whose foundation is anchored on green science and low-carbon technology. From a policy perspective- an actionable program with robust monitoring has to be deployed so that nations pull their weights but sharing of expertise, innovative ideas, financial aid and mentorship has to be a viable option among the nations as well. 

2. Renewable and low carbon road map; central to its policy mandate, African leaders must tow the path of the future. The future is low carbon and reduced fossil energy dependency. If the countries get its act together it stands to gain most from the emerging green and renewable technology economy. Its natural features and topography are primed to seamlessly integrate green technology. Flatlands, mountains and cliffs, vast water bodies dot the landscape and its position to the sun means future power projects can quickly leverage existing technology to have clean energy. A CSP plant in the Sahara desert, for example, would be a game changer for the energy poverty discussion in sub-Sahara. The hard work is only a political will and zero tolerance for wastage of resources. The continent can leap into the future with the right approach and a shared commitment from the leaders.

3. Integrated Waste management; effluent and solid waste has to be managed more sensibly. Open burning creates air pollution while open defecation, water mismanagement and gas flaring all affect health and has to be significantly cut down to reduce health hazards and environmental degradation.

4. Access to education- Africa needs its engineers, software developers, technicians, farmers, social workers etc- some of the problems of climate change is the problem of access to education. If the countries invest massively in education it would be easier to fight the problems of climate destabilization more effectively. Africa lags behind the world with illiteracy levels at 60%. Reducing this high levels of illiteracy would create jobs and control unsustainable population growth which heaps pressure on resources and undermine the climate change efforts. With a better-educated population, information can be efficiently communicated and received. A simple strategy such as avoiding bush burning in the dry season can help mitigate the risk of climate change but you need informed citizens to grasp properly the issue and make a change. 

5.  Reforms in land use and agriculture —small holding divots up the land, leads to waste and can induce inefficiency of resources allocation. Africa governments have to support farmers and provide extension services to enable them to carry out better-integrated farming processes on land and prevent overfishing on water. Land ownership laws have to be reviewed to ensure that people can maximize their lands better. Again this has to be done with a big picture approach in mind to avoid sending the most vulnerable hurtling towards economic shock. With better integration of mechanized farming, even ancillary contributors to climate change such as nitrous oxide emissions from farmlands can be better controlled.

     At individual levels, we can also play roles that help reduce the problem - practice water conservation at home, plant trees around our surroundings, use energy efficient appliances, advocate for green policies, install home solar grid, reuse kitchen waste as compost, recycle plastics and educate yourself and others about the issues. 

    Resources for further reading

     i. NASA climate change



Popular posts from this blog

3 Minutes of Hope the Earth needs

Optimism is better than despair  -Jack Layton

April, 22 each year is marked as earth's day. While June, 5 is World environment day. Here, are three videos celebrating positivity, and the action allied with movement, necessary on the climate front.


1. From the '1million women' Facebook page; an all in one big and small steps we can all make to support the environment

2. Composting is the new deal. The browns and greens chucked together can replenish the soil and reduce food wastage. But, is there more we can add

    3. The Facebook page of the World Economic Forum based in Switzerland is a favorite of mine. With over 6 Million people subscribers, it provides a daily feed of progressive and informative content almost unrivaled. For the eco-conscious individual, this reuse of plastic by the Indian engineers sets the heart racing (and cars running smoothly)  

Rainwater low-cost collection system (Africa)

If like me you are lucky to live in the tropics where the sky literally empties down non-stop between four to five months annually then you should consider installing a water collection system. Aided by the gradient of my cross hipped roof, this is exactly what I set out to do in the month of March. Averagely, the rainy season in Abuja starts in April and terminates around September. Abuja lies a mere 627 miles (1008km) of the equator and so it can be very hot, humid and wet here.

step 1; The hunt for wide October. Get a water barrel

It seems to state the obvious but you want to get yourself a water barrel. Size and durability should be your guiding principles. From my calculations, the median rainfall for Abuja is 12.5mm with July and August peaks of over 250mm and the rain comes with such velocity energized by sand and pebbles it could pierce a flimsy water storage. I did not quite have a size in mind but I wanted the biggest volume I could lay my hands on. I set out with my plumber. …