Hot Topic

Climate Change in a Nutshell

Climate change is the change in the Earth’s climate over a period of time. The time period can range from decades to millions of years. It’s that simple. Where it gets difficult, are all the different variables and factors that play a significant role in that change. The reason climate change is a hot topic right now is that we are starting to realize that humans are playing a big role in that change.

The burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) emits greenhouse gases that harm the earth’s atmosphere. The more we burn, the more greenhouse gases are emitted, and the more we increase the greenhouse effect. Just like the way in which the inside of a greenhouse for plants is warm, greenhouse gases trap heat and make our planet warmer. The Environmental Protection Agency states “human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years.”

Coal and the Greenhouse Gases

Coal is mined and transported to a power plant where it is placed in a boiler and burned. The burning coal produces steam and certain gases. The steam rises up into a turbine and rotates propellers that create energy in the form of electricity. The power plant has cooling towers, which release the heat from the steam and the gases.

The gases released from the coal burning depend on the type and purity of the coal. One of the many gases that are released from the burning of coal that is harmful to our atmosphere is carbon dioxide. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a type of greenhouse gas that is also naturally occurring in our atmosphere. However, human activity, in the form of burning fossil fuels, has caused the levels to skyrocket.

What’s Up with CO2?

As mentioned earlier, greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere trap heat and make the earth warm, which can change our climate. It doesn’t necessarily mean that where you live the temperature gets hotter. That may or may not happen. Some parts of the world will get hotter and some will experience cooler temperatures. Climate change is a change in the climate over a period of time. Weather patterns could change and the climate could cause issues that we don’t want to see: Ice caps will melt. Sea levels will rise. Ocean’s will acidify. Intense hurricanes will increase. Agricultural yields will decline. Heat waves will increase. Rain over land will become heavier. Species will become extinct. It all sounds terrible and, quite honestly, it is.

U.S. Greenhouse emissions increase and decrease from year to year depending on changes in the economy, the price of fossil fuels, the consumption of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas), mild or extreme weather conditions, and the use of alternative renewable (wind, solar, etc.) energy. The following is a list of some of the main sources of greenhouse emissions in the U.S. for 2011:

  • 38% Electricity (Over 70% comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly from coal and natural gas)
  • 28% Transportation (90% of fuel used was petroleum based, gas and diesel)
  • 20% Industrial (burning fossil fuels to make energy necessary to produce goods from raw materials)

 Small Cars

As of 2012, scientists estimate we had emitted 545 billion metric tons of CO2 and we are on course to pass the threshold they say will bring on its worst effects in 2040. For comparison, a small car weighs about 1 ton. Therefore, a billion metric tons is roughly the same mass as 1 billion small cars. The U.S. government uses metric tons for consistency and comparability with other countries. A metric ton is about 10% larger than a U.S. “short” ton. 

We Need Coal for Energy vs. We Need to Reduce Emissions

The debate war rages on. World coal consumption rose by 54% from 2000 to 2011 with the rapid industrialization of countries like China and India. During that same time period, the U.S. actually decreased its consumption. China is the world’s top consumer of coal, followed by the United States, then India, Russia, and finally Germany. Whether or not you believe climate change is real is not necessary here. I think we can all agree that air pollution is real and it’s harmful to people and our planet. This may be Earth’s biggest experiment ever. We need to be proactive and not reactive as much as possible. Instead of trying to prove the other side is wrong in this debate. Let’s try to be better stewards of our planet where we will all have a better tomorrow.

“Sources of Greenhouse Emissions.” Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. 14 Apr 2014





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