2.1 The Issue
Developed or industrialized countries have been releasing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere for more than a century by burning fossil fuels for power, heat, transport, and industrial activity. In recent decades, rapid economic growth in major developing countries such as Brazil, China, and India has led to significant increases in their greenhouse gas emissions as well. Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat close to the earth, causing the planet to warm. Some of these gases occur naturally, which is why the earth is warm enough to sustain life as we know it. But increasing the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere via man-made emissions is causing more heat to be trapped, raising average global temperatures—a phenomenon known as global warming—which leads to changes in the planet’s climate.
Although some people claim that the observed rise in the earth’s average temperature is primarily a natural phenomenon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other organizations have concluded that much of the warming observed in recent decades is a consequence of human activity. Thousands of scientists from around the world assist the IPCC, which was created by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988, to assess thousands of scientific papers published each year and provide comprehensive scientific information about climate change, including its impacts and future risks.
Climate change poses risks not only to the environment but also to the security and livelihood of people around the world. These effects include rising sea levels, more extreme weather patterns, and significant damage to the earth’s ecosystems. If current trends continue, growing plentiful and affordable food for a rising global population could become more difficult, low-lying areas—including many of the world’s major cities—could be forced to build expensive flood defenses, and more extreme weather could threaten the safety of millions of people.
Rising greenhouse gas emissions could be addressed through policy at both domestic and international levels, but emissions from any country affect the overall level of warming. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide will not be easy. Modern economies depend on fossil fuels. Output from alternative energy sources such as solar and wind energy is growing but not enough to fully replace fossil fuels yet, and currently available measures to increase energy efficiency are costly and time-consuming. Climate change, moreover, is a difficult issue for policymakers. The questions of whether, how, and how fast emissions should be cut, who should bear the costs of doing so, and how those harmed by both climate change and climate change mitigation should be compensated have no simple answers.