Global warming: more or less?

Many Republicans and other rightists deny there is any problem of global warming at all. The New York Times complains that Congress doesn’t take the threat seriously. Meanwhile six billion tons of coal a year, half by China alone, is set to be burnt to fuel the world’s industries.

So is global warming getting worse or not?

Climate scientists rely on complicated and sophisticated computer modeling to come up with their estimates of global warming and its future consequences. Below is a brief review of four major scientific studies, done between 2008 and 2010, that will give us some idea of what is going on.

A Cornell University study, in 2008, based on an examination of black carbon, claimed global warming was being overestimated. Black carbon in the earth’s soil results from the burning of organic material. There are many types of carbon in the soils of the earth and they are continuously releasing CO2, or carbon dioxide, into the air – at different rates depending on their source.

It only takes a few years for organic matter in the soil to be released into the atmosphere as CO2 – except for black carbon. Scientists have found that it takes from one to two thousand years for this type of carbon to convert to atmospheric CO2. Many popular computer models have not been taking this into consideration.

Once adjustment is made for this, the Cornell scientists reported, the amount of CO2 predicted to be released from the soil in the next 100 years is reduced by 20 percent. This is really significant because soil based carbon annually produces 10 times more CO2 than that produced by all human activities combined.

This may reduce the estimate of future climate change; nevertheless, global warming is still heating the earth and a future catastrophe cannot be avoided if we do not act to reduce this heating trend.

A June 11, 2009, report by scientists at Concordia University shows that there is a direct relationship between the amount of CO2 emitted and the rise in global temperature. Maybe we can’t control natural CO2 emissions, but we have to control human emissions, which are exacerbating the natural carbon cycle.

Professor Damon Matthews, who headed this study, says that if there is to be hope limiting global warming to just 2 degrees [Celsius] we must limit all our future carbon emissions to 500 billion tons, “about as much again” as we have emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution. That “all” means forever! Good luck with that.

On July 13, 2009, another report, from scientists at LuLea University in Sweden, found that neither converting to nuclear power nor trapping CO2 (two of most popular capitalist solutions, besides cap and trade), would solve the global warming problem. That’s nice to know but they don’t provide any alternative solution.

But just this past week, an article that doesn’t give us much to look forward to was published. Scientists from the University of Hawaii-Manoa have constructed what they think to be the most up-to-date computer model of the earth’s cloud cover over the next 100 years as it reacts to global warming. Clouds reflect much of the heat from the sun back into space before greenhouse gases trap it. Their model shows that the cloud cover will be much thinner than other computer models have considered and, if they are correct, even the worse predictions of climate change would be underestimates of “the real change we could see.”

It is up to us. Neither monopoly capital nor its politicians can solve this problem.

Image: Mikael Miettinen // CC BY 2.0


Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins is associate editor of Political Affairs. Reach him at