WCU’s Dr. Lorenzo Cena weighs in on climate change

Image: “Climate Change: Too hot to handle” by Takver is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

On Feb. 6, NASA released a report on Earth’s average surface temperatures, which have been steadily increasing over the past few years.

According to NASA’s report, “Earth’s global surface temperatures in 2018 were the fourth warmest since 1880,” and “The past five years are, collectively, the warmest years in the modern record.”

To get more information on this, I spoke with West Chester University’s Dr. Lorenzo Cena, Ph.D., an assistant professor of environmental health.

NASA data says that the five warmest years in recorded history have been the previous five; what do you think about that?

We do expect cyclical climate changes to happen, such as those caused by slight changes in the  inclination of earth’s axis. There are and there have been historically warmer times and colder times, but we are now experiencing more extreme patterns than those expected by the natural changes in earth’s inclination.

How would you define climate change?

Climate change consists of the broad changes in global climatic patterns that last over many years or decades. Climate is defined by temperature, precipitation and severity of storms. This should not be confused with the term “weather” which encompasses  local, short-term events.

Is climate change an issue right now?

Yes, Earth’s climate is changing now. Through the study of things like polar ice layers and lake sediments, we can find evidence of climate change and changing temperatures. Cyclical patterns of climate change have happened in the history of our planet, and we have evidence of what is a normal pace for these changes, but now, change is happening at an unprecedented pace.

Have humans contributed to climate change? 

Yes. The moment that humans committed to using fossil fuels as a primary source of energy is when more carbon started being taken from underground sediments and released in the atmosphere of our planet. Burning carbon and releasing it into the atmosphere is a cause of climate change.

When the sun warms the Earth, the atmosphere traps the heat. This is the greenhouse effect, which is commonly seen as negative but is actually a positive thing. The greenhouse effect ensures that Earth is warm enough to support life. However, when the atmosphere traps too much heat, this is when it becomes an issue.

Oceans also store heat; if atmospheric temperatures rise, there’s more evaporation, more water vapor in the clouds, more severe storms and therefore more areas with increased hurricanes and flooding. Increased evaporation also means that dry areas become drier and wet areas become wetter.

Currently, humans are unbalancing the greenhouse effect by adding excessive amounts of gasses in the atmosphere (like CO2, water vapor, methane and nitrous oxide.) The atmosphere then traps more heat.

With CO2 specifically, scientists are viewing large changes in the atmosphere concentrations. The combination of humans producing CO2 along with deforestation contributes to climate change, causing a buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere. Trees naturally remove CO2 from the atmosphere,but this cannot happen when large forest areas are destroyed.

Is there anything the average person can do to help stop climate change?

Mitigation: according to the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration (FIMA), “Mitigation is the effort to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters. In order for mitigation to be effective we need to take action now — before the next disaster — to reduce human and financial consequences later (analyzing risk, reducing risk, and insuring against risk.)” Mitigation is a long-term process; it takes time to slow down emissions of carbon. Using energy efficient appliances, driving less and preventing deforestation can have a substantial impact on reducing climate change. 

Adaptation: Humans committed to climate change when they began to depend on fossil fuels; this is something that cannot be changed quickly, but we can adapt over time. Some ways that people can adapt to climate change are: building fewer homes in coastal areas (because those homes will eventually become flooded), build sea walls and reconsider agricultural practices (some areas will have severe droughts and irrigation won’t be feasible to solve the problem.)

“Even though it seems like a drop in the bucket, individuals can make a difference.”

Common Misconception: Weather & Climate

There is a difference between weather and climate. Weather is short-term, happening on a day-to-day basis, but climate occurs over many years. People often look at the day-to-day weather as evidence of climate change; this is too simplistic. Climate change can be observed through the study of changes in temperature, precipitation and storms over longer periods of time.

“It’s easy to say, ‘It’s freezing outside today, so there’s no global warming,’ but that’s just the weather; climate change is long-term.”

The Politics of Climate Change

Climate change is often a political issue. Administrations have various goals; economy-driven administrations will want to relax environmental restrictions to reduce costs for corporations now and boost the economy. But, if we invest in energy efficiency and sustainability, it will pay off over time. Although there’s controversy, there’s far more data proving that humans are speeding up climate change. Everyone must look at the long-term effects of climate change and look into more scientific data. It’s important to make policies while thinking about the future. It is always cheaper to prevent an event than to fix the consequences.

Alexis Lincoln is a third-year student majoring in English writing with a minor in journalism.

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