How Greenhouse Gases Work
A greenhouse gas interferes with sunlight’s radiation as it moves through the atmosphere and warms the earth before dissipating. These gases hang in the air, absorbing and holding radiation, and preventing it from escaping. The radiation is then sent back down to earth again, warming the surface of the planet.
Natural vs. Man-Made Greenhouse Gases
It’s important to note that some greenhouse gases are part of natural processes of the Earth. Carbon dioxide and methane are among the gases that are produced by the oceans, bacteria, and plant life. However, greenhouse gases resulting from man-made causes are known to have elevated CO2 levels in the atmosphere by as much as 40% since 1959.
The burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Additionally, clearing of rainforests (“deforestation”) that previously absorbed carbon dioxide has significantly contributed to the problem.
Other contributing factors include the use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in manufacturing, over-cultivation of livestock, and widespread use of agricultural fertilizers, which generate high levels of nitrous oxide.
Repercussions of Increased Greenhouse Gases
The most serious threat that greenhouse gases present is large-scale climate change, which includes the rise in the average surface temperature of the Earth (global warming), and other changes to weather and climate patterns. Human industrial and agricultural emissions are some of the factors responsible for upsetting the delicate balance of natural greenhouse gases already present in the atmosphere. This imbalance has resulted in a rise in Earth’s average temperature since 1880, the time of the industrial revolution.
The long-term effects of these temperature increases could be catastrophic. Life on earth has evolved to live in harmony with the land and the elements, in complex ecosystems which rely upon particular environmental conditions in order to thrive. When climate change alters the weather and temperature in a region, countless ripple effects are produced which can cause habitats to become unsuitable. Polar ice caps can melt, raising sea levels and forcing species to relocate. Some species will face extinction if they cannot adapt fast enough. Humans will also be significantly impacted by these changes, via increasingly extreme weather events, and the food and water shortages that can arise from the changing agricultural viability and habitability of the land.
How Individuals Can Make a Difference
Consumers have many options to lower their personal contribution to greenhouse gases, or their “GHG footprint”.
Opting to use less energy overall in home and business, selecting products that are designed to make fewer emissions (like ENERGY STAR appliances), and asking local power providers to grant access to low-impact, renewable power sources upon request can all have a positive impact. Deriving some or all of one’s personal power needs via solar or wind-sourced energy can dramatically lower the GHG footprint and be quite economical in the long run.
In addition to these practical energy-related suggestions, it’s important to note that small daily choices like food and product purchases, water use, travel, and more, can all affect individual GHG footprints.
Examples of Greenhouse Gases
Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), CFC-12 (CCI2F2), HCFC-22 (CHCIF2), Tetrafluoromethane (CF4), Hexafluoroethane (C2F6), Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6), Nitrogen Trifluoride (NF3)