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Climate change is driving climate change

Global warming is homemade. For sustainable development, people must reduce their emissions of climate-damaging gases by three quarters by 2050. If that doesn’t work, climate change could accelerate dramatically.

Consequences of the industrial revolution

For many million years, the Earth’s climate has been linked to a fairly well-regulated carbon budget. As if God’s Minister of the Environment had invested his carbon dioxide budget over time, sometimes in a solid, sometimes in a gaseous state, and moved it from the biosphere to the atmosphere and back again.

The industrial revolution, which was only possible through the mass combustion of oil, coal and gas, has interfered in this distribution and billions of tons of carbon, which until then had been stored as coal, oil and gas underground and in the oceans, were in gaseous form CO2 is transformed and blown into the atmosphere. But while the Lord’s Minister took millions of years to complete his transactions, the industrial revolutionaries only needed a few decades to shift the weights.

Natural carbon landfills

Forces in the global carbon cycle counteract this shift and capture some of the carbon dioxide released by humans: the biosphere and the oceans absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and store it again in the soil or convert it into solid compounds and deposit it the seabed. These carbon reservoirs have already absorbed half of the carbon dioxide released by humans. The soil and the oceans are therefore called natural carbon landfills.

Rising water temperatures

But the landfills are getting full, especially the seas. The pH value of the oceans has already dropped by 0.1 point due to the carbon dioxide absorbed since 1750 – the oceans have become more acidic. At the same time, the absorption capacity of the sea decreases with rising water temperatures – as forecast in the course of the greenhouse effect. The higher the global average temperature rises, the less carbon dioxide the oceans absorb; the faster the temperature rises. A vicious circle.

The balancing effect of the biosphere is also reduced by deforestation of the tropical forests and the use of the soil for agriculture and settlements. The spread of deserts, which is accelerating with global warming, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is exacerbating the problem.

It is estimated that the biosphere can now absorb between three and four billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. This is also the upper limit of what people can still emit if they want to maintain today’s global climate. However, this amount will decrease if the temperature rise disrupts the carbon cycle and environmental degradation further reduces the biosphere’s ability to absorb CO2.

Solution: drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions
The natural carbon landfills will not remove the climate problem. Humans must reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the source. And in order not to overload the biosphere’s capacity, greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut by three quarters worldwide within the next fifty years.

How is this task distributed? Does every country have to reduce its emissions to a quarter? Should we set a maximum amount of CO2 per capita and year – for example to 0.5 tons of carbon or 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide? These questions must be answered in the negotiations for a new climate agreement.

Climate contribution of the countries

Even if the people in the industrialized countries meet their target, the emerging countries of Asia and South America will also have to make their climate contribution. In the Kyoto process, they have not imposed any obligations for the period up to 2012. The value of the commitments made at the Bali climate conference in December 2007 will be shown in the negotiations on the follow-up Kyoto agreement. The fact that the governments in Indonesia could not agree on fixed guidelines shows that people are not yet aware of their responsibilities.

Phenology and climate change

The role of phenology in climate research
Global warming has been discussed for decades. It is now undisputed that it exists, also because it can be backed up with phenological data.

“The earth is getting greener,” read the headline of a 2001 NASA study. From space it is clearly visible that plant growth above the 40th northern latitude – the line between Madrid and Beijing – has increased significantly since 1981. Although the forests have been damaged by acid rain and other human interference, there are more plants today than in previous decades.

The explanation: Due to global warming, the vegetation period has become longer. Spring comes earlier, winter comes later. So plants have more time to reproduce and spread before hibernation begins. Because the temperature curve has such a strong influence on the development of plants, changes in plant growth are important indicators of climate change.

Plants and climate change

Phenological studies have found that the growth phase of plants in Europe has increased by more than ten days since the 1960s. In Germany, the so-called vegetation period is now around two weeks longer.

The heyday of many plants has shifted significantly in recent decades. In many places, the hazel blossom begins up to four weeks earlier. Alder trees, ash trees and elms also bloom earlier than in earlier times and many deciduous trees keep their green leaves until November.

These changes also have an impact on people. Farmers have to adjust their sowing and harvesting times to the changed conditions and allergy sufferers have to prepare themselves: an extension of the vegetation phase by earlier flowering also means an extension of the pollen count.

In addition, completely new species are attracted to our warmer climate. The ragweed, also called ambrosia, has migrated to Europe from the USA in recent years and has also settled in Germany in isolated cases. If the immigrant continues to spread, its late flowering in August would further prolong the suffering of the hypersensitive: Ambrosia is considered to be extremely allergenic.

Animals and climate change

When the plants move around, the animals also follow: some species of amphibians, for example the tree frog, spawn earlier than in previous decades.

However, the changes in the life of animals are particularly evident in the birds. Because the climate is becoming friendlier and the plants no longer rest, it is no longer worth the long journey south for some migratory birds that have left Europe in winter.

Migratory birds are now returning from their wintering areas much earlier than a few years ago. Some bird species stay here completely.

Starlings move south less and less – they hibernate with us. This gives them advantages over migratory birds in the spring, as those who stayed at home can secure the best breeding sites at an early stage. The number of breeding pairs of smaller migratory birds such as garden redstart, black swallow and wryneck has therefore dropped sharply.

Consequences of climate change

Climate change affects all regions of the world. The ice of the polar ice caps is melting and the sea level is rising. Extreme weather events and increasing rainfall are more common in some regions, while extreme heat waves and droughts are increasing in other regions.

These effects are expected to worsen in the coming decades.

Melting ice and rising sea levels

Water expands when heated. At the same time, the polar ice caps and glaciers are melting as a result of global warming.

These changes lead to an increase in sea level, which leads to flooding and erosion in coastal and lowland regions.

Extreme weather events, shift in precipitation patterns

Heavy rains and other extreme weather events are becoming more common. This can lead to flooding and deterioration of water quality, but can also affect the availability of water resources in some regions.

Consequences for Europe

  • In southern and central Europe, heat waves, forest fires and droughts are more common.
  • Drought is spreading in the Mediterranean, making the region even more vulnerable to droughts and forest fires.
  • In Northern Europe, on the other hand, the climate is significantly wetter and winter floods could become the norm.
  • The urban areas, where four out of five Europeans now live, suffer from heat waves, floods or an increase in sea level, but are often unable to adapt to climate change.

Climate change: Global warming poses local health risks

Hay fever in the Advent season, significant increase in TBE cases: The mild temperatures leave their mark. Even the spread of tropical diseases is feared.

The message is clear. In its world climate report, the United Nations Climate Council (UN) warned more clearly than ever before of the consequences of the greenhouse effect. By 2100, according to the most likely scenario today, the global average temperature will rise by 1.8 to four degrees – but only if the carbon dioxide emissions do not rise further than expected. Otherwise the thermometer could show an average of six degrees more. In a few decades, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be ice-free in summer. Droughts and hurricanes and a dramatic rise in sea level – the UN forecasts correspond to a horror scenario. While the “anthropogenic greenhouse effect” was assessed much more cautiously in the first climate report in 1990, the experts now have no doubt: it is man who is to blame for climate change.

Global warming has several consequences for Germany. Summers become drier, winters milder and more rainy. Rising sea levels can pose a threat to islands and coastal cities. An increase in storms and floods is also forecast. “However, this is still partly the subject of research,” says Dr. Annette Kirk from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg.

Extreme weather situations are linked to health risks. High temperatures, for example, put a strain on the cardiovascular system and, not least, can be dangerous for older people and children if they do not drink enough fluids. In the “hot summer” of 2003, several thousand people fell victim to the high temperatures, especially in southern Europe. An increase in such hot periods is also expected for Germany as part of global warming. “If preparation is poor, it can become a risk,” says Dr. rer. nat. Klaus Bucher, medical meteorologist at the German Weather Service (DWD). Therefore, the DWD has launched a “heat warning service”. Comparable to storm warnings, reports on radio and television should be made public. The warnings are not only aimed at the public, but also at the responsible institutions in the federal states. Hospitals and nursing homes in particular should take measures in good time in the future.

Higher temperatures are not life-threatening for allergy sufferers, but can become a nuisance. Last year the mild autumn weather messed up the flora. Already in mid-December, the DWD warned of hazel and alder pollen in its pollen forecast. It is therefore quite conceivable that the suffering of allergy sufferers will be extended to a year if mild winters become the norm. In addition, Bucher predicts, neophytes, plants that have recently settled in Germany, must be expected to spread further. He thinks primarily of the ragweed plant. The mugwort leaved ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) originally comes from North America and has now spread massively in many European countries, including Switzerland, Italy, France and Hungary. It is also on the rise in Germany. Ambrosia pollen and skin contact with the plant can trigger violent allergies. A Swiss brochure states: “Only tear out flowering ambrosia with a fine dust mask and gloves.”

Mild temperatures not only have an impact on plants, but also on the animal world. The increase in disease carriers is relevant for health care. These include ticks. You have clearly benefited from the mild winters of recent years. As a result, the frequency of early summer meningo-encephalitis (TBE) increased significantly. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the number of TBE cases reported in Germany rose to 541 last year (2004: 274). The RKI also shows an upward trend in Lyme disease.