Air Pollution and the Importance of the Greenhouse Effect

by Sharon Cornet

Ashford University
Environmental Policy – POL 310
Professor: Robin Glenn
September 7, 2009

              Air pollution is caused by many factors, both natural and manmade, and contributes to global warming.  Natural sources include volcanism, dust storms, forest fires, radon, ozone, pollen, and biological decay (http://www.ace.mmu.ac.uk/eae/air_quality/Older/Natural_Air_Pollution.html).  Manmade pollution, such as industrial sources, automobiles, fossil fuels, home building & materials, chemicals, cigarettes, etc., is a factor that ties into this air pollution problem (http://www.ace.mmu.ac.uk/eae/air_quality/Older/Air_Pollutants.html).  The four main air pollution problems include, as Zachary Smith has pointed out, are, “acid rain, the greenhouse effect, the thinning of the ozone layer . . . and toxic air pollution” (2009, p. 101).  The only one of these that humans will try to reduce, but will never want to get rid of completely, is the greenhouse effect, for life depends upon it.

            Air pollution is a common pool problem for people in every country of the world, even if they are less developed.  Due to global and regional weather patterns, wind, and local climate, we all, in the end, wind up sharing and breathing the same air, the same pollution.  Toxic air pollution contributes to the other three problems of acid rain, ozone depletion, and the buildup of greenhouse gasses.  All of these problems are connected in some way with global warming, except the ozone hole, which increases UV exposure to dangerous levels.  Except for acid rain due to potential massive-scale volcanism, the majority of the four issues can be reduced to safe levels, including the greenhouse effect, which before now has been in balance for the majority of earth’s history.   During the Jurassic period, when mid-continent volcanism was very active due to the breakup of Pangaea, carbon dioxide levels increased, and global temperatures were even hotter than they are today (van de Schootbrugge, et. al., 2009).   This temperature increase was reliant on the greenhouse effect.

            The greenhouse effect is reliant on greenhouse gasses in the upper atmosphere, and so the planet’s temperature range is also affected.  The risks to the earth, and life upon our planet have become well known over the last several decades.  Ice sheets have been melting at unprecedented rates at the Arctic and Antarctic polar ice cap regions, as well as glaciers in the mountains around the world.  Sea levels have been slowly rising, which has been the trend since the beginning of the end of the last ice age (18kya), and especially 14-10kya, slowing down significantly around the Neolithic agricultural revolution.  However, rising sea level rates have very recently begun to increase again, which could, in time, devastate civilizations around the coasts in the future.   Deforestation and forest fires have contributed to the greenhouse effect in dramatic ways because we are dependent on plant life to absorb carbon dioxide to counteract the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions.  Greenhouse gases are mostly carbon dioxide, methane, plus water and trace gases such as nitrous oxide, ozone, and HCFC’s (hydrochlorofluorocarbons).  The HCFC’s, which are produced by industrial processes, are far more dangerous than carbon dioxide (Smith, 2009, p. 113). 

Climatic change on the global level is paramount, although not insurmountable, and nations of the world have begun to come together to focus on correcting the problem.   According to Easterling and Karl, the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) provides research answers on global climatic change, as well as paleoclimatic information.  Also, the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) centers are also involved, as is the National Oceanographic Center.  Additionally, according to Easterling and Karl, international environmental policy is influenced by the research results from the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)” (2009, p.1).

The Clean Air Act is the United States’ attempt at resolving air pollution problems via regulation.  It was passed in 1963 and has since had four amendments (Smith, 2009, p. 93).  Because of the nature of incrementalism tied in with the Clean Air Act, and its enforcement, it has been very slow going since the last amendment back in 1990.  This is one of the reasons why air pollution, and therefore the greenhouse effect, is not going to be properly dealt with in this global, common pool problem, except on a local scale. 

A good example of this is by looking at a micro-problem of twin cities compared with the global perspective.  In El Paso, Texas, which is a border town adjacent to its sister-city, Juarez, Mexico, is having trouble cleaning up the air since only one side of the border has protocols for dealing with environmental issues.  Rules are in effect on the U.S. side, but Mexico has lax laws concerning air pollution, and a significant amount of their two million residents burn wood and trash for heating in the winter.  Winter is when inversion is most like to occur over the two cities (equally), causing a brown cloud of pollution.  The effect is that even though one area may have laws to aid in the reduction of air pollution, its neighbor(s) may not, and they share the same air.  

The Clean Air Act will only help the global problem of the greenhouse effect if it moves beyond incrementalism, and the rest of the world joins in the effort, with the rules being equal across the board.   Of the four originally identified problems, the real focus should be on the reduction of toxic pollutants, especially since acid rain, the ozone, and the greenhouse effect (climatic change) are, for the most part, secondary effects.  The greenhouse effect itself, should not be considered a “problem” in itself, because without that natural effect, the earth would lose its atmosphere.  The retention of our atmospheric layers is why the earth has life, and what it needs to keep it.  The only one of these air pollution problems that humans will try to reduce, but will never want to get rid of completely, is the greenhouse effect, for life depends upon it.

References

Easterling, D., Karl, T., (2009). Global Warming FAQ. National Oceanic and Atmospheric
             Administration, National Climatic Data Center. Retrieved September
             7, 2009, from http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/globalwarming.html

Smith, Z. A. (2009). The Environmental Policy Paradox, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River,
           NJ: Pearson Publishing, Inc.

Van de Schootbrugge, B., Quan, T. M., Lindstrom, S., Puttmann, W., Heunisch, C., Pross, J., et.
           al. (2009, July 13). Floral changes across the Triassic/Jurassic boundary linked to flood
           basalt volcanism. Nature Geoscience 2, 589-594. Abstract retrieved September 7, 2009,
           from http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v2/n8/abs/ngeo577.html

 

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