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Global Greenhouse

December 1, 2011

"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

This quotation is attributed to Charles Dudley Warner, editor of the Hartford Courant. Warner first published it in 1897, although he apparently said it a few years earlier.[1] It was a joke in Warner's time, and it was even a joke when I was young. Now, it's not such a laughing matter.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recently released its Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI), which tracks gases with a potential to trap heat in the atmosphere. This index is prepared each year by NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory from data collected at more than a hundred worldwide sites.[3] This index is a measure of radiative forcing, the technical measure of heat-trapping, and it's measured in watts per square meter.[2]

Five gases are responsible for 95% of global warming. These are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and the chlorofluorocarbons, trichlorofluoromethane and dichlorofluoromethane. NOAA monitors these and the fifteen others that comprise the remaining five percent.[2] The index increased by 1.5% from 2009 to 2010,[2-3] adding to the alarming trend shown in the figure. Since 1990, the baseline year of the AGGI at which the index is set at unity, the index has increased by 29%.[2]

NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, 1979-2010

The NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index reached 1.29 in 2010. This increase means that the heating effect of greenhouse gases has increased by 29% since 1990.

(Based on NOAA Image, Ref. 4))

Carbon dioxide is the worst offender, since it's released into the atmosphere in large quantity by human activity, and it remains in the atmosphere for a long time. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide increased by 6% from 2009 to 2010, a larger increase than anticipated.[2] Atmospheric carbon dioxide stood at about 280 parts per million (ppm) before the industrial revolution in the 1880s, and it was 389 ppm in 2010.[4] It was 354 in the baseline year of 1990.[3]

Methane is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, per weight, but it exists in the atmosphere in lower quantities. Methane had been relatively constant in the atmosphere, existing at a level of 1714 parts per billion (ppb) in 1990. It began to rise in 2007, and it was present in the atmosphere at 1799 ppm in 2010.[3]

Levels of the chlorofluorocarbons, dichlorofluoromethane and trichlorofluoromethane, have declined about a percent each year since 1990, when the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to limit their production and thereby prevent the destruction of the ozone layer, was enacted.[3]

A recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned of the possibility of irreversible climate change in five years. The present goal is to limit global warming to a 2°C increase, as specified in the Copenhagen Accord of 2009. This would require a carbon dioxide level of not more than 450 ppm. At the current carbon dioxide production rate, we will be at this level by 2017. 30.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere in 2010.[5]

As usual, politics are getting in the way of progress. The 1997 Kyoto protocol, the first step to controlling such emissions, will expire in 2012, but a few industrialized nations want to postpone talks on a Kyoto extension.[5] Eighty percent of carbon dioxide emissions are produced by the twenty most industrialized countries, called the G-20 Group.[7] The G20, as a group, has endorsed the recommendations of the IEA report, "G20 Clean Energy, and Energy Efficiency Deployment and Policy Progress," at its November 3-4, 2011, meeting at Cannes, France.[6]

The IEA reports that the G20 nations are making strides in low carbon footprint vehicles, such as electric, hybrid electric, and fuel cell. The IEA also reports that renewable energy technologies are being increasingly implemented (see figure). From 2005 to 2010, wind power grew at 27% per year, and photovoltaic at a phenomenal 56% per year. The present problem is that 50% of new electrical production has been by coal, and oil fuels 94% of transportation energy requirements.[6]

Figure caption

Trends in worldwide renewable energy.

(Data from IEA Report, Ref. 7))

It goes without saying that emission of atmospheric greenhouse gases is a serious problem, and immediate action is required. James H. Butler, director of the Global Monitoring Division of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, made the following statement:
"The increasing amounts of long-lived greenhouse gases in our atmosphere indicate that climate change is an issue society will be dealing with for a long time... Climate warming has the potential to affect most aspects of society, including water supplies, agriculture, ecosystems and economies. NOAA will continue to monitor these gases into the future to further understand the impacts on our planet."[3]

A video display of historical global warming data appears in Ref. 8.[8]


  1. Everybody Talks About the Weather, But Nobody Does Anything About It - Mark Twain? Charles Dudley Warner?, Quote Investigator.
  2. Dean Kuipers, "Greenhouse gases climbing, federal report finds," Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2011
  3. Patricia Lang, "NOAA greenhouse gas index continues climbing," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Press Release, November 9, 2011.
  4. Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  5. Fiona Harvey, "World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns," Guardian (UK), November 9, 2011.
  6. G20 leaders endorse IEA report on deployment of clean energy and energy efficiency technologies, International Energy Agency Press Release, November 10, 2011.
  7. G-20 Clean Energy, and Energy Efficiency Deployment and Policy Progress-2011, International Energy Agency Report, 2011.
  8. Land Temperature Anomaly Video.                         

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