An Inconvenient Geography: Global Climate Change
Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan
Chair, Department of Geography
Bridgewater State College
Revised: November 7, 2012
350 is the goal

This page was developed circa 2008 to provide basic information about climate change.
More recent writing on many dimensions of climate change can be found
in "climate change" articles on my Environmental Geography blog.

Disrupting the
              Carbon Cycle
Image Source: Encyclopedia Britannica
Listen  to the governors!

I have prepared this page is for my students and others who are interested in finding reliable information about the problem of climate change and possible remedies.

Even though average temperatures are increasing, I avoid the term "global warming." This is because climate is very complex, and it is not helpful to think in terms of temporally gradual and spatially even temperature increases. The future -- and indeed the present -- is more likely to feature uneven shifts in temperature, precipitation, and wind behaviors, some of them rather rapid.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a team of leading experts from many fields, organized by the United Nations Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Organization. The IPCC has written four comprehensive reports since 1990. In its Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007, scientists from 113 countries have concluded that no doubt remains that human activity is forcing unprecedented climate change.

The IPCC web site is the most authoritative source of information on climate change, including causes, consequences, and mitigation. It is also a great source for graphics. The one shown to the left is number 5-2 in a gallery of authoritative images in several formats. It indicates that CO2 levels have indeed varied somewhat in the years prior to industrialization. In an 800-year period, that variation was fairly random and on the order of 20 parts per million. In the more recent 200-year period, the variation has been in one direction only (upward) and on the order of 80 parts per million. This is really not at all surprising -- the human has increased about ten-fold since 1800, with the fossil-fuel use per person increasing steadily.
                Inconvenient Truth
An Inconvenient Truth documents former Vice President Al Gore's efforts to educate the general public about climate change. I use the film to introduce the topic to students and civic groups. The Climate Crisis web site is the official site of the film, and of Gore's organizing efforts around the film. The site includes educational materials, latest news.

If you have not seen the film, I encourage you to do so. If you have seen it, please visit the web site for more information. If you have the DVD, have a look at the special features, which include a short piece about developments since the film's release.

The presentation of science in the film is not flawless; if anything, it is too optimistic. Gore covers remedies too superficially and uncritically. He gives the impression -- unintentionally, I think -- that freezing carbon emissions near current levels is relatively easy and will be sufficient. Neither part of this is true: it will be hard to freeze emissions, and in fact dramatic reductions are needed -- perhaps 80 percent by 2040.

Although the major thrust of the film reflects scientific concensus, a few details are dubious, and have been the subject of an unfavorable court ruling in the United Kingdom. The BBC offers a cogent description of the case and some useful, related links.
Climate Connections
Climate Connections is a year-long collaboration betweenNational Public Radio and National Geographic. The eclectic series covers everything from political and economic implications to the impacts on plants, animals, farmers, nomads, and even vacationers.

The chick shown to the left is part of a story about the disruption of feeding habits for migratory birds.

For those not familiar with NPR, this series is a great introduction to a style of journalism that can turn a radio into a tool for lifelong learning.
Carbon Map
Where does it come from? Geographers are interested in questions of where. With respect to climate change, a lot of the interesting locational questions concern vulnerability and where the biggest problems are likely to emerge. Another equally important set of questions relates to the location of greenhouse gas sources. This site -- cleverly named CARMA.ORG -- allows visitors to identify the major stationary sources of carbon.

Use this site to find out how local utilities compare to their peers, how your region compares to other regions, or what geographic patterns you can discern. More importantly, use it -- as its developers hope -- to prioritize change! Be sure to explore the site a little -- the first map you see is only showing the top sources.

For some background and context, listen to NPR's November 15, 2007 story, Web Site Tracks Carbon Emission Sources.
Town Hall on Climate is a progressive political organization that is trying to make climate change a key issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. As part of this effort, MoveOn brought together eight candidates for the Democratic nomination, and asked each how he or she would address the problem. Together, their answers provide a good introduction to what is at stake politically.

The League of Conservation Voters is just beginning a similar effort. LCV's Heat Is On campaign is encouraging people to contact the candidates, but will also be showing where candidates stand as the campaigns unfold.

Some of the boldest political stands have been taken by Republicans, but not those running for president. California Gov. Schwarzenegger is suing the Bush Administration for its inaction on climate, and has made its own side agreement on emissions with the United Kingdom. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, recognizing the threat to his warm, low-lying state, has organized a Climate Change Summit, which even included a showing of Al Gore's movie!
Climate Conscious
The Center for a New American Dream has brought the viral marketing concept to bear on climate change. Each month, its C3 program suggests something people can actually do to help, and each month it launches a campaign to promote that idea. I signed up in July 2007, when the idea was to buy one pound of locally grown food each week -- admittedly, this is something we already do, so it was an easy pledge that time!

Check the C3 site often to find the latest ideas for reducing carbon emissions.
Most households in the United States get electricity from the burning of fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas. Taking a home, school or office off of the grid is a good way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but it is not always practical. Reducing electricity usage by using more efficient lighting and appliances (and simply turning off these things when not in use) is also helpful.

Offsets are no substitute for conservation, but they do provide a way for those consumers still on the grid to reduce their impact. Through Renewable Choice, consumers can buy wind energy for the grid, in an amount comparable to the carbon-based energy they are taking off the grid. We have taken this step at our house, and since we use a lot less energy than the average household, we are probably offsetting ourselves and part of a neighbor!

Whole Foods market participates in the program, and even offers gift cards to new customers.
Gulf Stream energy climate change
Tides are and currents are large, perpetual sources of energy that scientists and engineers are now trying to harness for energy.  NPR's Greg Allen reports on an effort at Florida Atlantic University to harness the Gulf Stream.

LEFT: A chart of the Gulf Stream based on Ben Franklin's sketches, circa 1786. Library of Congress
Fluorescent Bulbs
One of the most encouraging responses to climate change since Al Gore's movie has been the rapid adoption of compact fluorescent lighting in the United States. They had already been widely used in other countries and by committed environmentalists in this country, but the relatively high purchase price had been a barrier in our math-challenged society. Since they last ten times as long as regular bulbs and use less than one-quarter of the energy, they have always been a bargain. Now major retailers (including Walmart, which is desperate to repair its image) have introduced a much wider variety of the lights at a much lower cost, so that there is no real reason not to use them.

Over a period of seven years, each bulb being used on the regular electric grid saves carbon equal to 1,000 miles of driving an average car. I offset the carbon emissions from all of my family's automobile driving each year by giving away these bulbs (and begging people to install them). Since we drive 18,000 miles per year, I give away 18 bulbs. Organizers of large meetings can do something similar -- giving away bulbs to each participant more than offsets the amount of carbon used to drive to the meeting. If participants already have replaced all of their bulbs (as we have), they can pass them along.

As the prices continue to drop, of course, giving away bulbs will no longer be possible. I will have to find ways to go even further in carbon reduction!

Of course, Energy Star is not just about light bulbs. Explore the site for information about a lot of other products that can reduce energy use and therefore, in most cases, carbon emissions. See my own energy page for other energy resources and background information.

Student Pugwash USA
Student Pugwash USA is a student-led effort to engage science education for the public good. See what they have to say about climate change.

Mauna Loa
I found this version of the Keeling Curve on a Weather Underground review of An Inconvenient Truth.  I post it here because it represents the most compelling evidence of human forcing of climate on a global scale. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far from any significant source of carbon dioxide, a steady increase in carbon dioxide has been observed. The absolute value is small throughout this period -- the concentration in 1958 is as low as 310 parts per million (ppm), which is, after all, only 0.031 percent. By the end of this record, the concentration at the same time of year is just over 370 ppm, or only 0.037 percent. In fact, it is the very fact of carbon dioxide's small concentrations that has made it possible for humans to alter its global levels. Humans could never have such a great impact on a more abundant gas, such as oxygen or nitrogen.

The zig-zag nature of the trend line reflects the regular, annual fluctuation in global carbon levels, as seasons change. It is true that the variation in carbon dioxide levels within a given year (about 6 ppm summer to winter) are greater than the average annual increase (about 1 ppm), but it is clear that the trend is inexorably upward.


Climate change is likely to have tremendous impacts on agriculture, and coffee is no exception. Read more about this and find links to further information at my geography of coffee page.

Coffee and climate

Post-Kyoto Climate Cooperation

Please - BaliThe global North and the global South need to come to some understandings about how to address climte change. NPR reporter Christopher Joyce provides a good introduction to some of the issues involved in his story on paying developing countries to conserve forests.

UN Bail Climate ChangeJoyce reported the story from Bali, Indonesia, the fourth-most populous country in the world. Bali hosted a global conference on climate change, whose intention was to work toward North-South agreements to follow the Kyoto Accords. The United States, of course, was resisting the rest of the world's delegates throughout most of the conference, but on the last day, the U.S. agreed to join the rest of the world community in working toward a successor agreement.
Yo Amigo


Thanks for visiting this page. It is part of my Environmental Geography site, which covers many related -- and unrelated -- topics.