Global warming: it’s here, we did it, we can fix it.

In 2007, the United Nations-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that human-induced global warming is real, and that the costs could be dire: increased heat waves, floods, drought, famine and disease may spell the deaths of millions.

Why, then, do recent Gallup polls show the number of Americans who acknowledge the seriousness of global warming decreasing from 66 percent to 51 percent between 2008 and 2011?

Perhaps the climate-change issue has become so complex and so inadequately conveyed that the public has forgotten, or maybe never really understood, what is at stake.

As one of the gravest challenges facing our society today, a basic understanding of what climate change is and what it is not is absolutely essential.

Climate change refers to long-term changes in the chemical make-up of the atmosphere and its impact on the environment and life. For instance, after the Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, the atmosphere consisted of toxic gases like methane and carbon dioxide.However, once microorganisms began producing oxygen about 2.5 billion years ago, oxygen started to become prevalent in the atmosphere.

Increasing levels of oxygen spurred the evolution of oxygen-dependent life and helped create the ozone layer, which shields us from the sun's harmful UV radiation.

When discussing present-day climate change, the most important gases are the greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor, which have the ability to trap heat from the sun.
Global warming occurs when these gases build up in the atmosphere.
The atmospheric abundance of a gas can be measured in parts per million (ppm).

This means that, in a given sample of 1 million air molecules, a certain number will be, say, carbon dioxide.

In 1958, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were at 315 ppm, and by 2010 had reached 390 ppm. Never in the past 650,000 years has carbon dioxide reached such a level.

If more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide accumulate in the atmosphere, global warming will ensue. 

Climate change in the form of global warming is immediately relevant to the current and future welfare of our species: Rising sea levels as a result of melting ice caps will inundate coastal communities, drought-induced famine will devastate Africa, and tropical rain forests will give way to savannah grasslands.Closer to home, decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains may reduce California's water supplies, and Southern California, in particular, will likely experience more frequent, more intense heat waves.

While the Earth has experienced global warming before, it has usually occurred over long spans of time (hundreds of thousands to millions of years, not decades).

If we are to face the urgency of present-day climate change, we must understand the basic science behind the issue.

"There is a wide gap between what is understood about global climate change by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public," says James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and one of the world's leading climate scientists.

Along these lines, a new partnership between UC Riverside and NASA, called "Down to Earth Climate Science," will help educate local high school and university students on how to scientifically observe the Earth's climate using NASA-based climate change data and modeling tools.

The overall goal of the collaboration is to give students -- tomorrow's political and scientific leaders -- a firm background in climate-change science and an ability to effectively communicate what they learn to their peers.

"Down to Earth Climate Science" will also give students within the Riverside Unified School District the chance to work one-on-one with a UCR scientist to develop a science-fair project centered around a specific-climate change issue.

At a meeting last month, several RUSD middle school and high school students got to meet with potential UCR mentors to discuss science-fair-project ideas. From measuring energy consumption patterns at home to studying long-term snowpack trends in the Sierras, students can transform original insights into climate-related solutions.

Armed with a basic understanding of climate change science, we have choices. We can put the paper down, ignore climate change, perhaps turn on the TV and continue on as before.Or we can take action as a community, country and as citizens of the world.

To start, we can engage in a conversation that begins by acknowledging that we have changed, and are changing, the chemical composition of our atmosphere, the costs of which may be more than our species can bear.

This article appeared in the opinion section of the Press-Enterprise newspaper.

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