The Dynamics of Climate


Fossil Fuels and Greenhouse Gases

Energy, Fossil Fuels, and the Carbon Cycle

Energy comes from many sources, occurs in many forms, and is used to perform many tasks. Natural gas, coal, and petroleum (oil) are non-renewable energy sources that are called fossil fuels. Wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal are considered renewable energy sources. In this activity you will learn about fossil fuels, the carbon cycle, and the environmental impact of the use of fossil fuels.

Fossil Fuel Use and Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Fossil fuels (natural gas, coal, and petroleum) are energy sources used by the various social sectors: the electrical companies’ use them to generate electricity, industry and manufacturing use them to produce goods and products, the transportation industry uses them to transport people, goods, and materials, and the commercial and municipal/residential sectors use them to heat stores and office buildings, homes, schools, and hospitals. Although the burning of fossil fuels supports much of our society, the burning of fossil fuels also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In this activity you will learn about the amounts of carbon dioxide emissions the different social sectors (industrial, transportation, commercial and municipal/residential) contribute to the atmosphere.

Case Study: Carbon Dioxide and Global Warming: What is the evidence?

Global warming and climate change are international concerns. Scientists from around the world are working hard to determine how human activities, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, are impacting the Earth’s temperature and climate. The learning activity below has three parts, and will help you understand how fossil fuel use effects our environment. Part I consists of a series of questions that will help you to clarify what you currently know and think about global warming and climate change. Part II involves a case study of global warming and climate change. Reading this case study will provide you with the actual scientific data often used as evidence to support global warming. The case study will add to what you already know about the problem of global warming and the questions in this section will help you think about and analyze the data and evidence used to support global warming. Part III will promote your reflection on your initial ideas and thinking about global warming and allow you to develop answers to problems and questions concerning global warming and climate change.

Your Family’s Carbon Footprint

How much greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide and methane) does your family release into the atmosphere each year? In what ways do you and your family contribute to the greenhouse effect and global warming? To answer these questions, you will use the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Personal Emissions Calculator to estimate your family’s greenhouse gas emissions and to think about how you and your family could reduce your greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change: The Debate

The Earth’s atmosphere is a mixture of gases, mostly consisting of oxygen (21%) and nitrogen (78%); however, these gases contribute little to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is primarily a function of the atmospheric concentration of water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2) and other trace gases such as methane (CH4) and nitrous oxides (N2O). These greenhouse gases occur naturally and play a major role in determining the Earth’s temperature by trapping and reflecting heat energy, a process known as radiative forcing. Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, have been proposed as causes of the recent increase in the concentration of these greenhouse gases.

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