The solar cycle, along with glacier cycles and ocean variability, undoubtedly affects the Earth’s climate. The same goes for variations in the Earth’s orbit and rotation. These effects can be charted back for millions of years with relative accuracy. We can use ice cores, fossil records and other geological studies to map these effects. However, the issue popularly labeled “global warming” doesn’t really refer to this.

What we call global warming is more accurately titled “human-influenced global climate change.” This refers to the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, deforestation, over-utilization of resources and soil depletion, among other factors. The sum effect of these human activities is an intensification of weather effects, disruption of world climate patterns and changes in natural environmental cycles. These go above and beyond what can be attributed to solar cycles, glaciation and ocean variability. What we are experiencing cannot be completely explained by these factors, and this excess change has been dubbed “global warming.” The term doesn’t really fit – though it is catchy – and its usage has spread widely via mass media and politicians.

Since mid-century, studies have shown human activity has accelerated some natural cycles, and created some new cycles altogether. Because there are so many of us – and we use so many of the Earth’s resources – we accomplished something few species on this planet ever have: We now exert influence over the Earth’s climate.

Of these influences, the strongest has been the widespread dissemination of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere serve to retain heat from the solar radiation penetrating our atmosphere. Studies have repeatedly shown a correlation between levels of atmospheric CO2 and the Earth’s mean temperature. Worse yet, an increase in global temperatures has been linked to decreased absorption of CO2 by natural carbon sinks. In other words, as we add CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, clear-cutting forests and creating cement, global temperatures rise. This stimulates natural carbon sinks – such as forests and oceans – to absorb less carbon, which intensifies the cycle. We are rapidly approaching a point where if we do not reverse our carbon deposits into the atmosphere, we will create a self-perpetuating cycle.

What all of this boils down to is a choice. We could choose to ignore the negative effects we are having on our planet and pray the Earth’s climate change is no fault of our own. Or, we can choose to accept that the climate is changing and that our planet is having problems we alone can hope to treat. We can cut pollution, reduce our consumption of Earth’s natural resources and try to reverse the trends of increased desertification, intensified weather and atmospheric deterioration. I believe we must try, because the alternative will lead us to disaster. We must try not just for ourselves, but also for our children and for all of humanity. It would be a tragedy beyond measure if we allowed the only thinking, loving, creating species we have ever found to perish, simply because we did not want to face the indiscretions of our past.

Most of all, we owe it to our planet. In our years of searching the universe, we have found a billion galaxies, a billion billion stars and a vastness beyond comprehension. But we have never found another world like ours – a world where life can thrive and where innumerable species can coexist and multiply. For all we know, we are all the life that exists in this vast universe, and to destroy this Eden would be a crime immeasurable. So please, even if we’re wrong – even if global warming isn’t everything the UN Climate Change Conference says – don’t we owe it to ourselves to try and live in a manner that doesn’t destroy our world?