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Monitor Board of Contributors: Climate change for dummies

Last modified: 7/13/2014 1:14:10 AM
Pet peeve of mine: Hearing someone mention “global warming” every time we experience warmer than average weather.

Climate is the overall measure of how the earth’s systems interact and can include cooling. By the way, an unusually cold week does not invalidate our steady march upward in the temperature range. If you don’t know how your air conditioner exacerbates the problem, keep reading. If you slept through science class, keep reading. And you should especially keep reading if you make your living voicing your opinions through a microphone.

First of all, the term “climate change” was not coined by the far left.

In the 1980s, scientists were just discovering that the air pollution we have been creating since the Industrial Revolution might affect more than just our lungs and lakes. Since any long-term problems were eclipsed by the idea that we would all be blown to glowing bits by a nuclear war between the United States and the USSR, it made sense that the first prediction of global climate change came from our understanding of nuclear fallout.

Carl Sagan (more philosopher than scientist) predicted that all this pollution would cause a global cooling effect by blocking out the sun. This rudimentary, and completely wrong, interpretation was followed by real scientists’ proposal that some components of air pollution over-emphasized earth’s natural “greenhouse effect,” in which the atmosphere acts like the clear glass of a greenhouse, allowing the visible spectrum of the sun’s rays through but trapping in the heat that it is converted to after it hits an object.

Therefore “global warming” was used to connote the harmful effect of air pollution on our planet.

Enter Ronald Reagan, for whom we can thank for making all environmental issues partisan. Worried that the term global warming was too alarming, his team instead used “global climate change” to try to defuse the issue.

Grumbled about by scientists, the language was eventually adopted, especially as researchers found that it was closer to the truth. Back then, if you claimed you knew what was going to happen in 20 years because of pollution, then you were either lying or dumb.

All the best scientists knew how complicated the feedback loop among the atmosphere/earth/oceans/ice caps were, and they knew there was no easy answer.

I distinctly remember my professor Richard Bopp, researcher at Goddard Institute for Space Studies, telling us that the only thing he knew was that you could not overload such a delicately balanced system like our atmosphere and not have something change. The idea that everything in the world would gradually and evenly rise in temperature was unlikely, but he and his colleagues could not offer an alternative at that time.

Well, 25 years later, we have a better idea. Thanks to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a voluntary 2,000-member group of scientists committed to understanding climate change, we can verify that we are experiencing more severe weather and increases of ocean levels, glacial melting and average temperature.

It is a common practice for those who are ignorant of the science to bash the IPCC’s 
findings as just another catastrophic prediction from a liberal think tank, but could they please name any other issue where there are that many researchers donating their time for a cause? This is not a politically funded organization. Think of it more like a coalition of doctors who want to eradicate a type of cancer by banding together and sharing research.

Doomsday clock

The strongest argument for how unnatural our current situation is involves time. From all the data we have collected – ice cores from the poles, ancient pollen from lake bottoms, tree rings, rock samples and the like – there is no other time in documented history where the temperature has risen so quickly.

The number of species dying off as a result of human interference is equally alarming and unprecedented.

The analogy I give my students is this: You would expect to lose muscle mass between the ages of 20 and 40, but wouldn’t you believe something was horribly wrong if the same weakness set in over the course of 6 weeks rather than two decades? Again, the time frame matters and is largely ignored by climate change skeptics.

Thanks to the mercury thermometer, we have been able to reliably track temperature since the 1860s and have seen with our own eyes how temperature is related to CO2 concentrations. Keep in mind that CO2, and other assorted greenhouse gases, accept the sun’s energy and trap it in the atmosphere in the form of heat. So more CO2 means more heat.

Magic number

In 1860, the amount of CO2 was 288 parts per million, or 2.88 percent of the atmosphere. The latest figure from the Mauna Loa Scripps Observatory is 401.88 ppm. This is an air lab set on top of a tall mountain in the middle of the ocean (aka Hawaii), which has been measuring atmospheric trends since 1958.

Because of its remote location and constant exposure to ocean winds and currents, it is considered one of the purest data collection centers in the world. Lacking any crystal balls, scientists use this and other data to predict with computer models what future trends will bring, and the results are not pretty.

They suggest a tipping point of 450 ppm CO2, in which the ice caps and glaciers melt and stay that way because it takes much colder temperatures to form ice than to keep it solid.

If you have seen people with signs that read “350” on Earth Day, then you know what our goal is to avoid this catastrophe. This level of CO2 in the atmosphere in 1986 was declared by noted environmentalist Bill McKibben and remains an attainable goal.

So how do we accomplish a reduction in CO2?

There is talk of instituting a “carbon tax” that would tax utilities on how much carbon they release into the atmosphere. As New Hampshire is a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which uses a cap and trade approach within the Northeast, we have already seen the light. Something about being downwind of less-regulated Midwestern power plants has motivated us to clean up our own house first.

Don’t believe those who tell you how it makes electricity more expensive; at last count it added under $1 to the average user’s electric bill. Heck, I’d even pay $2 if it helped solve climate change! However, a better controlled utility does not absolve us.

Taking carbon out of storage in the earth and burning it pairs it with oxygen, which creates our culprit, CO2.

That is how stepping on the accelerator contributes to climate change, and that is why the smart girls go for men who drive Teslas instead of Hummers.

In addition, the natural gas industry has a lot to answer for. It is true that using natural gas for fuel instead of coal or oil releases less CO2 per ton, but natural gas is also a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

Every time there is a natural gas leak or oil drillers bleed off the natural gas that sits on top of crude fields, the situation worsens. The fact that Dick Cheney crafted our current energy legislation and made sure to exempt natural gas drilling from EPA regulation has put us in the situation where if we take one step forward (using more natural gas) we end up taking two steps back (the inevitable release of more greenhouse gases). The term for any activity that converts carbon into a gas form is a “carbon source,” as in source of the problem.

Carbon sinks

The opposite of being a carbon source is being a carbon sink.

Some engineers have come up with some pretty imaginative ways to do this, including sucking CO2 out of the air and injecting it back into the underground reservoirs we took it from in the first place or shooting it out into space. Anybody who understands the complexity of our biological systems gets nervous about this, especially since it throws out the baby with the bathwater in the form of oxygen.

A better way to convert carbon back from its gaseous state is to allow and encourage nature to do it for us. This is where planting a tree comes in, but also where letting your grass clippings compost back into the ground and integrating your fall leaves into your garden are very helpful. In fact, anything carbon-based is better being left as a solid than being burned. Can you say recycling? That is how it all ties in.

Since the oceans appear to be maxed out in the amount of CO2 they can absorb, the next frontier of “carbon sequestration” lies with the soil (and has nothing to do with political budget cycles).

I have come to take the words of industrial agriculture and timber barons with a grain of salt on this matter, since it is their job to turn over as much carbon as fast as possible, no matter what the environmental cost.

Leaving a forest or prairie intact is much better than harvesting when it comes to keeping carbon in a solid state. Even when accounting for long-term wood use (house-building, for instance), the amount of material returned to the atmosphere in the short term and the fuel expended to harvest the crop outweighs the future storage of the new crop.

So consider yourself educated on the basics of climate change. Still think the conservative talking heads have a point?

Consider the benefits of increased efficiency and emission reduction we have experienced over the last few decades, and I fail to see the downside.

After all, if government hadn’t put in place incentives and regulations to switch fuels, we might still be using coal-fired steam engines in trains and eating cancer-causing fish.

The Bible says the earth will end with fire and brimstone. I’d hate for that to be the case.

(Ayn Whytemare of Concord teaches environmental science at NHTI and owns a certified organic plant business, Found Well Farm, in Pembroke.)


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