David A. Van Wie
A Conflagration of Biblical Proportions
Jimmy Kimmel aired an insightful and entertaining segment on climate change a while ago. While he's always good for a laugh, his message was dead serious: that climate change can’t possibly be a hoax or an exaggeration. And that political opposition to greenhouse gas reductions is causing irreparable damage as the months and years go by.
I too have been baffled by the opposition from the climate change deniers given the scientific evidence that has been growing in certainty and breadth for over 40 years. Jimmy Kimmel pointed out that over 97% of scientists agree that climate change is happening quickly, and that human activities have caused these changes, mostly as a result of burning of fossil fuels.
Of course, it is not the scientists' opinions that matter. It is what the data are telling us.
There is an interesting word: "consilience" which means agreement among a wide variety of sources or disciplines. It is a convergence of evidence from different studies around the world that all point to a common conclusion.
This is what has happened with climate science: data from hundreds of independent sources, many of which are not "climate scientists" (such as farmers' diaries or ship logs), and over many decades, all support the conclusion that the planet is warming, and that the cause is carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and deforestation from human activities.
If there is a conspiracy happening, it is a conspiracy of math, logic, reality, and reason.
I understand many deniers are from industries that profit from fossil fuels. (The answer is money; now, what was the question?) But a big part of the problem is that many people simply don’t want to believe. It would be an insult to their values, deeply held beliefs, and psychic well-being.
Some of the more politically-driven deniers don't accept climate change science because, if the liberals believe in something, it must be false, and therefore they must believe the opposite. Maine’s governor is in this camp. By opposing wind and solar power, he rejoices in pissing off the liberals, even though wind and solar power have contributed hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to Maine’s economy.
More common is the huge herd of deniers that is so deeply committed to the fossil fuel culture/economy that they don’t want to confront the logical result: that they may need to change their behaviors and scale back on their favorite activities. This group includes many NASCAR fans, snowmobilers, boaters, and monster truck-lovin’ knucklebusters. If they accept the climate change argument, they would have to re-orient their personal values. Probably not gonna happen.
I am an environmental scientist, but it really doesn’t take much of a scientist to figure out what is happening to our planet. Just someone scientific enough to multiply big numbers using different units of measure to see how much oil, gas and coal we have extracted and burned since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and how much carbon dioxide has been pumped into the atmosphere as a result. Someone who can estimate miles driven per year, divide by miles per gallon, and multiply the result by millions of drivers. Or calculate how much energy it takes to keep a 2,000 or 4,000 or 8,000 square foot house at a comfy 72̊ Fahrenheit, then multiply that times millions and billions. And so on with office buildings, stores and factories.
A Thought Experiment
Here is a little thought experiment. Imagine if all the coal and oil and natural gas that humans have burned in the past 150 years were put into one giant pile. How big would that pile be?
I found several credible estimates that we have burned between 1 and 1.5 trillion barrels of oil since the beginning of the oil era. That's between 40 and 60 trillion gallons of oil, or a big puddle of oil about half the size and depth of Lake Erie.
We have also burned approximately 300 billion metric tonnes of coal, which would be like stacking 60,000 of the Great Pyramids in Egypt into a mountainous heap.
As for natural gas, we have burned over 135 billion cubic meters of gas, or enough to fill a tank that is 32 times the size of the Grand Canyon. [Source: theguardian.com]
And then add in a big pile of trees from the millions of square kilometers of rainforest that have been cut since 1900.
Put all that oil, coal, gas and wood into a big pile. And light it. Boom!
This would be a conflagration of biblical proportions! A global disaster like no one could even imagine. It would be like dozens of volcanoes the size of Mount St. Helens, Krakatoa and Vesuvius exploding at once. Like a million BP Gulf of Mexico oil spills all burning out of control at once.
People would panic: “We are destroying our planet!!!” Stock markets would crash.
As it burned (it wouldn’t burn all at once, but would probably take years to burn), where would all the carbon dioxide (CO2) go?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the CO2 has nowhere to go. It would stay in our atmosphere and accumulate. Just like it has been doing for over 150 years. Almost half would be absorbed by the ocean, making it more acidic. And the rest would stay in our atmosphere for hundreds if not thousands of years.
This is exactly what has been happening, but it is far less obvious and less scary when we burn the same amount of fossil fuel one trip to the grocery store at a time, or by flipping the light switch, billions of times for over 100 years.
Like A Canning Jar
Our planet is like a giant, sealed canning jar floating in space. It doesn’t matter if we burn some fossil fuels every year in different places spread around the globe for over a century, or if we burn it all in one place at one time.
While the smoke and ash from 150 years of combustion has dispersed and settled, the CO2 has not. The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has increased from about 290 parts per million in 1900 to over 400 parts per million today, a 38% increase! At the same time, the amount of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere has more than doubled.
All that CO2 and methane traps the heat from the sun more efficiently because of the physics of radiation and reflection. (That takes a bit of science to understand, but the effect is very much like a greenhouse.) Solar radiation comes in, but the infrared radiation has a harder time reflecting out.
So the atmosphere warms up. When it does, we get bigger and more powerful storms (like a pot of water starting to boil). More extreme weather of all types as global circulation patterns are amplified. Forest fires rage. Ice caps and glaciers melt. Sea levels rise. Species die, or invade new territories. Bugs and diseases spread to new places.
Yes, some of the additional CO2 will be taken up by new plants or algae each year, but not nearly enough. The only thing we can do to stop the rapid accumulation is to stop burning fossil fuels that emit CO2. Even if we reduce the amount burned by as much as 25 or 50 percent, the frightening conflagration continues.
A Hoax? Why?
I can think of no reason to fabricate and sustain a hoax, to exaggerate the impacts, or enact some nefarious anti-fossil fuel agenda. For what? To go back to the horse and buggy days?
No one wants this frightening scenario to be true. But it is. And it isn't much fun fighting the status quo in order to reorient our economy away from fossil fuels. But we must.
The good news is we can re-engineer our economy without compromising our values and our standard of living. We can prosper from investments in clean, renewable energy technologies, and benefit from lower levels of air pollution overall.
The Paris Agreement is a great start. Over 190 countries have committed to aggressive action, and sent a clear signal to the markets that our global energy economy is going to change significantly in the next 20 to 50 years. And most countries are taking this all very seriously. So should we. Let's go!
Sadly, it is already too late to go back to an unimpacted climate scenario, so we need to get busy fast, or things will get way worse. There is no time to lose.