Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Back to Balance

Today is Tuesday, April 23, 2013.  

The other day I watched a film event online called DO THE MATH, sponsored by 350.org.  It was a very powerful film.

Bill McKibben, one of the founders of 350.org, is an author, educator and environmentalist.  His book, The End of Nature, published in 1989, was the first book to explain climate change to a general audience.  It's too late to stop global warming, says McKibben, but we can still take action to stop it from becoming a global calamity. In order to do this, the people have to take on the fossil fuel industry directly.  This is going to be hard.  It's going to be uncomfortable.  As with all major changes, it's going to result in chaos before order is restored. That's change for you.

So what's the significance of the number 350?  Back in 1978, Dr. James Hansen, a physicist who is also trained in astronomy, began to study the planet Venus, a planet with carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfuric acid in its atmosphere.  As almost everybody knows by now, that planet is incredibly hot.  It's temperature is that of molten lead.  He began to study the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  

Ten years later, in 1988, Dr. Hansen testified before the Senate that he was 99% sure that earth was being overheated by carbon emissions from the human use of fossil fuels.  Attempts were made to alter his work or suppress it.  His opponents tried to stop him from accepting speaking engagements or TV and radio appearances.   The fossil fuel industry was responsible for some of this, but  most shockingly, the senior management at NASA, Hansen's own employer, were found to be involved.  When the Big Guns are trying to suppress something, it's pretty obvious that there is some truth going around that they don't want the people to hear.  

In 2009, Hansen published his first book, Storms of My Grandchildren, in which he explained how the burning of fossil fuels is changing our atmosphere and the acidity of our oceans.  One of the effects of this change is the mega-storms that we have already begun to experience, hence the title of the book. 

There are four so-called "greenhouse gases": carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and the halocarbons, or CFC's (gases containing fluorine, chlorine, and bromine).  Methane persists for around 12 years.  Nitrous oxide lasts a bit longer, around 114 years.  The halocarbons can last anywhere from a few months to thousands of years.  

The lifetime of CO2 is hardest to determine, because there are several processes by which it can be removed from the atmosphere.  65-80% of the carbon released into the atmosphere gets absorbed by the oceans over time, up to 200 years.  This carbon absorption causes acidification of the oceans, which poses a definite threat to food chains in the ocean.  The rest of the carbon is released by even slower natural processes that take several hundreds of thousands of years!  Millions of years ago, these natural processes helped to maintain earth's natural balance.   The polar ice caps, which trapped some of the carbon in ice, have contributed to the stabilization of the planet's atmosphere.

How do we know all this?  There are thousands of devices that measure temperature and acidity at different points in the oceans.  Satellites orbiting the earth measure the thickness of the polar ice caps and variables in the troposphere (upper atmosphere).  Polar ice core samples have been studied to reveal conditions on the planet year-by-year, going back nearly one million years.  From these ice core samples, scientists are able to extrapolate the climate, ocean temperature, vegetation on earth and amount of carbon in the atmosphere at any given time.

When there is a balance between the amount of heat we absorb from the sun and the amount of heat that escapes out into space, sea levels, ocean conditions, polar ice caps, and climates stabilize and become hospitable to life. The effect of carbon pollution caused by humankind is 10,000 times more powerful than the slow, natural cycles that have maintained earth's balance up to the present.  When there is too much carbon in the air, the phenomenon known as "global warming" occurs.

I need to stop here to explain that by "global warming," scientists do not mean that all of earth is going to become tropical.  When scientists speak of the temperature of the earth, they are talking about an average figure.  If you take the high and low temperatures for each day and add them up, then divide by 2, you will get an average for the day.  If you take all these daily averages for one year and add them up, then divide by 365, you get the average for the year.  If you take these averages and add them to the yearly averages of many points around the globe – arctic, temperate, tropical, and equatorial – then you get the global mean temperature for that year.  These temperatures are measured in degrees Celsius, which is confusing to Americans, who are still using the Fahrenheit scale.  Note that through it all the cold places remain cold and the hot places remain hot.  Just because it is snowing in April in South Dakota right now, that does not mean global warming is a myth.  If you think that, you don't understand global warming.

In only a few decades, the global mean temperature has gone up by 0.8˚C.  This is an increase of only about 1.44˚F.  You may think this is insignificant, but think about the human body for a moment.  The body temperature for a healthy male (females body temperature is not stable, even in healthy females, so we'll just use the guys for this example) is 98.6˚F.  Think about what happens when you have a temperature of 99˚F.   You feel a little sick, don't you?  If your temperature goes up to 100˚F you have a fever, and if it goes up to 101˚F you are considered to be very sick.  A rise in temperature of only six tenths of one degree is enough to make you feel sick, and a rise of only 2.6˚F is enough to make you seriously ill.  Now... what makes you think the earth is any different? 

When scientists began to notice this relatively rapid rise, they agreed that a rise in global mean temperature should not exceed 2˚C.   What if it rose by 4˚C?  It wouldn't change things much in the tropics, but the poles would be much warmer.  The polar ice caps are already melting.  This is causing global sea levels to rise.  The dark meltwater pools are absorbing warmth from the sun, which white ice would  have reflected back into space. Fresh water is flowing into the sea, changing ocean currents and the living conditions for marine organisms.  The polar ice cap has already shrunk to less than half the size, as measured in square kilometers, that it occupied 40 years ago.  That's a lot of melting!  An increase in global mean temperature of 4˚C or more would result in the melting of the ice caps altogether.

For 300,000 years before the Industrial Revolution, the maximum level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 ppm (parts per million), according to data from those core ice samples I spoke of earlier.  In 1957, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 315 ppm.  It has been rising at a rate of 2-3 ppm per year.  It was measured at 393 ppm in 2011.  Today it is 397.34.  You can keep track of this number here. If the carbon dioxide level should be allowed to rise to 450 ppm, the arctic ice caps will melt completely over time, causing destabilization to the planet's ecosystems, and threatening life on earth.  Keep in mind how long carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere.  Earth's systems would be in complete chaos for centuries, if not longer.  When the permafrost starts to melt, it releases methane gas, an even more powerful pollutant than CO2.  If this happens, global warming will be completely out of our control. We can already see evidence of this imbalance in the superstorms and the intense flooding or drought that have plagued us in the past few years.  The longer we allow carbon pollution to continue, the harder it will be for us to reverse the process of destabilization.

Dr. Hanson has estimated that the maximum safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 ppm, which is why organizations of environmental activists have latched onto this number. 

How can we reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air?  Already people are beginning to "go green."  They are re-using what they have, reducing their waste, insulating their homes, and driving more energy-efficient cars, and that's all to the good.  However, these things alone will not reduce the total amount of carbon emissions to any significant extent.  

We could use a rationing system for carbon emissions, but the public would never stand for it,  especially now, when many people are worried about the amount of government oversight into their private lives.  As well, it would be extremely difficult to legislate and enforce. Cap and Trade agreements are already in force, but they have not been to effective in reducing carbon emissions.  These agreements set a cap on the amount of carbon that can be emitted, and permits are sold to companies whose processes result in the emission of carbon.  The permits can then be traded.  The caps in place are too weak to be effective, because politicians cave in to the demands of Big Business, particularly Big Oil, and because the fossil fuel industry is opposed to paying increased taxes.  Remember, folks, these are companies that make billions of dollars in profits each year.  Moreover, Cap and Trade is complicated and expensive and bureaucratic, resulting in endless negotiations and expensive legal disputes.  Lobbying has resulted in all sorts of loopholes and exemptions, further weakening the original Cap and  Trade agreements.

Another method of reducing emissions that is being touted is called Fee and Dividend. A fee would be collected by an independent agency from all companies that emit carbon dioxide into the air.  This fee would be assessed based on the amount of carbon emissions for each company.  Then the amount collected would be divided by the number of adult citizens of the country and distributed to them as a monthly dividend payment.  This system is not being talked about much right now in the United States, but be on the lookout for it – or something similar – in the future.

We must do much more than simply reining in the fossil fuel industry in order to clean up our atmosphere.  We must completely replace fossil fuels with clean, environmentally safe sources of energy such as wind power, hydroelectric energy, and solar energy.   It will take a combination of all of these energy sources to succeed, and it will take a lot of people power.  350.org and other environmental groups such as Sierra Club will be working together to raise awareness and get more and more people on board.  

How will you help?  :-)

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