The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference is winding down in Paris this week. In one corner we’ve seen poorer, coastal and island nations begging the developed world for action in order to prevent the worst effects of human-caused global warming. In the other corner, we have wealthier nations, mostly in Western Europe, who not only recognize the urgency to act, but also the enormous opportunities that action will bring to their economies.
And then, we have the United States.
The science that explains why the planet has been getting warmer, and why we’re seeing changes in the planet’s climate system, is not difficult science. It takes a rudimentary knowledge of science, an ability to think critically, and a bit of common sense to understand the problems posed by climate change. Don’t believe me? Here is all you need to know:
- Burning increasing quantities of fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) over the past two centuries has produced increasing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, and;
- The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has been rising for decades, since;
- Earth is a closed system — what happens here stays here, so;
- CO2 in the atmosphere accumulates, trapping more heat on the planet (the greenhouse effect), therefore;
- The climate changes, because;
That explains a lot, doesn’t it? The details are not terribly complicated, either. Most of us learned about the greenhouse effect in elementary school and passed the test about the carbon cycle in middle school, so it’s not too difficult to grasp the fact that people, mostly by burning fossil fuels for energy, are adding CO2 to the atmosphere faster than it can be absorbed by oceans and forests (carbon “sinks”). We know this because CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased from 280 parts-per-million (PPM) 200 years ago to 400 ppm today. Human beings have seen relative warm and cold periods during this current interglacial period over the past 14,000 years, but no humans during this geologic period have ever seen CO2 levels this high. In fact, the last time the human species saw CO2 levels this high was… never. (The last time CO2 was 400 ppm was 3 million years ago — when people were merely a twinkle in God’s eye.)
So the real story about global warming and climate change revolves around carbon dioxide and about how human activity has pushed more of it into the atmosphere than ever before. But CO2, while the most important, isn’t the only greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Methane is 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. As frozen polar regions warm, thawing permafrost releases enormous quantities of methane. As we pursue the new gold rush of natural gas development all around the world, including in Pennsylvania (the Marcellus Shale region has the largest natural gas reserves of all known shale formations currently being developed), methane escapes into the atmosphere through leaks, venting, and flaring throughout the operation, adding to the total. Finally, warmer air holds more water vapor, which also acts as a greenhouse gas. It’s easy to see how small changes in the composition of our atmosphere (CO2 represents only 0.04% of the air we breathe) can lead to a cascade of positive feedbacks which amplify global warming, causing the climate to change.
Earth’s climate has changed many, many times in its 3-plus-billion-year history. Icecaps and glaciers have come and gone and come again. CO2 fluctuated as volcanoes roared to life before becoming quiescent again. Once there were dinosaurs, then there were none. This is part of Earth’s history — long, long before mankind hit the scene.
Human history has been recorded within a narrow timeframe of this planet’s history — the blink of an eye, a drop in the bucket. Ocean life exists within a narrow pH band. Humans exist within a narrow temperature range, perhaps a bit wider than other animal and plant species because of our ability to fashion clothes, build shelters, and burn carbon. And the climate as we’ve known it — relatively stable for the past 14,000 years — exists within a narrow range of atmospheric nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide that we call “normal.”
The rise of CO2 in the atmosphere should be as surprising as 1 + 1 equalling 2. The climate changing as a result of this rise in CO2 should surprise no one with a high school diploma and a subscription to the Weather Channel. Sea levels rising because of melting glaciers and sea ice, but more because of the simple fact that warmer water expands, should be evident to anyone who remembers the basic principles taught in high school physics.
This isn’t complicated; it’s simple kid stuff. We all learned the basic chemistry, physics, math, and biology that forms our understanding of climate change once before. If you are reading to the end of this blog post, I think it’s safe to assume you passed these basic courses!
So while the rest of the world seems to get it, what’s wrong with us in the United States? We seem to have our heads in the sand when it comes to grasping these basic concepts. Why can’t we in this country see climate change — which is the result of global warming, which is due to an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is brought about predominantly by the modern human activity of burning fossil fuels for energy — for what scientists are telling us it is: a planetary emergency?
It turns out most of us actually do understand after all. Aside from a few misguided, misinformed, and mistaken individuals with political axes to grind and serious money to amass, most people in the U.S. are ready for an energy revolution to solve the problem of climate change. Apparently, we’re eager for the new jobs, a more secure nation, a cleaner environment, and better health that this new opportunity promises to bring.
As we’ll see later this week on The PediaBlog, Americans aren’t waiting around for politicians with fossilized ideologies to do something about climate change. The question is not whether climate change is happening (it is), or whether or not we should do something about it (we should). Instead the question that needs to be answered is: Will the actions we are taking be enough, or will they be too little too late?