Those who preach global warming and climate change relate these processes to the over-accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the earth’s atmosphere chiefly due to mankind’s burning of fossil fuels and various consequences thereof.
Climate change (global warming) is often explained by a metaphor: people explain that the layer of greenhouses gases (GHGs) that envelops the earth acts as a sort of blanket.
This blanket, it is suggested, governs the temperature of the earth (land and oceans). The more GHGs the higher the temperature.
This suggests, falsely, that if and when we stop adding to the GHGs then the earth’s temperature will stop increasing.
This metaphor and this conclusion are quite misleading. In fact, dangerously misleading. Because they make the need to cease accumulating and, indeed, to begin reducing, the earth’s layers of GHGs seem far less urgent than it in fact is.
Other Factors of Note
This essay is not about the entire theory of global warming/climate change. There are many factors to be concerned about besides the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere.
One may be concerned with the melting of Arctic and Greenland ice and of Antarctic ice. When (white) ice floating on water melts, it uncovers the (black) sea water below. Since white reflects sunlight and black absorbs it, the on-going melting of ice, especially floating Arctic sea ice, speeds up warming even if GHGs remained constant.
A similar concern is about the melting of frozen methane when permafrost and seabeds thaw due to warming. Methane is a much more potent GHG than CO2 and so the melting of frozen methane threatens to speed up global warming at an alarming rate.
I will mention the human over-population at the end of this essay. Let it suffice here to say that human over population will continue to contribute to GHG production and other causes of GW/CC (such as cutting of tropical forests) and will result also in horrible starvation and other problems if and when GW/CC causes disruptions and reductions in food production and distribution.
Nevertheless, though there are other things to be worried about, the increase in the GHG concentration in the atmosphere is my concern in the present essay.
A More Revealing Metaphor
A more realistic metaphor is to say that the GHGs act as a thermostat itself regulated by a constantly-running motor which raises or lowers the temperature called-for by the thermostat.
The more the GHGs, the faster the thermostatic motor runs upwards, constantly raising the temperature which the thermostat calls for.
If the layers of GHGs could be reduced, the motor on the thermostat would run in the other direction, and the thermostat would call for progressively cooler temperatures.
The heat which provides the earth’s temperature is supplied by the sun. The work of the thermostat is to govern how much of the heat thus provided to the earth by the sun is retained by the earth.
In the climate’s essentially steady temperature regime over thousands of recent years, the sun’s daily delivery of heat to the earth has been matched by an equivalent reflection or radiation of heat back into space. There’s been no net gain or loss of heat, day in and day out.
Now, however, with the enormous increase in GHGs in the atmosphere, the daily energy received has slightly exceeded the daily energy emitted, and the earth (land and oceans) has warmed. It has warmed a little bit only, but it has warmed that little bit every day. The temperature has been increasing enough to be measured. The temperature gain has been sufficient to cause many effects which are already apparent.
Warming Every Day, Rain or Shine
Global warming is a name for the fact that every day, more heat is being retained then ejected. Every day, the earth is warming.
And if we cut down the man-made production of GHGs to zero today, which we are of course very far from doing, the accumulated GHGs would assure that the earth would continue to warm, a little bit, every day.
Every day. Rain or shine,
There are natural processes for removing GHGs from the atmosphere, but they act very slowly. And mankind has put a lot of GHGs up there.
Suppose it would take 1000 years for natural processes to remove all the GHGs that mankind has sent into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution started. The earth will be quite a warm place by then.
Because the daily increment of heat (and thus of temperature) goes on every day.
But, of course, if we add to the GHGs, as we are doing, we increase the speed of the thermostat’s motor. The daily increase in retained heat is a bit more, the daily increment to earth’s temperature is a bit greater.
The Unmoving Thermostat of the Past
For thousands of years, the earth’s thermostat has been essentially set to a single point. The motor on the thermostat has not been active. The motor has not moved much and the thermostat, in consequence, has remained remarkably stable. The consequence for earth’s temperature is that most of the heat sent to earth by the sun every day has been reflected or radiated out into space and the temperature has therefore remained stable. The thermostat has called for a single average temperature over thousands of years.
Oh, yes, there’ve been variations–ice ages and so on–but the earth’s temperature has been kind to mankind and to other creatures (animals and plants) which need to live in a narrow range of temperatures. And when there’ve been variations of average temperatures, they’ve come along slowly enough that natural variation has allowed the creatures to adjust to the temperature changes before they became extinct.
The changes to the earth’s temperature regime is now moving so swiftly that the only creatures that will be able to adjust in the long run by mutation–to avoid extinction due to major temperature changes–will be whichever animals and plants are able to reproduce so rapidly (say, with life-cycles measured in days or weeks rather than in years) that mutation will offer a way to adjust as temperatures rise.
What Prudence Demands
Prudence demands three separate reactions to climate change.
Step One. We (mankind) must strive to reduce the emission of GHGs to slow the thermostat’s motor and to reduce the problem we face in step two.
Step Two. We must discover how to neutralize (remove from the atmosphere) the GHGs that are already in the atmosphere. We must be prepared to learn that neutralization will be much slower than we might hope. Hence the importance of Step One.
Step Three. We must make adjustments to provide for continuing human (and other) life during the time between today and the full neutralization of the GHGs.
The almost casual “what, me worry?” attitude of most major national governments until today suggests either total ignorance of the nature of global warming or else a fatalistic decision that nothing can be done.
Fourth Step. Yes, I said “three”, but there is one more thing to be done. To make the problems as small as possible, we should reduce the size of mankind–reduce the global human population–by as much as we can, say to 50% of today’s population. Because the process of neutralizing GHGs is likely to require the use of natural lands–unbuilt and presently non-agricultural lands–to serve as “engines” for neutralization, through the growth of new forests for example. And at present. our over-the-top human population is carrying us in the other direction, the direction of clearing the Amazonian forests and other forests in the pursuit of land for cattle raising and building-products, and both of these and other similar reasons all arise from over-population.
Peter Belmont lives in Brooklyn. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.