Before explaining the cause of climate change, and why climate change is so important, it is best to explain how – and why – the general public began looking at this global, and irreversible, problem from entirely the wrong perspective.
Someone, whose name I do not recall, said, “No problem can be effectively addressed until it is properly identified and climate change has not been properly identified.” I wonder if this person knows how right they were when they said that, or how tragic the results will be if we, all of us, don’t come to our senses and begin to see climate change for what it really is; a game changer.
This universal misunderstanding of climate change began with its misdiagnosis on one afternoon in August of 1988. That’s when Dr. James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, went before Congress and explained that the earth’s ambient temperature was slowly increasing. He also explained why it was increasing. The only way for him to do that was to explain climate change, which was called “global warming back then, using the same technique that was used to identify the problem in the first place. Hansen explained climate to Congress by using the “Long-term statistical analysis of climate data;” things like the variation in the severity and frequency of floods, droughts, storms and melting ice, etc.
Congress understood little of Hansen’s explanation, and did even less. The failure of the Federal Government to act was one of the reason’s that provoked Hansen to leave NASA and begin a crusade to explain climate change to the public. Unfortunately for us all, the only way Hansen knew how to explain what was happening was to use the same type of “statistical analysis of climate data” he used with Congress. For this reason it should be no surprise that, on those rare occasions when any of us do think about climate change, we think of it in the exact same way it was explained to us; in terms of floods, droughts, storms and melting ice. None of us are wrong to think about climate change in these terms. The problem is that the public has failed to appreciate that these events are just the Symptoms of climate, they are not the Cause of climate change.
CARBON CAUSES CLIMATE CHANGE. PERIOD
Everyone has heard the term climate change, or global warming, and most people understand the primary cause of climate change is increased emissions of carbon dioxide. What the public does not fully appreciate is that it is the carbon, or the “C”, in CO2, carbon dioxide, and the “C” in CH4, methane, that’s the problem. That’s because it is the carbon that traps the heat and holds it in the atmosphere thus warming the planet. The other gases in our atmosphere, oxygen, nitrogen and argon, do not trap the long wave thermal radiation and therefore do not warm the atmosphere or the planet. Scientists have calculated that if the earth’s atmosphere consisted of only oxygen, nitrogen and argon, and there was no carbon, the ambient temperature of the earth would be about 17° Fahrenheit. But there is carbon in the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Prior to the Industrial Revolution there was 280 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. That was just enough carbon to keep the earth at a comfortable 56° F. Carbon must be a powerful heat trapping agent if just 280 PPM are capable of raising the earth’s temperature from 17° F to 56° F. That is something the reader would do well to keep in mind since CO2 levels are now 411 PPM and the earth’s temperature has risen two degrees. Obviously the earth’s temperature will eventually get much hotter.
In order to fully understand the important role carbon plays in regulating the earth’s temperature, it is important to remember that the total number of carbon molecules on, in, and around the earth, is exactly the same today as it was when the earth was first formed. All that has changed is its location. It is the location of the carbon that determines the earth’s temperature. Carbon, in the form of both of carbon dioxide and methane – CO2 and CH4 – are the two biggest reasons why the earth is warming, but CO2 is the only one humans have any impact on.
Nature reduces the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Most of this carbon stays in the carbon cycle, but some of it becomes buried in the earth when living organisms die. There they are compressed over time, heated, and chemically changed until they become fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are carbon that has been taken out of the carbon cycle and sequestered in the earth’s lock-box in the form of fossil fuels. This essentially reduces the number of carbon molecules available to be in the carbon cycle, some of which are in the atmosphere. Reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere causes the temperature of the earth to decreases.
While there is only one way to get carbon out of the atmosphere, that’s photosynthesis, there are two ways for carbon to enter the atmosphere – and the carbon cycle. One way is by volcanic activity, and the other way is by us. We can take carbon out of the earth, combust it in order to use the free energy, and thus deposit the carbon back in the atmosphere. This called anthropocentric carbon dioxide. Eighty-five percent of the excess carbon now in the atmosphere has been put there by humans since the end of the Second World War. But what is even more disturbing is the fact that 50% of this excess carbon has been put in the atmosphere in just the last 30 years. It has been over thirty years since Dr. Hansen went to Congress and said wake up, the planet is getting hotter. This means that the Government knew about the problem but sill allowed 50% of the carbon to be released into the atmosphere since then. Why is climate change important you ask? Climate change is not that important. Plants and animals have adapted to the changing environment ever since there have been plants and animals. The problem is that mankind is putting the carbon back in the atmosphere at such an accelerated rate there will be no chance for plants, or animals, or us, to even begin to adapt.