Family Planning Global Climate Change Population

Cool Off the Planet

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Writing last month’s article depressed me. The article predicted run-away global warming within this century.
This series on global warming is long overdue. The vast subject is crucial because climate change will affect our progeny so severely. The ultimate cause of global warming is our outsized population and extravagant use of fossil fuels.
The first article defined positive feedback loops—which have very negative effects. The second was about the problem itself, and this one offers suggestions to slow greenhouse gas emissions—the problem’s cause.
Certain common gases in the atmosphere (especially carbon dioxide and methane) hold in the sun’s heat. Global warming is caused by unprecedented rises in the concentrations of these gases.
This article is easier to write because of a book that contains much more information than I could put in 750 words. You Can Prevent Global Warming (and Save Money): 51 Easy Ways is brief and to the point. Not all 51 ways will apply to every reader, of course, but this $11 investment will pay for itself many times over. The authors claim one can save over $2000 the first year by just following the easy tips!
You can buy a copy from Maria’s Bookshop, 960 Main, Durango. The Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio public libraries also have copies.
Unfortunately, the book has two shortcomings. I’ll criticize them at this article’s end.
The book starts with my favorite way to save electricity (and thus decrease CO2 emissions). Compact fluorescent bulbs use only a quarter of the energy of the more common incandescent bulbs, and last many times longer. That also saves money, of course. Since CO2 is released when most electricity is generated, CFs prevent huge quantities of the greenhouse gas CO2 from being added to the atmosphere. These bulbs are smaller and cheaper than just three years ago when the book was written. There is almost no reason not to use them to replace the old-fashioned energy hogs.
It also soundly trounces my pet peeve—oversized, inefficient vehicles needed to bolster an undersized ego, rather than required for utility. To accentuate the positive, however, this book includes the advantages of high-mileage vehicles, public transportation, biking (including information about electric bikes) and walking.
In addition to the 51 tips, the book includes basic information about greenhouse gases and global climate change. There are also Internet references for those who want more information.
The two shortcomings of You Can Prevent Global Warming are major. The book includes 51 ways to decrease emissions of CO2 and methane. However, it does not compare the end result (even if you followed all the tips) with the goal—actually stopping global warming. It does state that the aim of the Kyoto Accord would be reached if just a third of all people in the USA followed the 51 tips.
The other obvious failing of this book is that it never looks at the effects of human numbers. We could live our accustomed profligate lives with much less effect on the environment, and little risk of changing the climate, if the population of the USA were just 100 million rather than 300 million. Choosing to have a small family, or no children at all, is still the most important step we can take to slow climate change.
If you haven’t seen “An Inconvenient Truth”, you must. It is an amazingly persuasive and accurate film, seeking to convince unbelieving U.S. citizens that global warming is a titanic problem. Stay to the end, because the closing lists some of the steps that an individual can take to slow greenhouse emissions. It also refers you to its website
We are in for a hell of a future if global warming is as bad as scientists forecast. The planet will be hotter, drier and less productive. For every degree Celsius the temperature increases, grain output on the planet will decrease 10%, leading to massive famines. Moreover, the fossil fuels that have been our virtual slaves for the past two centuries will become scarce. Their byproducts (carbon dioxide, mercury and others) will linger for centuries, thus changing the world that we leave our grandchildren.
Watch Al Gore’s movie and read You Can Prevent Global Warming to learn actions you can take to minimize the problem—and save money. Next month’s article will focus on ways some communities are already using to combat global warming.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2006

Environment Global Climate Change Population

Sweat Over Global Warming

“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.”
– Robert Frost

Last month I wrote about positive feedback loops. Another name for these loops is “vicious circles”. Their end result is often very destructive since a positive feedback loop can run out of control quickly.
An example of a positive feedback loop we all know is a sound system that squeals when the volume is turned up too high. Another example is what is happening to the ice pack in Greenland and to many glaciers. Being light in color, snow and ice reflect most of the sun’s warmth. As the climate heats up, snow and ice melt exposing rock and soil underneath. Because of the darker color, they absorb more of the solar radiation which heats them up more, and so on.
In last month’s article I described six other positive feedback loops that all work to increase the planet’s temperature. Several involve the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane. The sky-rocketing level of CO2 is the result of human activity—from our profuse use of fossil fuels.
Thanks to careful monitoring since 1958, we know that the CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 315 parts per million (ppm) to 380. The rate of increase of CO2 is even faster now than back in the 1950s. Furthermore, historic levels are significantly higher than any for the prior 650,000 years! How can we determine CO2 in the atmosphere from so long ago? Scientists measured the gas content of bubbles in Antarctic ice going back that far. Methane, 24 times as powerful in keeping in the sun’s heat, is also rising dramatically.
The planet’s temperature back in prehistory has also been estimated using isotopes of oxygen. If you compare a graph of those temperatures and a graph of CO2 concentrations, there is a strong correlation. It seems that the planet gets a fever whenever the CO2 level goes up! The greenhouse effect of CO2 (and methane) is the cause of this temperature rise.
Our time in the history of the earth is without precedent so no one can predict with certainty what the future will hold. Although our species has been around for a hundred thousand years, we have only been using fossil fuels in a big way for about 250 years. Never before has humanity faced the possibility that it has changed the planet’s climate so radically.
Some predictions made by scientists are frightening. One model suggests that the climate will change even more drastically when atmospheric CO2 reaches 500 ppm. At the current rate of increase this will happen before the year 2100. Negative feedback systems now functioning limit warming. For example, as trees burn and release CO2, the smoke shades and decreases heat absorption. At 500 ppm those systems will be totally overwhelmed and the temperature will rise even more rapidly. Quite simply, we will bake. The world as we know it will no longer exist.
The prospect in the short run is also terrifying. If the average temperature rises just five degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit), most of the temperate parts of the planet will become desert. This might happen about 2050, according to preliminary information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Not only will the climate become hotter, precipitation will diminish through much of the world. The subarctic, currently too cold to grow much, will become the most productive area in this future. There will be much less agricultural land in this scenario, and the growing season will be short. The saddest part of this model is that this rise in temperature will prove fatal to many millions of people—perhaps even billions. They will starve to death.
Unless we change our course radically, the future looks frighteningly bleak. Fortunately I will be dead before the full consequences of global warming hit, but I cannot help but think of what will happen to my granddaughter—and millions of other youngsters. This calamity is largely a consequence of my generation and others of the 20th century. We reproduced faster than in any other era of human history. And we enjoyed the pleasures of fossil fuel to the hilt. Unfortunately it is not we who will suffer the consequences, but our offspring. Our iniquity will go beyond the third and fourth generations.
It may already be too late to prevent this climate hell, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Averting global climate change will be the subject of next month’s article.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2006