Global Warming for Dummies — Climate Change for Dummies

Burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas for our energy has increased levels of heat-absorbing gases, especially carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere. So, our planet has warmed over one degree Fahrenheit, and will continue to heat further and faster, as more of these gases build up.* Most climate scientists, including the National Academy of Sciences, agree this is what’s happening, and that something must be done soon to stop the heating, before climate change starts accelerating.

The heat doesn’t sound like much, but a little goes a long way towards changing climate. Scientists predict that our planet could heat up another 6 to 11 degrees by the end of this century, roughly the same DIFFERENCE in temperature that separates our climate from the last ice age, when 300-foot thick ice sheets covered the northern US.

Think of Earth as a big ball, covered with water and air. The sun heats up the water and air, and some heat becomes motion, moving the mix around the ball, just like heating moves water in a pot.

The long-term patterns of this heat and these movements are our climate, changing slowly enough over the eons so that most life can adapt to it. But add to this water-air mixture a sudden jolt of heat,* and the planetary water cycle speeds up, something scientists are seeing now.

This results in bigger and stronger storms and floods. The extra heat also creates more extreme heat waves, droughts, and melts ice globally, which raises sea levels. 

All this is threatening our sources of food, water and shelter, the basics of our survival. Here’s a great summary, that also includes another side effect, ocean acidification, resulting from increased absorption of carbon dioxide. 

The good news is that we can stop too much harmful climate change if we act fast. We just have to stop emitting global warming gases.

The biggest way we can cut emissions is by creating sustainable human populations humanely – recognizing that we need to make responsible reproductive choices. Consider having one child (the personal choice I’ve made) or a child-free life.  Without doing this, none of the other solutions will really work: our growing populations fuel energy demand and strain resources needed for the other solution avenues.

Those other solution avenues are:

  • using energy more efficiently;
  • switching from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy — like solar, wind, and geothermal energy;
  • stopping deforestation
  • divesting from fossil fuels

We can do all this, and doing so would create more jobs and improve our economy, as other countries have already shown.

Changing energy sources won’t be easy or cheap politically. But it’s cheaper economically than what we’re doing now. We’ve spent trillions defending foreign oil sources. Furthermore, fossil fuel pollution and mining inflict heavy damage on human health and our environment.  So, even if climate change wasn’t happening, it pays for us to switch to clean renewable energy anyway.

How do we solve this?  MOVE THE MONEY. Our government must stop supporting fossil fuels and tax breaks for the rich, and start creating tax breaks for clean energy and energy efficiency in the marketplace.  But fossil fuel lobbyists are strong and influential.  So, it’s up to you, the voters, to elect strong leaders who are going to pull the plug on fossil fuels, and promote clean renewable energy and efficiency, as fast as possible. DITV – Divest, Invest, Talk about it, and Vote.

It’s all about our economy, our future.   

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You can help the planet by making this go viral — please spread it far and wide!

Another way to help? I  started a Clean Energy Voting pledge online, to let Congress know many voters are monitoring their action on climate change. When we can show Congress that a large voting bloc considers this an important issue, Congress will act seriously on it. You can pledge here:
http://signon.org/sign/we-are-the-clean-99?source=c.em.cp&r_by=487176
Please help make THIS go viral, too — spread it far and wide! Thanks!

 *    *    *    *     *

*SOME BASIC SCIENCE:

for a summary of the science behind climate change that uses the simple analogy of boiling water, see my posting: Climate Change for Dummies: Go Boil Water at the HuffingtonPost

Why do some gases absorb more heat than others?

 All gases can absorb heat, but some absorb more than others. Why? Different gases are made up of molecules of varying complexity. Since the building blocks of molecules are atoms, the more atoms in the molecule, the more complex it is.  More complex molecules can hold, or absorb, more heat than simpler ones, just like larger houses can hold more heat than smaller ones.  So, the more heat-absorbing gases in the atmosphere are ones that have more than 2 atoms (#)  in them – carbon dioxide (3), water vapor (3), methane (4), nitrous oxide (3), and so on. Lucky for life on Earth, there are relatively small amounts of these more complex molecules in the atmosphere.

Large amounts of simpler molecules make up the bulk of our atmosphere:

Nitrogen (2) makes up about 78 percent,

Oxygen (2) makes up about 21 percent

Yeah, that’s right!!  All those bothersome, heat-absorbing, so-called greenhouse gases that are creating climate change make up only about 1 percent of our atmosphere, but boy are they potent, especially in terms of the climate change they can affect when their levels are changed!

Physical and Ecological Feedbacks Mostly Speed Up Global Warming

Relatively little global warming is caused directly from the heat trapped by the gases emitted from burning fossil fuels — it is what comes next that really creates an ultimately unsafe situation. The initial warming creates physical and ecological effects that usually, in turn, speed up global warming and reinforce themselves. These reinforcing processes are known as positive (as in reinforcing) feedbacks. Remember, all an effect needs to do is to cause a further increase in heat absorption or in atmospheric greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, which, in turn, reinforce that effect, for it to be a positive feedback.

Physical effects include decreasing the ability of the planet’s surface to reflect light and heat. When the warming causes ice to melt, for example, the lighter surface of ice is replaced by the much darker surface of water and soil, decreasing its reflective ability, or albedo. This new surface will absorb more heat, causing adjacent areas to melt faster. And so, the albedo effect reinforces itself as it adds to global warming by absorbing more heat.

Warming in the Arctic melts frozen methane deposits in the soils, lake beds, and sea beds. Once melted, the methane rises into the atmosphere, significantly adding to the global warming effect that will help melt more methane deposits. There is a huge amount of methane stored in these Arctic deposits.

Ecological feedback effects occur because many ecosystems store carbon, keeping it from becoming greenhouse gases. Huge amounts of carbon are stored soil and in forest trees, for example. As soils warm, soil microbes start releasing the carbon as carbon dioxide. Global warming also results in warmer drier seasons and more extreme droughts. These create longer fire seasons, increasing the frequency and size of wildfires, which release large amounts of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide.

These are just some examples of physical and ecological feedbacks, the overwhelming majority of which are positive feedbacks that result in further warming of the planet and further climate change. There are plenty more.

About that “Sudden” Jolt of Heat

 “Sudden” is a relative term in time, of course.  What’s sudden for the planet can be nonexistent for us, who usually live less than a century.  The planet as a whole usually changes so slowly that to see its changes, we have to look at the history of how it changes geologically (like how mountain ranges form or continents drift) over millions of years, or how it evolves biologically over the same time scale.   Most atmospheric changes on the planet have happened slowly, over thousands of years.  The rate at which we are changing the atmosphere is SO fast on that timescale, however, that it constitutes a veritable explosion. So, jolt is actually a pretty conservative term.

Although the total average increase in temperature is small so far, this constant infusion of extra heat represents an energy inbalance in our planetary system, points out NASA climate scientist Pushker Kharecha.  “No question about it, it’s a lot of energy,” says senior climate scientist Warren Washingtion at the National Center on Atmospheric Research.  Just how much?  250-500 million Megawatts of energy. It’s like having up to half a million EXTRA, large coal burning plants on Earth. Yeah, a half million….

Sources:

1. Cool The Earth, Save the Economy: Solving Climate Change Is EASY , a free, downloadable book available at: www.CoolTheEarth.US . Readable, and comprehensive, with lots more information and detail, accrued from hundreds of reports, peer-reviewed scientific studies, and informative articles, listed in the Bibliography. Published in 2008 by an award-winning environmental scientist and a biologist (that’s me), online only. Although the sections on technological advances are already outdated, the relevancy of the bulk of it is pretty much unchanged. Am still trying to work on an updated edition.

2.  250-500 Million MW of Extra Energy Now Roiling the Earth’s Climate System

Posted: 29 Jul 2011 09:30 AM PDT.  As extreme weather events multiply, scientists are still in the early stages of understanding how more energy is influencing complex weather phenomena.  By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

3. Wikipedia, Composition of the Atmosphere:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmosphere_of_Earth

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About melharte

Mel (Mary Ellen) Harte is a biologist (PhD) and climate change educator. She co-authored the free online book, COOL THE EARTH, SAVE THE ECONOMY, available at www.CoolTheEarth.US, and writes the CLIMATE CHANGE THIS WEEK column at the HuffingtonPost. Living summers in the alpine Rockies, she is on the frontlines of watching what climate change can do. Her diagnostic digital photographs of wildflowers have appeared in numerous publications.
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5 Responses to Global Warming for Dummies — Climate Change for Dummies

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    • melharte says:

      Thanks! You can help the planet by making this go viral — please spread it far and wide!

      Another way to help? I started a Clean Energy Voting pledge online, to let Congress know many voters are monitoring their action on climate change. When we can show Congress that a large voting bloc consider this an important voting issue, Congress will act seriously on it. You can pledge here:
      http://signon.org/sign/we-are-the-clean-99?source=c.em.cp&r_by=487176
      Please help make THIS go viral, too! Please spread it far and wide!

  4. Steven Falk says:

    This clear and understandable information helps me feel charged to spread the word. Sure I have known ‘we’ are warming – who can stop that – our corporate governments can’t stop themselves – yet the WE ARE THE CLEAN AIR-99 can make a difference. Let’s all do it.

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