There’s a certain rule in the scientific community—that talking about how something doesn’t work is boring, and it’s much more worth one’s time to just come out and say how it works.
But we’ve already done that a hundred times over with global warming, and still, people doubt the facts. Well, I’m going to give my fellow scientists a bit of a leg-up in the debate: I’m going to prove a negative.
I’m going to prove that global warming can’t not be happening.
And I’m going to do that by studying real data and examining real scientific papers. I’m going to boil it all down to a series of simple posts. Simple enough that you don’t have to be a scientist to follow along, I promise.
Before we begin, I feel you should know that I am by no means an expert on this subject. I’m a college student majoring in English and Astronomy, not in any sort of environmental science. But I’m doing my best to learn!
Without further ado…a short introduction to the science behind global warming!
The Greenhouse Effect
The most important term you’ll ever hear regarding global warming is the greenhouse effect. It is, quite simply, the reason why we little people on our great blue planet don’t freeze to death.
It’s also the reason why our planet and everything on it is burning up.
Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s a slow process, and we haven’t reached record temperature highs yet. What we have reached are record atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.
In simplistic terms: the molecule that we breathe out, which efficiently overproduced by burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) in industrial practices, is getting stuck in our atmosphere. In increasingly higher amounts.
Why is this a problem? Because carbon dioxide holds in heat.
For an example of a greenhouse effect gone wrong, one must only turn to Venus. Our twin planet is a twin in every way except for its atmosphere. It has what we call a “runaway” greenhouse effect. The planet’s surface is hot enough to melt lead.
Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas. But I’ll talk about that in depth in a later post.
If the greenhouse effect is an agent of homeostasis that we have essentially turned against ourselves, then the effects we together call orbital forcing are responsible for natural cycles in climate.
There are three parts of orbital forcing: obliquity, precession, and eccentricity. I will be covering all three in depth in later posts.
Obliquity refers to the tilt of the Earth’s axis. We don’t sit exactly perpendicular to our orbit. Our whole planet is tilted a little. Think of its axis as like the axle of a wheel, and we spin on it as we rotate. That axle is tilted about 23.5 degrees to the side.
But it doesn’t always stay that way—the angle of the tilt changes a bit over time. That affects how the sun’s rays hit Earth’s surface in any given region of the world.
Precession is related to obliquity. The Earth wobbles on its axis like a top. That means that Polaris, the star the north pole is pointing toward, won’t always be our north star. Our north star used to be Thuban, and in about 12,000 years it will be Vega.
This also affects how much sun exposure different regions of Earth’s surface get.
And finally, there’s eccentricity. Earth orbits the sun in a near-circle. I say a near circle because it’s actually an ellipse. We swing a bit closer to the sun during June, and a bit farther out during December. This controls the seasons.
But the shape of Earth’s orbit changes over time, so the intensity of temperatures in the seasons also change.
So yes. Global warming and climate change are two different things. Climate change is a neutral term. Our climate has always changed, but that term doesn’t specify if that change is good or bad.
Global warming, on the other hand, isn’t supposed to be happening.
Misconceptions Surrounding Climate Change
The climate has changed before. So what if it’s changing now?
Well…right now, we’re seeing trends that are a bit more worrisome than what the climate has done for hundreds of thousands of years.
See, the climate has always fluctuated neatly between ice ages and hot spells. Right now, it’s safe to assume we’re in a hot spell, right?
We’re supposed to be coming out of one, not heading into one.
We know that the climate has heated up before. We also know it has cooled before. We have even seen a decrease in temperature like the current increase before.
So what’s so bad this time?
When the climate cooled before, it was gradual—a steady five-degree drop in average temperatures over time. There were still worldwide ramifications. I won’t be going into depth about that in this post, but for now, know that sea levels fell noticeably and ice sheets expanded greatly.
If the changes were that noticeable, then it’s safe to assume that if the same change in temperature occurred suddenly—which is happening now—there would be equally noticeable changes. The problem is, the planet isn’t used to fast climate changes.
And scientists have no precedent for what we should prepare for.
We’re seeing some changes already. Sea levels are rising, and Florida is predicted—by some models—to sink halfway underwater. Tropical areas are already seeing disastrous storms as a result of more energy—from added heat—entering the climate system. And most dramatically, the Antarctic ice sheet is melting.
Well, parts of it. The northern ice cap, Greenland, and west Antarctica. Those regions are now beyond recovery.
They’re shrinking away, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
So why try?
Because the Antarctic ice sheet is only the beginning. It’s a symptom of a larger problem. And all of our children and grandchildren are going to have to get used to living in a warmer world.
A world where hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons, and other destructive storms are trapped in one place and allowed to ravage their cages, instead of moving on.
Other consequences include threats to agriculture as droughts become more common, reduced snowcaps, movement of diseases, changes in the nutrition of certain meats, and even ocean acidification.
I don’t know about you, but I would never wish that on my descendants.
Solutions to Global Warming
Unfortunately, global warming has no “stop” button. I wish it did. Maybe it would have been that easy if we’d nipped it at the bud, but…too late for that.
Instead, change is going to have to happen slowly. We all need to get together in our efforts to reduce the greenhouse effect. We need to stop burning fossil fuels and move toward cleaner forms of energy. Like wind power, solar power, and water power.
Our motor vehicles are the most guilty culprits of contributing to the greenhouse effect. Okay, so the fossil fuel-based industry is to blame. But cars, airplanes, motorcycles, etc. produce tons of exhaust all the time.
And that’s something we can change without changing business regulations.
Bike to work. Carpool, so there are fewer cars on the road. Walk, if your destination is close enough. And I hope that one day, we’ll finally make the policy changes necessary to put electric cars on the road.
There’s even a possibility of putting electric planes in the air—if engineers can figure out how to build them.
You can install solar panels on your roof—my parents did that. In the summertime, we now produce more energy than we buy, and we sometimes get paid for it!
In short, there’s no reason to despair. There are ways to save our world for our children and grandchildren. And if you need some more evidence that there’s a threat in the first place, just stick around for more of these posts—I promise you, I’ll show you some! I’ll be publishing one every other Thursday.
Or, if you’re just here to learn how global warming works, that’s just as good. Welcome aboard!