When I travel, having the comfort of being offline, I bring myself up-to-date by reading the newspapers and magazines available in most airplanes. Over a flight from Stockholm to Zurich this afternoon, I have been reading Financial Times, The Economist and a couple of Swedish newspapers about the COP21 negotiations in Paris this week. Reading the newspapers, I cannot help but think that the journalists are missing a major point. They are missing the irreversible gravity of the current situation. Consequently I spent the second half of my flight to write this blog article.
The Story of Earth
We humans have an almost predestined capacity for failing to do what we know in our hearts we need to do. As Ibsen’s literary character Peer Gynt said: “To think it, wish it, even want it – but do it! No, that I cannot understand.” To understand what really is at stake, lets think things through, starting by the origin of our solar systems known history.
The Earth is estimated to be 4.543 billion years old, formed out of the gas clouds surrounding the nascent Sun. Quite quickly as the surface cooled down, as if by miracle, early forms of life was formed. Remains of biotic life have been found in 4.1 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia.
Then through four billion years of evolution, Earth developed into the “blue and green planet” we inhabit today. The contemporary Earth is a paradise for our human bodies and biology, not surprising as we have ascended through evolution.
Now dear reader, imagine we go on a journey in space. Imagine we land on a strange planet with a surface of water, as the human explorers do in the movie “Interstellar”.
Our landing site is one of the many volcanic islands dotting an ocean covering the surface of the planet. Maybe it is dry-land, maybe shallow-water as in the movie. The light in the sky is dim, with 20 percent less starlight than we are used to, and there is a single, very large moon in the sky. The planet spins fast so the day is short, less than 15 hours. In the dark, we can see comets in the sky, along with numerous meteorites falling towards the planet.
In the dim light, you step onto the barren landscape. You are sealed in a space suit, because the dense outside atmosphere would suffocate you quickly, as it is composed mostly of nitrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2), but almost devoid of breathable oxygen. As you step out, you notice that the day is very hot, more than 49° C.
Then in the far distance you notice a huge, menacing tidal wave coming towards you… You start to run in the shallow water, but will you make it back to the spaceship in time?
Welcome to the Earth of four billion years ago. This was a time when continents were forming, the sun was dimmer than today, the moon was closer, and the earth was spinning faster.
On the early Earth, there was almost no free oxygen in the atmosphere, and an immense volume of the greenhouse gas CO2 kept the planet much warmer than it is today.
This is the environment in which life originated on our planet. Since then, both plant life and animal life developed in an ever faster spinning evolution. By now in our Julian calendar year 2015, more than 99 percent of all species, amounting to over five billion species, that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct.
This uninhabitable, barren Earth of four billion years ago looked like the Earth will look very soon again in our future, by our own doing, unless we can slow down global warming, emission of CO2 and pollution.
Unlike the movie Interstellar, this is not science fiction. This is what we are irrevocably doing to our children, and all other life on Earth.
The Mechanisms of Inevitable Climate Change
It is up to us, the immature, often aggressively selfish humans of today, if we are going to leave a living planet to our children, or if the next few generations will be the last humans living on Earth. We have a choice and it is probably not yet too late.
We have all read the alarms in media in the recent 20 years, the general consensus of the scientific community is that the earth’s surface is warming. The first time I heard this was in an excellent Discovery Channel documentary in the early 1990s titled “Can Polar Bears Thread Water”. As so often story telling brings understanding and is easy to remember, and sadly for the polar bears, I learned that they cannot.
It may seem improbable that a shift of a few degrees in temperature could have a large effect, but even a seemingly small shift in the average temperature of a system as vast as the entire surface of the planet, sustained over a number of years, can cause a dramatic change in the way the oceans, land, and atmosphere transfer heat.
This transfer of heat is one of the primary dynamics of the Earth’s climatic system, and it drives such phenomena as precipitation, ocean currents, and storms. The transfer of heat begins when sunlight, a form of electromagnetic energy, reaches molecules that make up the atmosphere. Particles in the upper atmosphere reflect a small amount of this energy off into space. Most of the sunlight, however, becomes heat energy, warming the earth and the atmosphere.
When the global temperature is stable, the atmosphere eventually transfers all this energy back into space. If it did not, the total amount of heat on the Earth’s surface would constantly be increasing.
Because of the many layers of water vapour and other molecules present in the atmosphere, the heat is transferred out through the upper atmosphere slowly. Even when global temperature is stable, the lag in heat transfer raises the total amount of heat present on the Earth’s surface at any given time.
Recently while working on a a project in Uppsala in Sweden, I learned that the Swedish, Uppsala University based scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896 was first to describe this natural process, called the greenhouse effect. In fact, Arrhenius estimated that the natural greenhouse effect of the atmosphere was responsible for the average global temperature being favourable to life. Without it the planet would be about 33° C colder and probably devoid of all living things.
Therefore, the issue is not whether there is a greenhouse effect, but rather to what extent human activities are adding to the natural level of warming, whether it is already possible to see the change caused by increases in gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect, and what the potential implications are for human society and life on Earth.
Contaminants pouring from industrial smokestacks contribute to the Earth´s atmospheric pollution. Some of these contaminants, such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, are greenhouse gases. Once in the atmosphere, these gases act to retain the heat emitted by Earth, causing the the greenhouse effect.
Change will Continue Through this Century and Beyond
Much damage is already done and cannot be undone. Various greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for different amounts of time before breaking down. I remember from chemistry classes that methane has a life span of about a decade, N2O stays in the air for more than 100 years, and CO2 remains for up to 200 years. Herein lies the problem.
Of all the greenhouse gases, CO2 is the most important factor in global warming because of its relatively long life span and its prevalence both as a by-product of the fossil fuel combustion that powers modern industrial systems and as part of a natural cycle that can be pushed out of balance.
As early as a century ago, the Uppsala scientist Arrhenius was concerned that the burning of coal, oil, and gas was intensifying the greenhouse effect by increasing the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere. Coal, oil, and gas are all fossil fuels, geologically stored remnants of past organic processes. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most common gas produced in fossil fuel combustion.
Despite use of nuclear energy, geothermal power, wind power and solar energy, the single greatest energy source for human activities remains fossil fuel, especially in the emerging and frontier economies, such as China, Brazil, India and high-growth African countries. It follows that as industrialisation progresses in these large and often densely populated developing areas of the world, it will become increasingly difficult just to keep global carbon dioxide emissions at current levels, let alone to decrease total yearly emissions. In fact, by the rapid re-distribution of both population and economic growth and ascending living standards in the developing economies, the challenge of CO2 emission is exploding.
The total amount of heat in the climate system is a critical factor in how the system operates and hence the widespread concern about the possibility of increasing the heat load of the planet. Such an increase could alter complicated climatic patterns in unforeseen ways, and many scientists and meteorologists think we already notice this through a higher degree of improbable weather events, such as hurricanes, storms, tsunamis, droughts and other nasties.
Not only will global warming bring warmer temperatures, chaotic weather, higher sea levels, droughts and barren landscapes (reflect on the farm in the previously referenced movie “Interstellar”). Its clear by logic that perhaps the greatest of all negative consequences of global warming will be the effect on biological diversity (the variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms with which we human beings share the planet).
A myriad of consequences could result from global warming due to changes in the onset of events such as snow melt, timings of flowering, or the arrival of food sources for migratory animals. For instance, an early snow melt might mean insufficient water for the voyage to the sea of spawning salmon in the Nordic fjords. If growing seasons change, a plant may flower before many of its pollinators arrive. Similarly, climate changes could cause migrating coast-based birds to arrive in the bays before crabs and crawfish which they feed on move onto beaches in late spring to lay their eggs.
Any system, especially complex systems such as biological ecosystems, are very fragile and if we have learned anything by the history of life on Earth (as David Attenbourgh have told us in many excellent television series), it is that 99% of all species that ever have existed have already died out. Fragile systems cannot possibly take the chock of rapid change which we are putting the earth through now.
What can we do about it? Well, you and me, dear reader, not much individually, but by voting for politicians and supporting awareness, we can altogether do a lot. Role models like Bill Gates, Bono and others can do even more in leading the rest of us to accept the necessary changes and sometimes sacrifice which we have to do, and we must encourage them to keep on leading from the front. We must, to allow our children and their children to experience the paradise that is Earth as we do, and not leave them a barren landscape, similar to as it was before life, four billion years ago.
The world’s Governments have already committed to curbing burning of fossil fuels, but that does not mean the problem is solved. Commitments come cheap. The difficulty comes when you try to get 195 countries to agree on how to implement the decision and practically deal with the issue of reducing CO2 emissions.
Every year since 1992 the Conference of the Parties (COP) has taken place with negotiators trying to put together a practical plan of action. This year apparently there may be a deal, but there is no point to cheer until we know how credible implementation will take place. Yet then, we cannot get rid of the existing CO2 in the atmosphere for at least 200 years, so we may slow the climate change process, but we cannot stop it.