I find it difficult at times to get my mind around the scope or scale of global warming.
We speak about this issue as affecting the “planet” or the “atmosphere” or the “weather” or the “oceans” (plural) or the “permafrost” or the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic but, really, how massive does a phenomenon have to be, how much heat is required, to make a change in these huge things, and how can we understand it.
A friend recently offered the following, suggesting that the Bunsen burner was and is ubiquitous in high school chemistry labs, most people are familiar with it, and it might provide a useful way of looking at global warming.
Put a beaker of water (with a thermometer in it) over a Bunsen burner and wait a bit; the temperature begins to increase. Instead of a beaker, imagine a gallon container; it takes longer to heat the greater volume. How many Bunsen burners would it take to heat a swimming pool’s worth of water? A lake? Extend this out to the volumes involved in increasing temperatures in the oceans and atmosphere. The bottom line is that a 1-degree rise in temperature in the oceans, or a 2-degrees rise in atmospheric temperature, represents storage of an almost incomprehensible amount of heat.
The recently released draft U.S. Climate Assessment is an alarming document, and, one would think, would end the climate silence about climate science. Some in the media hypothesize that the reason climate change does not occupy a bigger space in the public debate is that the news is always the same; global warming is real and its consequences will be bad. The only “news” appears to be refinements on how bad these consequences may become.
Going back to the Bunsen burner, the climate assessment reports that sea level has risen about 8 inches since record keeping began in the late 19th century. Almost all of this is due to thermal expansion; heated water occupying more space than cooler water. The projection is for an additional one to four feet of sea level rise by the end of this century.
We have not yet really begun to feel the effects of increased melting of ice in the Arctic, Greenland and the Antarctic although the rate of melting in each of these is accelerating and requiring scientists to step back and recalculate, with one indicating, “Maybe nature really is proceeding much faster than our models predicted.”
The report projects that, though there has been some progress in slowing emissions, if emissions continue to increase over the next half century at approximately current rates we are on a path for an average surface temperature in the U.S. that is about 8 degrees higher than today.
Combine this with recent reports from multiple directions that 2012 was the hottest year in the U.S. on record since records have been kept and that the difference between this year and the next hottest was a full degree, unlike previous increases of a fraction of a degree. And, whereas in the past the number of record-high temperatures was usually balanced by an approximately equal number of record low temperatures, in 2012 more than 34,000 daily high temperature records were set, with only about 6,600 record lows.
Again, we can ask, “So what?”
While some of the longer-term adverse effects remain uncertain, the “canary in the coal mine” (what scientists predicted would be among the first effects) is an expression of the increased heat in the oceans and the atmosphere translating into more severe weather events. Public opinion in America seems to be turning a bit, after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, to an acceptance of the connection between disasters such as these and our burning of fossil fuels.
And it is certainly getting the attention of the insurance companies. Insured losses from Hurricane Sandy are estimated at $25 billion, with total losses preliminarily set at about twice that. The 2021 drought in the Midwest resulted in about $17 billion in insured crop losses, nearly twice the average in the history of agricultural insurance programs.
There are other effects that are less quantifiable. For example, the recent reports that the air quality in Beijing, fueled largely by burning coal to produce energy, has resulted in an “airpocalypse” so bad that roads and airports are closed due to poor visibility, residents don gas masks just to go outside, and the pollution index is nearly 30 times what the World Health Organization considers “safe” and more than twice levels considered “hazardous.”
To really answer the question of ”So what?” however we need to ask what our elected leaders are doing about it. With all due deference and respect to the current conversations in Washington about the important topics of gun control, health care, immigration, the debt ceiling, and the fiscal cliff, one could plausibly, reasonably, and urgently ask congress and the president to focus on global warming. How do they propose to avoid the ever closer “climate cliff?” What is the plan to keep the “carbon ceiling” from rising above 450 parts per million in the atmosphere?
Policy makers at all levels, in all cities, counties, states, and countries, need to “feel the heat” from citizens to put the topic on the front burner; and I don’t mean a Bunsen burner.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Thursday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.