Scorched Earth

Upon first glance, that phrase would bring up happy memories from my teenage years. Scorched Earth was a game that I played on my computer for countless hours against human and computer foes alike in a 256-color, tank based, battle royale. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Others might envision the predictions of mutually assured destruction brought about by the Cold War and its stockpiling of vast amounts of nuclear weapons, poised to anihillate the majority of the Earth’s population at the orders of two men, seperated not only by distance, but also social and economic policies. But that’s not what I’m talking about either. I’m talking about a hot-button topic for our times – Global Warming.

For as long as I remember hearing about this topic, I remember thinking that people were making a bigger deal of this phenomenon than it merited. After all, the Earth has been around for around four billion years, and humans have been smart and meddlesome creatures for what, the past hundred, maybe hundred and fifty years? What could we possibly know about how the Earth works? How arrogant are we to think that we could possibly have an influence on such a massive system that existed long before we came about, and will likely exist long after we’re gone? As recently as this past weekend I had this discussion with my dad and uncle. “Sure we’ve progressed, but we’re not that smart.” That was our general concensus. I’ve never dismissed the notions of Global Warming completely, but I have never really took them as seriously as some of the “save the planet” types wanted me to.

That viewpont has been changing recently, along with some other viewpoints of mine. Call it an awakening, call it paying more attention to things I didn’t pay attention to in the past, call it what you like. It’s the topic of another discussion really. Anyway, the more I’ve been reading and thinking about the subject, the more I think it merits attention – if for no other reason than to be cautious. Sure, my past thinking that we’ve got nothing to worry about because we’re nothing of consequence to the Earth could be true, but what if it’s not? There are a lot of very intelligent people across the globe that believe this is something we need to act upon immediately, if not sooner. These people aren’t just folks that stayed at a Holiday Inn Express the night before. They know their shit, through and through. They’ve studied, researched, modelled, and experimented. And they’re all saying the same thing. If we don’t change our ways, we’re fucked. And not like, “eh, we might have to get used to sweating a little more.” They’re talking severe climate change in in the next 100 years. Climate change that’s drastic enough to start conjuring visions of Venus in our backyards.

Doomsday prophecies are normally something I dismiss with a quickness, but I can’t help but buy into this one, at least partially. I’ve come across a few things in the past couple weeks that make me believe more and more that unless we pull a 180 right now, we’re done for. I’ll name two here. First was a two paragraph blurb I read in this past month’s issue of Discover, entitled “Plants grab control of the global greenhouse.” Judging by the article title I thought that someone found some mechanism, either natural or artificial, to use plants to help control the greenhouse effect. Not so much. The gist of the article is that living plants (not just dead and decaying plants) are a significant source of methane emissions, and that these emissions *increase* with temperature. Nobody observed this before, which reminds me of my belief that mankind is far too arrogant about it’s knowledge, but I digress. Do the math. Plants are good because they eat up carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen. Carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas. This is a good thing right? But, on the other hand, we now know that they also release methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So, plants emit methane, which spurs global warming. This results in plants releasing more methane. Sounds like a positive feedback loop to me. Nature probably has mechanisms to keep these processes in check, but it seems that mankind has thrown a wrench in that machinery by throwing the process all out of balance.

The second thing was a show I just watched a few hours ago. One of the few shows I deem worthy of watching is Nova, on PBS. I have my MythTV box record every instance of it that it comes across. Their most recent episode was entitled “Dimming the Sun.” It covered a lot of material, so I’ll attempt to summarize here in a few sentences. Essentially, it is the belief of many climate scientists that while we’ve been fouling up the atmosphere by adding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air through our various energy-producing means, we’ve actually been providing a protective blanket at the same time. Their findings suggest that the ash, soot, and other filth that our burning of fossil fuels has deposited in the air has actually helped us calm down the greenhouse effect. This happens by altering the nature of the clouds that form downwind of polluted areas. “Normal” clouds tend to form when water condenses around larger natural airborne particles such as pollen. The abnormal clouds they described are formed by condensation around the ash and soot particles mentioned earlier. These particles are much smaller, and lead to many more smaller water droplets than would occur in a “normal” cloud. As a result, the clouds are more reflective, which makes them more efficient at blocking sunlight. As a whole, the Earth’s surface is seeing between 5 and 15% less solar radiation than it was 30 years ago, depending on where you’re measuring. Other man-made phenomena, such as airplane condensation trails, contribute to this effect. The probem with this scenario is that the developed world has become pretty good in controlling its emissions of particulate matter, but not nearly as good in controlling greenhouse gas emissions. This is resulting in the removal of our protective shield against global warming, while increasing the things that cause global warming in the first place. Not good. The projected effects vary depending on the models used, but some models predict that the Earth could warm by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century, with drought and famine becoming widespread. Totally not good.

So, call me crazy, or blame the five or so beers I’ve consumed this evening, but this really strikes me as something that needs to be taken seriously. I can’t say that I’m well-informend on the topic, but this might be my motivation to start learning more. But from what I do know, and what I highlighed above, this isn’t some crackpot theory. This is based upon undisputed observations over the past 30 years, if not more. If the scientists are right in their predictions, something needs to be done, and soon. If they’re wrong, they’re wrong, and we go on as usual. But if they’re right, our planet might not be hospitible for human life in a relatively short period of time. Is this really something we want to roll the dice on?

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