Climate Change Science - Our Take
At the ClimateStore we think science is cool. We're not science geeks or anything, but think the laws of nature that make the world tick are well, pretty epic. So when thousands of informed scientists start raising concerns about climate change, we listen pretty carefully. When you distill it down, it's really not that complicated. It all starts with our use of energy from fossil fuels. Here's our take...
Fossil Fuels: The Wonder Juice
Have you ever tried to push your car across the driveway? It takes about 8 football players to get 10 feet. But with a few drops of gasoline, you're there in a heartbeat.
Or what about walking up four flights of stairs with a heavy coat, boots, and a full bag of groceries? Don't sweat it! With a handful of coal all you need to do is push the elevator button, find a comfortable spot, and wait for your floor to appear.
Or what about cutting your overgrown lawn, by hand, on a hot summer day? No worries! We have the wonder juice.....good old coal, oil and natural gas. It's truly amazing stuff. Deep in their chemistry they contain a whole lot of stored energy that is just waiting to burst out.
You see, the past 100 years have been awesome for us humans; ever since we figured out just how much energy was stored in fossil fuels we've been digging and pumping the stuff out of the ground as fast as we can!
This energy-from-the-ground thing has been a dream come true! We do a lot less physical work than our grandparents ever dreamed possible; and we've been able to invent elevators, lawnmowers, RV's, power boats, central air conditioning, refrigerators, escalators, tractors, buses...the list goes on and on. Wow!
And it's not like there's been a shortage. Heck, there was actually a time when the stuff (i.e. oil - Texas gold), gushed right out of the ground. When we discovered a new oil field, we needed to plug it to hold it in!
Climate Change: The Big Snafu
But there's a real Big Snafu.....and it's no joking matter.....it's called Climate Change.
To get the energy out of those great fuels, they must be burned. Just like lighting a match - it's cold when you pick it up, but it packs a punch when lit.
And well, this burning of fossil fuels generates a gas called Carbon Dioxide (CO2) - the same stuff that fizzes in your Coke and Pepsi. You don't see it, but it's coming out of the tail pipe of your car, the chimney in your house or apartment building, the truck that just passed by, and the smokestack down at your local power station.
It's this gas, which is a by-product of all those fossil fuels we're burning, that's changing the very planet we rely on. Fundamentally, it's the root cause of Global Warming and Climate Change.
Because We Use Lots of Energy...
The amazing thing is we're so used to using energy that we don't even notice it anymore. And why would we? You can hardly hear the engine running in your car and it's a breeze to fill it up. The refrigerator barely hums, the boiler is hidden somewhere in the basement, and oh yeah…there's a hot water heater down there somewhere too.
The truth is using energy is as easy as turning on the light switch, pushing the accelerator pedal, or clicking the "print" button on your computer screen. You can add 10 gallons of gasoline to your tank in about 3 minutes – enough to drive your 3,500 pound car 230+ miles. This is more energy than our great grandparents ever dreamed of!
And because it's so darn easy to use and the spark for so many devices, we're using more energy now than at any point in human history. On the individual level it doesn't seem like much, but when you add up the energy use on your street, your neighborhood, and in towns and large cities, frankly, it's amazing.
The fact is, for many of us, our energy use has become rather abstract. Sure, we're reminded of it when we pay the utility pay or fill up at the pump. The rest of the time though, very few of us think about energy at all, the punch it can deliver, or the slow trickle we might be wasting this very minute because the lights were left on in the other room.
....We Burn Lots of Fossil Fuels....
And because there are so many of us using so much energy, we're mining, digging, drilling, pumping, refining, shipping, trucking and ultimately burning more fossil fuels than ever before.
As a planet we consume about 87 million barrels (that's 3,654,000,000 gallons) of liquid fuels every day. That's about 3.6 billion gallons every 24 hours. In the U.S. this translates to about 3 gallons per person per day. That's more than the water we drink or the food we eat. Yikes!
And even this is only a fraction of our fossil fuel use. The bigger portion is from coal and natural gas. In 2011, we mined, processed, transported and consumed 7,200,000,000 metric tons of coal globally. That's a mind numbing amount of coal; it's hard enough just to count all the zero's. And you know what? We burned every last tiny bit of it and are headed back to the mines for more.
The truth is that over the years the sheer scale of our fossil fuel system has grown to a size that no one can grasp anymore. What does using ga-zillion tons of coal and oil per day - really mean? At the individual level, turning on a light switch, the microwave, or the washer/dryer doesn't seem like much. But when you combine the use from our homes, offices, cars, schools, factories, towns, communities and mega cities....it all adds up to a whopping amount.
...Which Generate Tons of Heat Trapping Greenhouse Gasses
And here's the other amazing thing: there are no visible emissions from the tons and tons of fossil fuels we burn every day. Sure, we can see the impact of mining, oil exploration and coal barges pulling up to power plants, but we can't see what's coming out of our tailpipes, chimneys and smokestacks. That's because CO2 is crystal clear. Yup, it's completely, utterly, totally invisible! We generate millions of tons of it each day and yet we don't SEE it. What a life!
Just imagine for a minute what the world would look like if CO2 was the color of smoke...how startled we'd be if the exhaust coming out of our tailpipes was black soot! We'd be running for fresh air in seconds.
CO2 is a by-product of all those fossil fuels we burn. In fact, it's the major by-product. So much so that on average for every pound of fossil fuel burned (whether it's coal, oil or natural gas), we generate ~3.6 times as much CO2 (by weight). Let's just say it's billions of metric tons per year; another one of those giant numbers that are hard to wrap your head around.
Now you can imagine we use a lot more energy than poorer countries (we have a lot more drive-through's, malls, amusement parks, escalators, RV's and stuff like that). Well you're correct; we're emitting just a tad more. Unfortunately, we are the Gold medalists in CO2 emissions. Just taking the U.S., although it represents ~1/22nd of the world's population, it emits 1/6th of the planet's greenhouse gases.
When you add up all the energy we use to heat and cool our homes, heat our water, run our appliances, get around in our cars, and make all the products we consume and food we eat, it totals (on average) to a whopping 19 metric tons of emissions per person per year. That's ~42,000 pounds! The same weight as ~4,800 gallons of milk or 8,400 five-pound bags of sugar. Try driving that home next time your at the grocery store. No doubt you'll need a truck.
And all those emissions are driving up the concentration of C02 in the atmosphere to levels we haven't seen for hundreds of thousands of years.
It's Getting Hotter: The Leaky Blanket
Now the CO2 we're emitting (also called greenhouse gas), has an interesting effect on the atmosphere. It's kind of like a blanket. At the right amount, or thickness, it traps enough sunlight to keep the Earth at the ideal temperature to support life as we know it. In fact, we need some greenhouse gas to keep the Earth at the right temperature.
But as the amount of greenhouse gas increases and the blanket gets thicker, like it is getting now, some of the suns warming energy which used to go back out into space, gets reflected back to the Earth.
Well, after 100 years of enjoying and burning up fossil fuels, we're rapidly and significantly increasing the thickness of the blanket.
And you know what's getting hotter? Well lots of things: land surfaces, the lower atmosphere, and most importantly, the oceans, which have a significant impact on the climate.
We're on the Wrong Road
Due to our use of fossil fuels, we are now emitting more greenhouse gas into the sky than at any point in human history. And the amazing thing is CO2 is like the-gift-that-keeps-on-giving. Once it's up in the sky, it hangs around doing its heating thing for a long long time; literally hundreds of years.
Also, because the oceans are so vast and deep they heat up slowly. Just like a cast iron radiator warms slowly in a house, there is a large lag effect to our CO2 emissions. This means the impact of today’s (or this week’s) emissions won’t kick in until later. Climate change is kind of like moving a supertanker out of port: it takes a whole lot to get it moving, but once it’s going, it’s hard to slow or change direction.
So here's the scoop: we’ve been pumping emissions up into the sky for years now, and this happens whenever we turn on a light, drive the car to the office, or use fossil fuels. And each and every time they have a permanent irreversible impact on our planet through increased warming. It’s true; and honestly, it takes some time to wrap your head around.
The other thing is that scientists now estimate the maximum allowed increase in temperature for the planet is 2ºC (3.6ºF). Although this might not sound like a lot, this is truly a red line that can't be crossed. It represents the maximum allowable increase in the average temperature (say what?) of the planet from pre-industrial levels, in other words, before we started burning so much fossil fuel.
If we emit too much greenhouse gas, resulting in warming the planet beyond this amount, all bets are off; we'll be venturing into climate conditions unlike those any of us humans, or today's animals, have ever experienced. The last time it was that high was ~600,000 years ago. Yikes! Crossing this line must be avoided entirely and completely.
Our Carbon Budget
The other mind-bending thing is that because of these time lags, it turns out we have a carbon budget. For every Ton of greenhouse gas we put up in the sky, there is a permanent increase in global temperatures.
And because we agree we can't exceed the 2ºC red line, we can estimate how much CO2 we can emit before we cross it.
To make sure we don't cross the line, we need to reduce greenhouse emissions significantly in the coming years and decades. If we start now, we have the opportunity to reduce emissions at a reasonable pace (technically speaking, about 3-4% per year). If we delay by 5 or 10 years, it gets more difficult. If we don't start for another decade, it's unlikely we'll make it at all.
The Bottom Line
Climate change science is pretty simple when you think about it. We dig and pump fossil fuels from the ground (coal, oil and natural gas), burn them to extract the energy, and up, up, and away go greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - to trap heat from the sun for hundreds of years. Along the way, we warm the oceans, the land, and change the climate on which we all depend.
And whether we like it or not, the rules of chemistry and physics demand the gases we emit today, tomorrow, and next week, permanently and irreversibly increase temperatures. We also know we have an emissions budget, or cap: a fixed amount of gas we can emit before we cross the 2ºC red line.
But thankfully, there is good news! Despite the emissions released to date, there is a window of opportunity to secure a good and safe climate for ourselves, our kids and grand-kids. We can, over time, reduce our energy use and shift to renewable fuels at a manageable pace.
But we can't wait. The. So let's get going!
And some technical issues aside, there is wisdom from bears.