Year 4, Month 6, Day 12: Abplanalp!

The Salem News (MA) offers some clarity from Brian Watson:

The dangers that we face are hotter, more unstable, and sometimes violent weather and climate patterns. These changes are likely to have adverse effects on agriculture, plant and animal habitats, rainfall distribution and coral reefs. Perhaps the most threatening possibility is a significant rise in sea level.

While none of this is a dead certainty, climate scientists since 1970 or so have increasingly firmed up the hypothesis that adding carbon dioxide and methane (released from melting permafrost and natural gas drilling) to the atmosphere is causing, and will continue to cause, measurable, damaging and unnatural heating of our climates. And despite the fact that the earth has endured warm periods at various points in the past, this is the first time that man’s activities are responsible for the overheating. And this is the first time in history that literally millions of homes and buildings and croplands — in oceanside cities and fields around the world — would be inundated permanently if sea levels rose significantly.

Many people have a hard time believing that human activities could modify the chemical composition of the atmosphere enough to result in the melting of the ice sheets in the Arctic and on Greenland. But at a smaller scale, we’ve already had a demonstration of man’s inordinate power to affect the lower atmosphere.

In 1985 researchers in Antarctica discovered a hole in the ozone layer. This “layer,” most concentrated at roughly 15 miles above the planet’s surface, is a band of molecules each consisting of three atoms of oxygen. Ozone is a very reactive gas, and is formed naturally by the action of ultraviolet radiation (from the sun) on molecules of oxygen. Ozone is also broken down naturally by absorbing ultraviolet radiation that has a longer wavelength than the radiation that initially formed it.

The ozone layer is very important to us. It serves as a protective shield to partially screen us and other organisms from certain harmful wavelengths of solar radiation.

The discovery of the hole surprised and alarmed us. Quickly, scientists realized that the man-made chemicals — called chlorofluorocarbons — in refrigerants and spray-can propellants were wafting up to the stratosphere and reacting with the ozone. The result was a depletion of ozone.

Fortunately, by 1992, governments and corporations agreed to phase out CFCs, and today their use and presence is steadily diminishing. But it was a timely lesson in the “fragility” and sometimes finely tuned balances of the atmosphere, and the ease with which man could inadvertently alter atmospheric conditions. And it is worth remembering that the amount of chlorofluorocarbon in the sky was only 1 part per billion — an incredibly tiny proportion, and a proportion far less than the current amount of CO2 in the air.

Taking everything — including uncertainties — into account, there is a preponderance of evidence to conclude that man is accelerating global warming and altering the climate in dangerous ways. It is time for us — globally — to move much more aggressively toward economies and energy systems that are respectful of nature’s limits and balances.

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? On a strictly finite planet, with a thin atmosphere whose healthy cycling is tied closely to ecological equilibriums and processes on the earth, how could we imagine that — globally — infinite consumption, steady removal of vegetation, increasing use of resources, and expanding emissions of pollution could be sustained forever?

True dat. May 29:

1992’s concerted global response to the ozone hole involved rapid phasing-out of CFCs, which critics at the time decried as an oppressive restriction on business. Instead, as the past several decades have shown, business has done just fine using alternative propellants, and the ozone layer has gradually recovered. This is a good reminder for the self-styled conservatives who loudly assert that responsible environmental and energy policies will harm the economy.

But a more important reminder must be repeated again and again. The extraordinary edifice of human civilization was made possible by the stable climate which allowed agriculture to develop, our population to grow, and our culture to flourish. Destroying this essentially benign environment disrupts the food system which brings us our daily bread. Without food, people die; our culture withers. The corporatists and politicians who shriek that addressing the climate crisis will impact quarterly profit margins forget this simple fact.

Warren Senders

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *