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How Climate Change Works

A brief overview of how climate change and the carbon-induced greenhouse effect work.

Most things in your life contain carbon. You contain carbon. Plastic contains carbon. Food contains carbon. Gasoline contains carbon. Air contains carbon.

We burn carbon fuels like gasoline, oil, natural gas, and coal to produce energy and heat. The combustion process causes the carbon molecules to break apart and combine with oxygen to form mostly carbon dioxide and some carbon monoxide.

We are a major force on the earth, building skyscrapers, a dizzying number of cars, a swarm of air travel, lots of trade and shipping. All these activities put carbon dioxide into the air.

If you’ve ever eaten peanuts or sunflower seeds in the shells, you know how much waste there is. That’s a lot like carbon pollution: we are getting the energy out from the carbon-chained molecules, and it leaves the carbon afterwards. Over the years, we have all these extra carbon gases around. Some of them get eaten by plants to grow, but the plants only eat so much every year. Others end up in the ocean, where they turn the ocean more acidic. If you have ever put an egg in a carbonated soda, you know it will slowly dissolve the shell of an egg!

Eggshells are made out of the same stuff as sea life like corals and clams and some types of plankton use to protect themselves. Having an acidic ocean is bad news for the ocean ecosystems.

The air filling with carbon dioxide makes it absorb and emit more infrared radiation. You can think of this like being in a dark-painted room or a light-painted room with the same lamp. The dark room is darker, because the dark walls will absorb more light. If we live in a world with more carbon in the air, it will mean we live in a hotter world.

But, just like you can read under the lamp in the dark-painted room, you can still find cold places and seasons on a hotter world.

What can we do to not add so much carbon in the air? We can make choices about what we buy, and we can tell the government we want them to work on the problem. We have had pollution problems before, and dealing with them did not destroy the economy. It has saved lives, and it makes us healthier. In the case of carbon pollution, the health impacts are not as direct as things like mercury and lead, but the long-term trends are clear.

Living in a world with too much carbon in the air will make the oceans less productive, which will make human life harder. It will make storms and droughts and forest fires worse. It will add to disease, famine, and social unrest that will bring war.

We have to choose to reduce the carbon in the air.

Atmospheric Carbon Hits 400 Parts Per Million

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is now about 400 parts per million.

400 ppm (parts per million) means 0.04 percent (0.0004) of the atmosphere. Seems insignificant. A minuscule amount. But that depends entirely what you’re used to. Such a small amount comes up regularly in business and science. There a four-hundredths percent rise or fall in a market price might be significant. There a four-hundredths percent tax might be a lot of money.

But the average person does not see the significance. A 0.04% raise on a $30,000 salary would be $12. A 0.04% increase in their daily commute might be a few seconds, max.

The average person doesn’t even know that the average concentration for CO2 has hit 400 ppm, or what that means. That it was last this high at least 800,000 years ago, if not much longer.

The average person does not have to know to drive real change. Yet it does not appear that this government will drive it, not the president and not the congress. These companies, titans of industry, seem to think this is business as usual. They have made no major changes. Wall Street has not begun accounting for carbon in their ratings and valuations reports. We had enough trouble getting a basic nutritional label for the fast food industry, so don’t expect to see the carbon footprint of that happy meal any time soon.

Denialism isn’t the problem. It may distract from the truth, but even without deniers we would be in denial as a country and as a planet. Denialism is a good sign, especially when it comes with the signs of corporate shilling, because it means industry actually knows the issue is real. With the right value proposition, they will switch sides and push for real climate action. Not just the lobbyists and shills, but the actual companies and industries.

The only problem with the CO2 problem is the pace of change. Copyright. Hear me out, the problem with making people care about copyright is that you’re currently dealing with terms over that of the human lifespan. It’s hard to care about a world long after you’re gone. It seems so uncertain. And we seem to have enough problems to deal with here and now, how can we operate for the future’s benefit?

Most people don’t adequately save for retirement. With the health insurance system such a mess, most don’t receive adequate preventative health care. We don’t have a great track record to build on here.

The other problem with the climate timescale is people don’t know what the solution would look like. Because nobody has told them. They have only been told that their daily lives, the products they buy, all contribute to this problem. And that some nebulous change will be needed from them, who perceive themselves as recreating the time cycles of their forebears. That they will have to break some sacred chain, at the behest of scientists and politicians who talk funny and dress funny and they probably smell funny too.

Oh well. I’m still optimistic. Systems find balance.

Climate Data you Can See

Video depicting the emission of Carbon Dioxide over the continental USA. The scientists at Purdue have done an excellent job here. This kind of media needs widespread exposure to help people understand the challenges we face.

This is an excellent video showing the release of Carbon Dioxide in the United States. It speaks for itself, but I have a few things I’ll say after you watch [if you’ve seen it, watch again it’s still amazing, or skip for commentary]

The swings between night, morning, and day-to-evening are expected, but still fascinating to watch. It’s like a strobe, as during the night so much less activity generates so much less CO2. It does raise an important reality, though. Due to the majority of people being active during the same times of day, days of the year, we generate more CO2 than we would if we lived a bit more staggered lives.

There is also the question of how much less CO2 would be emitted through efficient use of modern public transportation. It would be interesting to see models of cities with high volume public transportation versus those without much or any.