It is not easy to override the status quo of a multi-trillion-dollar, carbon-spewing industry that underpins the entire global economy or challenge the ongoing inanity of oil and gas companies pretending to transition away from fossil fuels.
International greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase, with unequal historical and ongoing contributions arising from unsustainable energy use, land use and land-use change, lifestyles, and patterns of consumption and production across regions, between and within countries, and among individuals. Yet, some still pretend not to believe in a human contribution, purposely undermine change, or just do not give a damn.
The French mathematician Joseph Fourier (1768-1830), Anglo-Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), and Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) all helped to establish the now well-known, heat-trapping properties of water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4).
Fourier noted that the temperature change between night and day (and winter and summer) was minimal because of an insulating atmospheric blanket of greenhouse gases (GHGs), a term he coined. If not for our GHG-filled atmosphere, our pale blue dot of a planet would be uninhabitable and cold.
Tyndall noted that varying amounts of GHGs could be responsible for past ice ages, evidence of which was visible in his time in the scarred glacial landscapes of northern Europe, after setting up his artificial sky in a tube in the basement of London’s Royal Institution
Arrhenius established the first direct link between GHGs and temperature, for which we remember him today. Thanks in part to Arrhenius’s analysis; it was clear by the early 1900s that burning coal would produce enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to raise global temperatures beyond safe limits.
As noted in a 1912 Popular Mechanics article, the atmosphere at the time contained 1.5 trillion tons of CO2, which would double in two centuries at the then industrial emission rates, unless removed by some means in enormous quantities. Unfortunately, Popular Mechanics could not have anticipated the extraordinary growth of the fossil-fuel industry in the twentieth century as emissions doubled faster.
In a 1975 Science article “Climactic change: Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?” Columbia University geophysicist Wallace Broecker introduced the term global warming, noting that synthetic carbon dioxide and now methane would soon contribute to an exponential rise in global temperatures as indeed is occurring.
Those who support the continued status quo of an unchecked international petroleum industry claim the increase in temperature is due to natural changes in the earth-sun distance; eccentricity, tilt, and precession, regularly rising and falling. Indeed, the sun’s irradiance on Earth is cyclical, giving us intermittent ice ages and interglacial periods more pronounced in the larger land-mass northern hemisphere, albeit over millennial-long timeframes.
The present day’s increased heating, however, is coming faster and more furiously because of industrial carbon burning, too much for earth’s ecosystems to handle. If we do not change soon, more heating, melting, and flooding will put us all in uncharted and rising waters. Space is not the final frontier for earth-bound humans, change is.
The co-founder of the three-fifty.org group, Bill McKibben, has estimated that 80% of fossil fuels must remain in the ground to avoid the worst. Although McKibben believes that changing to LED light bulbs and putting a price on carbon are both excellent ideas, more than $20 trillion worth of stored carbon bombs around the world will wreck the planet if they are burnt.
For example, Arctic and Caspian Sea oil, Eastern European fracked gas, Canadian and Venezuelan oil sands, and Western Australian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Powder River Basin coal, may send the atmosphere spiraling. If we continue to burn carbon-based fuels, a further increase of 1.6 °C every 40 years is possible.