O edited 2


After learning about the greenhouse cocoon that sustains us, you may be wondering how this relates to “holes in the ozone layer.”

Ozone is a gas made up of three oxygen atoms (O3). Interestingly, it is varyingly described as “a blue gas with a strong irritating smell,” “a colorless gas with a noticeable odor,” or “an odorless, colorless gas.” Never having met it in large numbers, I can’t comment on this.

ozone molecule

An ozone molecule

Trace amounts of ozone live in an upper layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere. From there, ozone protects the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Even in trace amounts, it absorbs 97 to 99 percent of the sun’s medium-frequency ultraviolet light, which would otherwise be very destructive. In fact, without ozone ultraviolet radiation would essentially “sterilize” the surface of the earth.

Ozone is damaged by the chemicals chlorine and bromine. The most well-known culprits are CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which are also greenhouse gases.  But while CFCs are considered only a minor player in greenhouse warming, they are disastrous to the ozone layer.  Upon invention CFCs were considered “miracle chemicals” for being stable, low toxicity, non-flammable, and cheap.  Throughout the 1950s and 60s they were increasingly manufactured in refrigeration, insulation, aerosol sprays, and cleaning solvents.  As these things go, Michael Norton explains, “the companies making the chemicals and the customers using them did not initially consider what would happen to them after use.”  It turns out the coveted “stability” of CFCs means they live on for years, until eventually making their way into the stratosphere.  Only when exposed to ultraviolet rays do CFCs there break down and release chlorine atoms.  It is estimated just one atom of chlorine can destroy more than 100,000 ozone molecules.

Also damaging to the ozone layer: methyl bromide (a pesticide) and halons (used in fire extinguishers). As they break down bromine is released, which manages to be 40 times more destructive to ozone than chlorine.  Methyl bromide is also deadly to humans, and while ostensibly banned U.S. farmers will still legally use more than 375 metric tons of it on fields this year.  (For a list of ozone depleting substances, click here.)

Depletion of the ozone layer weakens plants, impairs the immune systems of all animals, interferes with phytoplankton production in oceans, and makes humans particularly vulnerable to skin cancer and cataracts.

Notes on the Isthmus via British Library on Flickr-2

The “ozone hole” first detected in the 1980s was not actually a hole, but an extreme thinning of the ozone layer over Antarctica.  This drastic thinning occurs every spring (late August ushers in spring at the South Pole) as the sun breaks down CFCs that accumulated over the winter, and spans an area more than twice the size of the U.S.  This also happens, yet to a much lesser degree, at the north pole.

24 nations convened in 1987 to draft the Montreal Protocol, a treaty limiting the production of ozone depleting chemicals (95 in all), with the eventual goal of phasing them out entirely.  It has since been ratified by over 180 governments.  Due to these regulations, there is evidence the “hole” is slowly healing and may be fully recovered by the end of the century.  Yet loopholes in the protocol, or perhaps some outright violations of it, slow progress.

While the poles receive the most attention, the entire ozone layer has been damaged.  From 1980 levels, the northern hemisphere experienced an ozone decline of about 3 percent, the southern hemisphere 6 percent, and some particularly vulnerable areas of Chile, Australia, and New Zealand from 8 to 15 percent.  Until healthy ozone levels are restored, this may combine with other factors to create somewhat higher rates of skin cancer.  For instance, the World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 there may be a 10 percent higher incidence of skin cancer in the U.S.  Ozone depletion may also be causing skin cancer in fish and skin damage to whales.

Jon Shanklin, one of the British scientists who originally discovered the Antarctic thinning, commented earlier this year on the larger lesson: “Yes, an international treaty was established fairly quickly to deal with the ozone hole, but really the main point about its discovery was that it shows how incredibly rapidly we can produce major changes to our atmosphere and how long it takes for nature to recover from them. …  Clearly, we still do not understand the full consequences of what we did then because we are still inflicting major changes on the atmosphere. Then it was chlorofluorocarbons; today it is greenhouse gases.”

Is it related to global warming?

Not directly.  As mentioned CFCs are also a greenhouse gas, and account for about 13 percent of the greenhouse gas effect.  But ozone depletion itself is not causing rising global temperatures.  In fact, the ensuing “ozone hole” actually has a small cooling effect on the planet. This is because where ozone is lost, slightly more heat escapes into space.

So while not a direct causal relationship, the ozone layer and global warming do interact.  It has been observed that as more greenhouse gases are trapped, less heat reaches the stratospheric layer of the atmosphere.  And this cooler stratosphere actually makes it easier for ozone depletion to occur.  Meanwhile, to make things more confusing, the ozone “hole” may in turn be shifting wind patterns and cloud cover over Antarctica in a manner that has warming effects.

In sum: depletion of the ozone layer and global warming are two separate human-generated atmospheric changes.  Yet scientists continue to observe the complex ways in which these phenomena interact.

Meanwhile, smog.

atmosphere layers

Layers of the atmosphere

That is the first thing to know about ozone. But while ozone in the stratosphere allows life to flourish on earth, it is not so nourishing in closer proximity. Ozone forms in the troposphere (the lowest level of the atmosphere) when nitrogen oxide gases from burning fuels react with VOCs. Those are the volatile organic compounds you may have read cautions about in paint, paint thinners, or other home materials.  VOCs are also released from gasoline, kerosine, and pesticides, and some cleansers, disinfectants, dry cleaning products, glues, carpeting, vinyl, and cosmetics.

Simultaneously power plants, vehicles, construction equipment, industrial boilers, and turbines release nitrogen oxide gases (NOx) as they burn fuel.  The final ingredient is sunlight, which provides the energy for VOCs and NOx to react and make ozone.  Frustrated city dwellers everywhere better know this ground level Oas smog.  (To be technically precise: ozone morphs with other gases and particle pollution to create photochemical smog.  But in non-technical parlance “smog” and “ozone” are often used interchangeably.)

Clear, windless days and heat waves are prime conditions for smog creation.  After sunset, the chemical reactions abate and ozone levels drop.  Global warming creates more potential for ozone production, while ozone in turns traps heat, making another dastardly feedback loop.  This ground ozone is a major greenhouse gas, with only carbon dioxide and methane exceeding its impact.

The American Lung Association names ozone “the most widespread pollutant in the U.S. [and] also one of the most dangerous.”  Yet plants are even more sensitive to ozone than humans.  Ozone damages and deadens plant tissue, reduces photosynthesis, and causes premature leaf loss.  It significantly reduces growth in trees, with some of the most sensitive being black cherry, ponderosa pine, and cottonwoods.  The stress to a plant can sometimes be detected in flecking or bronzing on the leaves, or yellow spots on needles.  Most research has been devoted to the impact of ozone on crops, while it effects everything down to the microbial health of the soil.  The National Park Service warns that the approved ozone levels set by the EPA are too high for sensitive plant species (as they are for the humans species, but more on that later).

For animals, ozone is particularly harmful to the respiratory systems, lungs, and immune system.  Studies have found at just 80 parts per billion of ozone, not uncommon on warm days in many areas, humans experience a reduction in lung capacity.  Ozone triggers asthma, intensifies allergies, and even increases the risk of heart attack.  Studies in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. have all linked ozone exposure to premature death.

Sultan to Sultan via British Library on Flickr-6

Near earth’s surface, the natural concentration of ozone is about 10 parts per billion.  Under President Bush, the EPA set the legal limit to 75 ppb (down from 84 ppb) in 2008.  As the Washington Post noted at the time, the new standard was “significantly higher than what the agency’s scientific advisers had urged.”  In fact, the agency had calculated 75 ppb would prevent 1,300 to 3,500 premature deaths yearly, while 65 ppb would save some 3,000 to 9,200.  Those additional 1,700 to 5,700 Americans were apparently  deemed less valuable than the profits of industries that fought against “the cost” of regulatory measures.

For reference, the European Union limits ozone to 60 ppb and Canada to 63 ppb.  Obama revisited the issue in 2010, releasing a draft proposal calling for a 60 to 70 ppb threshold.  The EPA estimated at this time 60 ppb would prevent some 4,000 to 12,000 premature deaths annually. The matter was repeatedly delayed and fiercely resisted until Obama directed the EPA to withdraw the proposal in 2011.  On that day a Washington Post headline declared it a “victory for business.”  (Four years later, we can estimate the population has silently lost some 16,000 to 48,000 faces to that victory.)

As health and environmental groups continued to sue, a federal judge last year gave the EPA an Oct. 2015 deadline to finalize standards for ground level ozone.  The EPA’s draft proposes a range between 65 and 70 ppb.  While medical professionals are collectively calling for a still lower amount, and there is broad public support for regulations, The Hill reports that “business groups are in the midst of a coordinated, multimillion-dollar effort aimed at sowing opposition.” So the public is less likely to hear which parts of the country are under ozone alerts at any moment, as a television ad trumpeting: “Now Washington’s trying to force through new rules that will stifle our economy and kill millions of jobs.”  Brought to you by the National Association of Manufacturers:

The capitalist media disperses matching propaganda in such opinion pieces as: The EPA’s Next Big Economic Chokehold, EPA Ozone Rules Will Damage Economy, Real Threat to Jobs this Labor Day, and EPA Rule is Bad News for North Carolina.  One might think surely “Ozone Overkill” would reference pollution mortality, but The Daily Sentinel apparently meant no irony when it decried the EPA for “dropping the hammer” on Western Colorado via “regulatory overkill.”

As the air does not observe national borders, it is no longer sufficient to consider regulation a domestic matter alone.  It has recently been found that Chinese pollution blowing across the Pacific is offsetting gains of western states in ozone reduction.  Meanwhile China itself inherits pollutants drifting in from India, and so on.  The next chapter will more thoroughly explore air pollution, and mark our final discussion on atmospheric issues.

owl o edited

Previous Chapters in Environmental Handbook for Non-Scientific Minds:

1.1 Global Warming

1.2 Climate Change

Image 1: from page 55 of Feathered Favourites, Twelve Coloured Pictures of British Birds by Joseph Wolf, 1854, via British Library on Flickr 

Image 2: Planet Earth Book

Image 3: from page 116 of Notes on the Isthmus of Panama & Darien by George Peacock, 1879, via British Library on Flicker 

Image 4: Planet Earth Book

Image 5: from page 464 of Sultan to Sultan by M. French Sheldon, 1892, via British Library on Flickr 

Image 6: from page 32 of From the Hills of Dream: Mountain Songs and Island Runes by Fiona Macleod, 1897, via British Library on Flickr


Image taken from page 73 of 'The Doldenhorn and Weisse Frau

Welcome back to Environmental Handbook for Non-Scientific Minds.

The first chapter explored how green gas house emissions cause global warming. Now we turn to how these rising temperatures impact global weather patterns. But why does weather fluctuate to begin with? All weather originates with the sun: as the earth rotates at a tilt, heat is distributed unequally across its surface. The contrast in temperatures creates variations in air pressure, which in turn produce winds, storms, tornados, and such. The oceans also warm unevenly, and the ensuing currents interact with the atmosphere to create weather patterns like El Niño.

It is through this interplay of factors that global warming creates both more intense droughts and heavier rainfall, more snow and greater heatwaves, and in general more erratic and extreme weather.   And while weather fluctuates from hour to hour, the patterns over time constitute climate.

The climate is inseparable from the shape of the earth’s landscapes and the life forms therein.  Pat Wyman succinctly explains:

 Because so many systems are tied to climate, climate change can affect many related aspects of where and how people, plants and animals live, such as food production, availability and use of water, and health risks.

For example, a change in the usual timing of rains or temperatures can affect when plants bloom and set fruit, when insects hatch or when streams are their fullest. This can affect historically synchronized pollination of crops, food for migrating birds, spawning of fish, water supplies for drinking and irrigation, forest health, and more.

For this reason, it would be more accurate and perhaps more illuminating to the uninformed if instead of simply “climate change” we said climate change / habitat change / food change / species change / disease change / lake change / ocean change / population change / tree change / soil change / city change / prairie change / plant change / ecosystem change / air change / everything change.

The National Climate Assessment sums up, “Landscapes and seascapes are changing rapidly, and species, including many iconic species, may disappear from regions where they have been prevalent or become extinct, altering some regions so much that their mix of plant and animal life will become almost unrecognizable.”

As mentioned in the first chapter, the climate has changed more drastically than most scientists predicted from our current .8 degree Celsius rise in average temperatures. To review of some of the summer’s surprises see Eric Holtaus’ recent article in Rolling Stone.

Mountain Ascents-2

Marine species are annually moving closer to the poles by seven kilometers each year, in search of the climates they can survive in, and land species at a rate of less than one kilometer per year.  Some species are migrating to higher altitudes, while others have nowhere to go because they are already at the upper limits of their habitat.  Migration times are also shifting, throwing animals off cycle for mating and finding food.

The golden toad is one casualty, thought to have perished from climate change induced drought and related stresses.  It was last seen in 1989.  Animals endangered by climate change and other human impacts include: whooping cranes, akikiki birds, sea otters, polar bears, emperor penguins, Grevy’s zebras, Oaxaca Hummingbirds, sea turtles, seahorses, Kihansi spray toads, giant pandas, African elephants, and Kaputar pink slugs.  And ever so many more.  Currently 41 percent of amphibians, 26 percent of mammal species, and 13 percent of birds are at risk of extinction.  It is hard to know precisely, as humans never identified all of the species to begin with, and many are surely disappearing without ever having been named. (The number of species on earth is estimated to be anywhere from two million to 50 million.)

The EPA summarizes some changes:

Boreal forests are invading tundra, reducing habitat for the many unique species that depend on the tundra ecosystem, such as caribou, arctic fox, and snowy owl. … As rivers and streams warm, warmwater fish are expanding into areas previously inhabited by coldwater species. Coldwater fish, including many highly valued trout species, are losing their habitats. As waters warm, the area of feasible, cooler habitats to which species can migrate is reduced.

The warming oceans will be explored in greater detail when we examine the state of the earth’s waters.  For now, suffice it to say the composition of the oceans is changing rapidly, and the wellbeing of their species is reflected throughout all other systems on the planet.

golden toadThe golden toad was last seen in 1989.


Because plants need carbon dioxide, some short-thinking minds have speculated they will flourish in global warming.  And some corrupt minds have used this to promote carbon emissions.  In researching this topic, I quickly came to concur with Phil Plait about the “pretty amazingly bad global warming denial online [even in mainstream sources]. It ranges from mildly cherry-picked data to such baldly transparent garbage that you have to wonder if the person who wrote it can possibly, actually believe what they are saying is true.”

As Plait says, “Looking at a few plants growing better due to more carbon dioxide is like ignoring that you killed a patient while curing their hangnail.” Here are a few symptoms:

1.  Increased carbon dioxide is changing the chemical processes in the leaves of plants, and therefore the nutrition of plant eaters. For instance, making some common crops less rich in protein and minerals.

2.  Global warming decreases the cooling effect of plants, which in turn generates more warming.

Just as sweat cools humans, plants expel water through tiny pores in their leaves called stomata.  A tree can release tens of gallons of water on a summer day, efficiently cooling its environment. Those same pores absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and they shrink when carbon dioxide levels are high.  In some regions (including North America and Asia) over 25 percent of land warming is attributed to shrinking plant stomata.

3.  This may be partly offset by carbon dioxide stimulating plant growth.  But while it is true leaf cover has expanded in arid areas, the relationship is infinitely more complex.  A recent study reported too much carbon dioxide actually stunts plant growth by inhibiting nitrogen absorption. An earlier Stanford study found that elevated carbon dioxide reduces plant growth when combined with other climate change factors.  Co-author Christopher Field remarks, “Most studies have looked at the effects of carbon dioxide on plants in pots or on very simple ecosystems and concluded that plants are going to grow faster in the future.  We got exactly the same results when we applied carbon dioxide alone, but when we factored in realistic treatments — warming, changes in nitrogen deposition, changes in precipitation — growth was actually suppressed.”

When scientists at Northern Arizona University simulated global warming, they similarly found grasslands “thrive in the early stages of a warming environment but begin to deteriorate quickly.” They “caution against extrapolating from short-term experiments, or experiments in a greenhouse, where experimenters cannot measure the feedbacks from changes in the plant community and from nutrient cycles.”

This knowledge makes it particularly odd to read displays of jubilation over the finding plants absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than previously thought, when we know this may damage their own integrity.  Just 15 months later, jubilation turned to dismay that the same carbon dioxide causing Amazon trees to grow faster was speeding up their death as well.  In 2013 the L.A. Times actually reported, “Finally, some good news about the effects of climate change. It may have triggered a growth spurt in two of California’s iconic tree species: coast redwoods and giant sequoias.”  The article includes the astonishing assertion, “The forests are not experiencing detrimental impacts of climate change.”  And less than two years later, amidst the widespread death of trees in drought-striken regions of California, it is now being reported California redwoods and tall old-growth forests are particularly vulnerable to global warming.

It is a symptom of the same culture that produces climate change that many westerners are continually surprised to “discover” the complexity of plants, and that subtle (and not so subtle) changes are reflected through an entire ecosphere we have never approached wholly grasping.  In such a culture a journalist can posit, “If the tropical rain forests of the planet are helping to mitigate some of the effects of human forcing of the climate (sic), the world should take a much greater interest … in protecting [them].” If it needs stating–and apparently it does–plants are profoundly intelligent creatures that predate humans by over one billion years and exist as more than glorified air purifiers for our emissions.

Image taken from page 12 of 'The Earth and its Inhabitants. The European section of the Universal Geography by E. Reclus. Edited by E. G. Ravenstein. Illustrated by ... engravings and maps' | by The British Library-2

Like animals, plants are migrating in altitude and longitude to follow cooler temperatures. And similarly, plant rhythms change with global warming. When a plant is prompted to flower earlier, it is more vulnerable to late frosts.  This change also impacts the competition between plants, the lives of pollinators and herbivores, and by extension everything else.  As you may be observing, it is difficult to separate out one climate change thread when it is invariably interwoven with a million others, each with their own nuance.

Increasing droughts and rains, more intense fires and storms, and changes in animal populations will all interact with vegetation and trees in complex ways impossible to fully predict.  Some things are known:

  • Milder winters and longer summers feed tree-killing insects, while prolonged drought weakens trees.  This combination may be responsible for the mass die-off of 70,000 square miles of Rocky Mountain conifers.  source
  • The United States is seeing expanding oak hickory forests, shrinking maple beech forests, and disappearing spruce fir forests. source
  • Warmer temperatures are drying out forests and grasslands, increasing the frequency and intensity of fires, and thus releasing more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. source
  • Global warming triggers meadows to shift from flowering to woody vegetation, creating another warming feedback loop via changes in soil composition. source
  • Areas of arctic tundra are now hospitable to towering shrubs.  Where once snow reflected the sun’s energy, more is being absorbed, creating yet another warming feedback loop. source

Endangered plants include the western prairie fringed orchid, Georgia aster, Ouachita Mountain goldenrod, Arizona agave, Haleakalā silversword, Minnesota dwarf trout lily, common juniper tree, and maple-leaf oak tree.  A 2002 study estimates between 22 and 47 percent of the world’s plants are endangered, three times more than previously thought.

page 288 of La Terre-2


Lastly, let us not be remiss in overlooking fungi, as some rudely thrashing through the forest have been known to do.  In the inter-net, it seems a person must hunt for fungi/climate research as carefully as they would seek out morels in the underbrush.

But first, let us remember fungi do not only grow out of the soil as beguiling mushrooms, but live everywhere.  The human body, down to the last hair, is covered with whole ecosystems of them.  Andrew Cowan writes, “Fungi are fundamental to the success and health of almost every ecosystem on earth, both terrestrial and aquatic, and essential to the sustainability of biodiversity. …[They are also] perhaps the most unappreciated, undervalued, and unexplained organisms on earth.”  When David Hawksworth estimated in 1991 that there were 1.5 million species of fungi on earth it was considered an exaggeration; some researchers now believe there are over 13 million.

Now back to the soil.  Fungal ecologist Lynne Boddy explains how fungi work like forest magicians, alone capable of breaking down complex molecules (like in wood) and returning the nutrients.  They also feed 90 percent of the world’s plants, by attaching directly to the roots and industriously passing on water and nutrients, in exchange for sugars.  Fungi can grow massive below the forest floor, larger than whales.  They also live directly inside plants, in what Andrew Cohan poetically describes as “an inconspicuous embroidery of threadlike filaments.”

Like with plants, the media might have you believing we should only care about fungi relative to how they dispose of our carbon emissions.  Let us dash that illusion by remembering one day fungi will be breaking down the bodies of media producers everywhere.  Fungi themselves are quite sensitive to climate change, and Alan Gange notes “The potential exists for significant alteration of fungal community structure in woodlands, with significant effects on decomposition rates, nutrient cycling, and the structure of woodland ecosystems.”  Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences reports that “climate change is dramatically altering the growing patterns of mushrooms, toadstools and other fungi.” Any change in  fungi communities then impacts the diversity of their ecosystems.

One crucial question is if symbiotic soil fungi will migrate with their sister plants, and the answer is largely unknown.  Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard notes that, “Predictions about where trees will grow in the future have been based primarily on climate models, but there are other factors, like the soil environment, that may limit whether a tree species will be able to move into a new area.”

It is known fungi inform trees of coming stressors and send the necessary nutrients, even communicating between trees via their underground networks.  But climate change can also foster the conditions for deadly fungal diseases, as is happening to coffee trees in Central America.  Henk Visscher of Utrecht University explains that when a forest is depleted by environmental stresses, fungal diseases can result in massive tree deaths.  Climate change makes mammals more vulnerable to fungal diseases too.

As mentioned, the media primarily focuses on the relationship between fungi and carbon, and this dynamic is scanty understood.  It is known much of the earth’s carbon dioxide is stored and slowly released from the soil.  Only recently has it been realized the amount of carbon stored and released depends on the type of fungi present in a given area.  Some writers persist in imagining there could be some climate change magic bullet, perhaps even a type of fungi.  Yet the most likely scenario is that global warming will speed up the rate at which fungi decompose soil, hence releasing more carbon dioxide.  This may be more pronounced in northern climates, which have more carbon dioxide in the soil to begin with.  The increasing understanding of fungi and soil carbon should at least lead to more accurate global warming models.

Protestant Popery-2

Human Animals in Particular

We now turn to our own species. Poor nations, island nations, and oppressed groups within all nations are being most impacted by climate change.  As Sarah Milner-Barry points out, “It is a particularly unpleasant reality of climate change—that those societies that have emitted the most greenhouse gases are not going to be the ones to bear the brunt of its destabilizing effects.”  Laura Tierney states:

Indigenous people, who often rely on subsistence agriculture, are suffering even more because their health is so closely linked to the health of the environment. Rising temperatures are no longer conducive to growing agricultural crops, and flooding often ruins possible crop yields. Indigenous tribes in Africa, South America, the South Pacific, and the Arctic are being prevented from living according to their traditions because their lives are at risk due to an increasing shortage of natural resources and an endangered landscape. Even native people in developed countries are often separated from the dominant society, such as in the United States or Australia, and may not have access to the resources of the industrialized world. Minorities in the United States, too, face the brunt of the climate crisis because they are at a higher risk for the health problems associated with smog and global warming.

Particular concerns for humans include infrastructure damagedisplacementfood security and rising food pricesmulti-system failuresincreased allergens and respiratory diseaseviolence against women and intra-group violence, and global security.  At the conclusion of our atmospheric studies we will look at air pollution, and in a coming week freshwater supplies.

40 percent of adults worldwide have never heard of climate change (correlating to education access), and nearly half of Americans are in denial either that it is happening or that it is human-caused.

Image taken from page 208 of 'Seas and Skies in Many Latitudes; or, Wanderings in search of weather ... Maps and illustrations' | by The British Library-3

Climate Projections for the U.S.

Average precipitation in the U.S. has been increasing in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southern Great Plains, with the Southeast and Southwest experiencing both increases and decreases.  In recent years the number of intense heat waves has nearly tripled from the long-term average.

Mountain ecosystems are particularly sensitive, and the higher elevations of the Rockies in Montana, Wyoming, and Northern Idaho have experienced three times the global average temperature increase in the last century. It is projected Montana’s Glacier National Park will have no glaciers remaining within 30 years.  The length of the frost-free season is increasing across the country, most strongly in the Northwest and Southwest.  The EPA projects the snow season will continue to shorten, Atlantic hurricanes intensify, and the North become wetter and South drier.

But is it human caused?

You may have heard it argued that yes, the earth is warming and climate changing, but this is within the “natural range” of fluctuation.  The question is if these changes are anthropogenic, or human made.  Capitalist interests churn out propaganda suggesting there is legitimate debate over this question, but there is not.

There are natural forces that effect the climate, like volcanic eruptions and changes in the sun’s intensity.  But the Royal Academy explains that if only these factors are considered, climate simulations show scant warming, or even a little cooling, over the 20th century.  The models only match observed changes when they factor in human influence.

Scientists have been able to model how carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, and this is now backed up with observation as well.  Meanwhile scientists directly measure greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.   Since 1958, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has been charting carbon dioxide levels (measured as parts per million molecules).  The first reading was 313 ppm; by 2013 it had reached 400 ppm. Researcher Ralph Keeling said of the 400 ppm mark, “Two or three million years ago was the last time we had concentrations in this range, so we’re moving into territory that’s almost outside the scope of human existence on the planet at this point.”  (The level was 280 ppm for most of human history.)

And while this concentration has not been seen for millions of years, the speed of change is completely unprecedented.  Michael Mann sums up, “It took nature hundreds of hundreds of millions of years to change carbon dioxide concentrations through natural processes such as natural carbon burial and volcanic outgassing.  So, yes, 100 million years ago during the early Cretaceous period, carbon dioxide concentrations were higher than today, and the earth was warmer than today. Nature buried all of that carbon over a timeframe of 100,000 years. What we are doing is unburying it. But not over 100 million years. We’re unburying it and burning it over a timescale of 100 years, a million times faster. There is no precedent in earth history for such an abrupt increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The rapidity of change is reflected in other metrics.  Extinctions, for instance, generally occur at a rate of one to five species per year.  But we are currently at 1,000 to 10,000 times this rate, with dozens of species becoming extinct daily in what is now called the sixth great extinction.  The Center for Biological Diversity explains, “Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us.”  The unprecedented speed of these changes makes it particularly difficult to project what the earth will look like in coming decades.  


What is certain is that the body of knowledge is enough–quite more than enough–to act upon.  Oceanography professor Laura Tenenbaum reflected when carbon levels reached the 400 ppm mark:

As a college professor who lectures on climate change, I will have to find a way to look into those 70 sets of eyes that have learned all semester long to trust me and somehow explain to those students, my students – who still believe in their young minds that success mostly depends on good grades and hard work, who believe in fairness, evenhandedness, and opportunity – how much we as people have altered our environment, and that they will end up facing the consequences of our inability to act.

More recently climate researcher Susanne Moser said bluntly, “What we’re beginning to understand is that there’s no way out.  We need transformational change. We don’t need more studies.”  This leaves us at the limits of all of the highly informed, rightfully cited, and peer judged papers.  While many researchers have heroically catalogued what is happening and why, they cannot finally tell us what to do.  Correct action can only arise from the collective imagination and courage of those who have first shaken off the lethargy of denial.

Pariserliv i Firserne-4

Previous Chapters in Environmental Handbook for Non-Scientific Minds:

1.1 Global Warming

Image 1: from page 73 of The Doldenhorn and Weisse Frau. Ascended for the First Time with 11 Coloured Engravings from Sketches by P. Gosset and E. V. Fellenberg, 4 Woodcuts and a Coloured Map by J. R. Stengel, 1863, via The British Library on Flickr 

Image 2: from page 76 of Mountain Ascents in Westmoreland and Cumberland by John Barrow, 1886, via The British Library on Flickr 

Image 3: Planet Earth Book

Image 4:  from page 12 of The Earth and its Inhabitants. The European Section of the Universal Geography by Élisée Reclus, edited by E. G. Ravenstein, 1878, via The British Library on Flickr 

Image 5: from page 288 of La Terre: Description des Phénomènes de la Vie du Globe by Élisée Reclus, 1870, via The British Library on Flickr

Image 6: from page 92 of Protestant Popery by Nicholas Amherst, 1718, via The British Library on Flickr 

Image 7: from page 208 of Seas and Skies in Many Latitudes; or, Wanderings in Search of Weather … Maps and Illustrations by Ralph Abercromby, 1888, via The British Library on flickr

Image 8: from page 50 of The Lake Country by W.J. Linton, 1864, via The British Library on flickr

Image 9: from page 361 of Pariserliv i Firserne … Med talrige Illustrationer by Richard Kaufmann, 1885, via The British Library on Flickr 

Image taken from page 96 of '[Pre-Adamite Man; or the story of our old planet, etc. [By Mrs. G. J. C. D.]]' | by The British Library

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The “greenhouse effect” is actually the lovely system which made the earth habitable to so many forms of life to begin with. By natural processes, gases high in the atmosphere—including carbon dioxide and methane—act as a mantle around the planet. So as the sun warms the earth, some of the heat remains trapped in the atmosphere. Without this gaseous cocoon, the earth would be 33 degrees cooler.

With the Industrial Revolution, some humans began burning huge amounts of fossil fuels—including coal, gas, and oil—which emit carbon dioxide. This makes the cocoon of greenhouse gas thicker, known as enhanced greenhouse effect. As more heat becomes trapped in the atmosphere, the planet warms.

CO2 Graph, 1900 - 2010Carbon Dioxide Emissions Over the Past Decade

Since 1880, the earth has warmed about .8 degrees Celsius. Bill McKibbens’ much discussed article explains how we’ve already seen much worse damage than predicted: “A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and … the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.”  Every day brings a new damning headline on the impacts of global warming. In just the past week troops have been deployed to battle fires on the west coast, scientists reported that the likelihood of a severe drought in California doubled over the past century, and the Global Food Security program warned of food shortages and severe price hikes in coming decades.

The world’s dominant nations wanted to set the target cap for global warming at 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, while many non-western nations demanded a lower threshold. Predictably, the dominant nations won. “2 degrees” was enshrined at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, and those two words circulate like deific truth.

Image taken from page 358 of '[Pre-Adamite Man; or the story of our old planet, etc. [By Mrs. G. J. C. D.]]' | by The British Library

First thing to know: This target is too high.

As Camille Parmesan explains, climate risks don’t begin at 2 degrees; it’s when they go from high to intolerably high. Elizabeth Kolbert asks, “How much does the climate have to change for it to be ‘dangerous’? This question has vexed scientists ever since the first climate models were developed, back in the 1970s. It was provisionally answered in 2009, though by politicians rather than scientists.”  Michael Mann summarizes a recent report by leading climate scientists as follows: “This new article makes a plausible case that even 2 degree warming is extremely dangerous, too dangerous to allow.”

2 degrees will likely herald:

  • Wildfires in the United States increasing in size by 400 to 800 percent.
  • Several meters of sea level rise.
  • The complete loss of coral reefs.
  • 20 to 30 percent of animals and plants species at “increasingly high risk of extinction,” with amphibians being particularly vulnerable.
  • Certain crops in the United States, India, and Africa decreasing 10 to 30 percent.
  • Available freshwater declining by 20 percent.

Sources: CNNNBCE&E Publishing

(Again noting scientists have historically underestimated the speed and strength of climate change.)

Second thing to know: As dire as 2 degrees is, it is unreachable within the given political paradigm.

We are currently on track to hit the 2 degree target before 2050, then hurtle on to 3 to 5 degrees by 2100. For reference, the earth was only 5 degrees cooler during the last Ice Age. It is impossible to predict what the planet would look like at these temperatures, or what precise digit heralds human extinction.

To stay below the 2 degree target, greenhouse gas emissions would need to be slashed 80 to 90 percent by 2050. Yet Obama’s “radical” Clean Power Plan only calls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Six governors have said their states won’t comply, 15 states are preparing to sue the EPA, and Jeb Bush sputtered over how “irresponsible” it all is. Yes, even this sham of reform has been renounced by every Republican presidential candidate.  Meanwhile President Obama has approved risky drilling in the Arctic, and the government continues to drill into our federal lands.

CAIT Climate Data Explorer
CAIT Climate Data Explorer: click for interactive graph

Before concluding this depressing chapter, it must be noted where these emissions come from. Ten countries produce over 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (counting the European Union as a single nation). They are in order: China, United States, EU, India, Russian Federation, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Iran. Meanwhile, the lowest 100 emitters contribute less than 3 percent. There is some shuffling at the bottom of this list over time, but this constitutes the most recent data available online circa 2012.

Another way to look at the numbers: Just 90 companies produced nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the industrial age. Eighty-three are oil, gas, and coal companies, and the remaining seven produce cement. You will recognize names such as Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell.

And yet another framework is examining what activities generate the most greenhouse gas emissions.  Globally 25 percent are released from electricity and heat production.  Agriculture, forestry, and other land use account for nearly a quarter, with raising livestock responsible for a stunning 18 percent (more than the global emissions from all transportation).  Industry comes in at 21 percent. Notably in the U.S., the Department of Defense accounts for 80 percent of federal government energy consumption, totaling 70 million metric tons of carbon emission and $20.4 billion in 2012.  Yet it is impossible to know the true tally because the DoD does not include the energy use of contractors in its data.

It is also important to know that while less methane is released into the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is 34 times more potent.  We will look at this in greater detail within the context of both the oceans and livestock farming.

The Lake Country edited.jpg

It is alarming how few people are aware of global warming numbers, and how many concerned about climate change still see it as a slow or shadowy beast on the horizon. This is not an issue that will be met by unborn generations: it is here now, and quickly nearing unbearable proportions. For everyone fighting for social justice, it is time to realize there will be no humans, and hence no human rights to defend, if we do not combine our efforts into the fight against fossil fuel emissions.

In sum, if you have any affection for the human species or the millions of mystical creatures interwoven into this planet with us: This is your issue.

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Image 1: page 96 from Pre-Adamite Man or The Story of Our Old Planet, Etc. by Mrs. G. J. C. Duncans, 1866, via The British Library on flickr

CO2 Graph: Planet Earth Book

Image 2: page 358 from Pre-Adamite Man or The Story of Our Old PlanetEtc. by Mrs. G. J. C. Duncans, 1866, via The British Library on flickr

Image 3: from page 50 of The Lake Country by W.J. Linton, 1864, via The British Library on flickr

Image 4: from page 145 of The Life, Letters, and Writings of Charles Lamb, 1895, via British Library on flickr