To Warm or Not to Warm

To Warm or Not to Warm

All right all you folks out there, roll out your yoga mats, get into your lotus position, and take a deep, cleansing breath because I have a tale to tell you. It’s a tale of mustache-twirling villainy, naive townsfolk and lonesome drifters who seem dangerous but might just save the day in the end. Unfortunately it’s also all sciency with Greek and Latin, and, yes Virginia, there will be math, so prepare the right side of your brain as well as the left. Consider it yoga for the brain. It’s an important tale though. The lives of your children and grandchildren depend on you understanding it. So remember, deep, cleansing breaths. 

It was little more than 200 years ago when we discovered Chemistry as we know it. Yes, all of chemistry. Back in 1774, a mad scientist named Joseph Priestly kept playing with bell jars and poking and prodding the trapped air in the bell jars with whatever he could think of, until one day, he zapped it with electricity and saw water form spontaneously from thin air. You weren’t supposed to be able to get water from air—that was philosopher stone, turning lead into gold territory—and Priestly was a scientist! He showed Lavoisier how to do the trick, and Lavoisier concluded that not only was air made up of different things as Priestly had discovered, but it turns out that water is made of 2 parts of our air, oxygen and hydrogen (H2O). Of course none of that stuff had those names yet, they’d just discovered them! 

So, Chemistry (as a science) is only as old as American independence. We’ve done a lot of learning in those 200+ years. Part of that was learning the components (now we call them molecules) of earth’s atmosphere. That part really got a lot of attention when we started to explore other planets and found out they’re not like ours much at all. The moon has no atmosphere. Mars has a very thin atmosphere (like living at 100,000 feet), and Venus has lots of atmosphere, but it’s mostly CO2 (96.5%), and Venus is really, really hot, like hot enough to melt lead on the surface. Yikes! Don’t even get me started on Jupiter and Saturn. You don’t want to know. Scientists realized that part of Venus’ problem was the greenhouse effect. The sun’s energy flowed in, but it didn’t flow back out like on Earth (or especially Mars) because the CO2 just bounced it right back at ya! 

This is where the mustache twirlers come in. Now you may think I’m just unfairly ridiculing serious people, but hear me out. These are the people who were experts at something. They were scientists. One guy was a biologist, and in 1968 he insisted that there’s just too many people and, “[i]n the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” 

Well, that didn’t happen, but, like the televangelist who told you the second coming will definitely happen next week, he tells us that, aside from that one little thing he got wrong, he was right about everything else, like all of us burning in hell from ‘global warming’, a term coined by an oceanographer. Like a lot of us, these types of people were good at writing but not at math. Like the TV commercials where they warn you that eating too many hamburgers might double your risk of getting cranial-rectal cancer (from 1 in 10 million to 2 in 10 million they neglect to say), they don’t lie exactly, they just make something sound like a big deal that might not be such a big deal. 

You see, the atmosphere of Venus, where global warming can melt lead, is 96.5% CO2, and the atmosphere of Earth is .0004% CO2, so when scientists tell you that CO2 levels are on the path to double in 20 (or 30 or 40) years, feel free to believe them. They are scientists after all. But when you realize that, in the immortal words of Trader Jones from Star Trek, “Twice nothing is still nothing,” you might think twice about doubling the number of lottery tickets you buy each week. 

We can say this two ways and be truthful:

“CO2 levels will double in 30 years!” 

“CO2 levels may rise from .0004% of Earth’s atmosphere to .0008% of Earth’s atmosphere!” 

I don’t know about you, but to me, the first sentence sounds a lot scarier. Makes for a much better call to action. We’ve got trouble right here in River City! 

OK, that’s the math part. Wipe the sweat off your forehead. It wasn’t that bad, was it? Now we’re on to the Greek/Latin/Scary-Word part. 

First you should ask yourself why there’s so much oxygen on Earth (21% of the atmosphere). There isn’t any on Mars. Of course, there isn’t really much of any atmosphere on Mars. But there isn’t any oxygen on Venus either, and Venus has plenty of atmosphere, so much it would crush you like a bug even if you could get past the lead-melting temperature. In fact if living on Mars is like living at 100 thousand feet on Earth, living on Venus is only possible at 150 thousand feet up. The universe be crazy like that. Where was I? Oh, yeah, why does Earth have so much oxygen if nobody else does? 

Did you ever wonder how plants grow? Soil, water, sunlight, right? What does the sunlight do for them? It enables this long-named process called photosynthesis. (I told you there’d be Greek). And what that process does is grab the Carbon, the C from CO2, and dump the oxygen, the two Os. In fact if you look closely, you’ll see that a plant farts out 2 parts oxygen for every part carbon it uses to build the complex organic molecules that make up life. Stands to reason then that the more CO2, the more plants and the more oxygen. So, if we double the amount of CO2 and plant enough trees, we’ll generate more oxygen, and the people in Denver and Albuquerque might even be able to breathe easier. Suddenly, doubling that evil CO2 in our atmosphere doesn’t sound so bad, does it? 

There’s one more thing you should consider. Do you like whales? Why would I ask that? Before that smokestack belching, polluting Industrial Revolution, what did people light their houses with? Whale oil. Yep, we killed a lot of whales. And if you’ve ever read Moby Dick—even part of it—you know it wasn’t much more fun for the whalers than it was for the whales. 

Life wasn’t much better for salt miners back then either. You had to keep drilling deeper and deeper to get enough salt, and then, one day, this poisonous black goo comes oozing out of the ground, ruining your salt and leaving you destitute. Samuel Kier’s business was drilling for salt, and in 1850 his drills tapped a vein of oil next to the salt. In the spirit of free enterprise and what one might call pioneering recycling, he decided he shouldn’t just burn it off or dump it in a river like the other salt miners did. He determined to make something useful out of that black goo. He burned it in lamps to light his business at night, but it still smelled and put out a lot of black smoke. He went to a chemist, who developed the process to refine it into kerosene which burned with little smoke or odor. The refining process though, left a waste liquid known as gasoline. Eventually, popularizers of the internal combustion engine, started recycling even that cheap waste product to make their automobile fuel. 

So when somebody complains about other people’s carbon footprint, remember that recycling wasn’t invented in the 1970s. Those people we now think of as polluters were doing their best to clean up the environment way back at the beginnings of that evil, polluting Industrial Revolution, and they actually made fortunes doing it (and not from government subsidies). So, I’d think twice before casting aspersions, and you might consider buying up the local dump as an investment in your and our future. Remember, your clean fuel of today may be somebody else’s dirty, disgusting garbage of tomorrow and vice versa, even if that’s the way it started out before you began to make money off it. 

One response to “To Warm or Not to Warm”

  1. awesome Frank, few people will listen or understand, and even may fight you on this topic, and yet it is certainly true. What will we do in a world where people prefer fiction as fact and refuse the actual facts?


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