Cause versus effect: a children’s story about global warming

“Once upon a time there was a scientist who lived in a far off land. He was very smart, able, and filled with novel ideas. His name was ….”

Really!? Is that the level to which journalism and science communication has sunk for the purposes of explaining global warming to the public? To listen to commentators these days, one might fairly believe that only stories beginning with “Once upon a time” stand any chance of airing.

After Superstorm Sandy arrived and retreated, various TV shows sought to “inform” the public about the linkage or lack thereof between global warming and storms. True to form, technical experts of various stripes were trotted out and asked their august opinions. They ranged from ridiculous to indecipherable, not to mention misleading, but one well-intentioned spokesperson really grabbed my attention.

Purportedly speaking “for” the linkage, this technical expert offered as his opening statement the qualifier that: “there is no direct link between any one storm and global warming,” or words to that effect. I was left to ask: “Seriously?”

Au contraire, in point of fact, all storms are the result of global warming! Indeed, it is basically the energy accumulated into the oceans, atmosphere and environment by greenhouse gases which cause the atmosphere of Earth to behave as energetically as it does; well, assuming that you include gravity and the spin of the Earth to give the story a little more interest and complexity.

However, the raw underlying fact is that “the greenhouse effect,” AKA “global warming,” sometimes awkwardly labeled “climate change” is the main driving force behind the energy content of the oceans and atmosphere, which energy itself manifests as weather, climate, storms, rain, snow, and whatnot as it interacts with water and other gases in myriad ways.

Were it not for the greenhouse effect, the planet would be an extremely chilly –19 degrees centigrade (C), or -2.2 F, as opposed to its relatively mild average of 14 degrees C (57.2 F). Put another way, the presence of greenhouse gases causes an upward swing in temperature of 33 C, or about 60 F. To suggest that greenhouse gases do not have a powerful effect on our lives, weather and storms is simple nonsense.

Indeed, without the dynamic equilibrium created by the “greenhouse effect” resulting from the sun’s interaction with the specific chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere, the planet would be predominately frozen dirt.

It’s worth noting that when MIT recently informed us that the average global temperature will rise by 7 C or 11 F by the end of the 21st century as a result of release of excess greenhouse gases, that temperature rise is relative to a value of 33 C. Seven degrees is, relatively speaking, an enormous temperature increase.

As for how much net additional energy is added each year, in February 2011, I pointed out: “Each year, Earth’s oceans retain an extra amount of energy equal to 35 times the entire energy usage of the U.S. in 2008. That’s the energy released by 64 million Hiroshima atomic bombs, or the energy released by one Hiroshima bomb over every 3 square miles of Earth’s surface.”

A year later, in February 2012, Dr. James Hansen told a TED audience: “The [Earth’s] total energy imbalance [due to excess greenhouse gases] now is about six-tenths of a watt per square meter. That may not sound like much, but when added up over the whole world, it's enormous. It's about 20 times greater than the rate of energy use by all of humanity. It’s equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year. That's how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day.”

In sum, Hansen’s calculation for the annual net increase of energy for the entire planet, not just the oceans, is equal to exploding 145 million Hiroshima atomic bombs per year!

Did Superstorm Sandy have more energy in it as a result of global warming? The answer must be “yes.” How could it not? The whole planet does every day!

Thus, by journalists and others framing obscure questions in obtuse ways, we are subtly invited to listen trustingly and uncritically to a distracting debate about the myriad “results” which are made to seem artificially complex. In fact, by merely understanding and sticking with the intensifying “greenhouse effect” as the basic cause of global warming, our situation reveals itself as not really that complicated after all: bad, but not complicated.

Cutting to the heart of the matter and chopping away at the dead wood of silly arguments reveals that we are in big trouble, with challenges that will overwhelm us if we don’t get to work on massively reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases immediately.

If we don’t, the last line of our childrens’ story will not end: “And they lived happily ever after.”

Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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