Underlying Themes

Here are some different ways to think about climate change:

PLAYING CHEMISTRY WITH THE EARTH: It would be appropriate for all of us to be wearing white lab coats. Like kids who used to play around with chemistry sets in the basement, we are playing around with the chemistry of the earth’s atmosphere as we do understandable things like drive cars to get where we need to go, and run furnaces to stay warm in winter. This is powerful chemistry. In just a couple hundred years, our machines have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by 40%, and made the oceans 30% more acidic. Imagine if your blood pH or sugar levels changed by that much.

ABOVE GROUND vs UNDERGROUND: Like water, carbon dioxide (CO2) is a “good” molecule that can be harmful if there’s too much of it in the wrong place. Plants eat CO2 to make food. We then eat the food and exhale CO2, which then dutifully flies off to feed the plants again. This is the wonderful, eternal cycle of carbon in our above ground world. Meanwhile, CO2 in the air acts like an invisible blanket, keeping the planet warm. What’s not to like? It took hundreds of millions of years for the earth to establish a hospitable balance between the carbon above ground and the carbon stored underground (as coal, oil, and natural gas). By digging up those underground fuels and releasing their carbon into the air through exhaust pipes and chimneys, we upset that balance and radically change the climate. About half of the extra CO2 is absorbed by the oceans, where it turns into an acid. The other half stays in that thin layer of atmosphere above us, where it acts like the closed windows of a parked car in summer, trapping more and more of the sun’s heat. Thus, too much of a “good” molecule does harm.

THE EARTH AS A BODY: Why should we be worried if the earth heats up a couple degrees? Think of how you feel if your internal temperature rises above 98.6 degrees. A degree or two makes a big difference. Our bodies closely regulate things like temperature, blood sugar levels, and pH. The earth’s systems, too, are affected by even small changes in overall temperature.

UN-INTENTION: News, movies, and the law focus on those who do intentional harm. But what if the greatest harm is being done unintentionally and legally--a sort of collateral damage built into the lifestyles of good people doing good things? Climate change demonstrates the power of collective action, as each one of us contributes un-intentionally to the problem. Meanwhile, political forces undermine our collective capacity to act intentionally to find solutions. We then become victims of unintended consequences.

POPULATION: Population growth multiplies each individual’s personal environmental impact. Thus, each must become more responsible even as sheer numbers make us feel individually less influential. Accumulating collective capacity for good or harm comes as the consequent growth in the size of institutions makes them more unwieldy.

SPEED OF CHANGE: Though climate has changed in the past, the speed of today’s human-caused change is many times faster than the historical norm, overwhelming nature’s capacity to adapt.

An overdose of carbon dioxide is the ultimate diabolical way to sabotage life’s oasis in space. The fossil fuels are wonderfully useful, the resulting pollution is invisible and without odor, the negative impacts are delayed, early symptoms are hidden within normal weather fluctuations, and the effect is permanent.

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