Math, Facts, and Imbalances

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A movement starting at Do the Math.

It is easy to exclaim that anthropogenic climate change is not happening and will not happen when one does not understand the basic science behind it and only repeats what is argued on TV. It is equally easy to exclaim that anthropogenic climate change is happening and will continue to worsen when one does not know the basic science, but knows that generally trusted people have said this is so. So let’s go over the fundamentals as related to fossil fuels so we can support our arguments.

I am sure that most of us have heard the term greenhouse gas effect used in a negative context without really knowing how it works beyond heating us up like we live behind glass walls. When we receive solar insolation – in the atmosphere or at Earth’s surface – a couple of things can happen. The heat energy can be reflected back outwards.  It can also be absorbed, heating up the planet or the atmosphere. However, we live in an energy budget and Earth must eventually radiate away energy equal to the amount it receives.  The sun is very hot. Because the sun is so hot, the energy it sends to Earth comes in the form of shortwave radiation, mainly visible and ultraviolet light. The Earth is much, much less hot and therefore emits cooler forms of energy. The energy is transformed and radiates back outwards as longwave infrared radiation. There are certain naturally-occurring gases in our atmosphere that are opaque to longwave radiation. These are the greenhouse gases, the main ones being carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and ozone. Because we live in the energy budget and gains and losses must ultimately balance out, that heat energy will eventually leave. But the higher the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the longer it will take to leave, and Earth will become warmer. We need these gases – we’d all be pretty uncomfortably cold without them. For a slightly more in-depth description of this process, check out this PDF from NOAA. (And I must thank my recent climatology professor for my newfound better understanding of all of this).

When left to its own processes, our biosphere and atmosphere take care of the energy budget quite efficiently.  Trees and plants take in CO2 and convert it to sugar for photosynthesis. The ancient carbon sink within the world’s oceans eventually removes CO2 for use in its own biological processes. However, this sink is very slow, usually measured in geological time. As long as the energy budget can stay balanced and the atmosphere is not excessively full of these gases, Earth regulates itself. But since the Industrial Revolution things have changed. This is where burning fossil fuels comes into play.

Fossil fuels are the natural resources we use to power our lives – coal, petroleum, natural gas, crude oil, and tar sands can all be burned and produce energy so that we can drive our cars, power our houses, and build even more industrial complexes. Fossil fuels are also non-renewable and are not due to last too much longer. In the meantime, many companies want to extract and burn as much as they can. When we burn these fuels to produce energy, we emit a lot of those greenhouse gases explained earlier: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other pollutants like volatile organic compounds. We put more of these gases into the air than the Earth’s system is prepared to deal with, and the energy budget becomes imbalanced. The gases trap heat here and as more of it builds up it takes a much longer time to leave. We have a surplus, and our greenhouse warms.

Unfortunately, finding our own balance of economics, convenient lifestyles, and a moderately healthy environment is complex and difficult. Of course there are little things we can all do – I am trying to take public transportation and walk more this semester. But major changes need to come from corporations and governments, and they need to come soon.

I was recently lucky to attend Bill McKibben and 350.org’s Do the Math tour stop in Salt Lake City. McKibben’s goal is to show climate change through numbers, making the harsh reality easily accessible. One of the main numbers he stresses is 2 degrees Celsius. We’re on a path towards raising the average global temperature by this amount, which would have significant effects on weather and ecosystems. The next important number is 565 gigatons – the probable remaining amount of carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere before we surpass a 2 degree Celsius rise. But the lingering reserves of oil, coal, and gas are enough to put out 2,795 gigatons of CO2. And many large corporations are showing no signs of slowing down or looking for alternatives. Take a look at McKibben’s sobering article in Rolling Stone for an detailed explanation of these numbers and the problems surrounding them.

McKibben and the 350 entourage (along with Peaceful Uprising for the Salt Lake City stop) did not come to make us all more depressed about our future. They came to give us hope and ideas and tools with which we can change the status quo. Most universities, Utah included, have invested large amounts of money in fossil fuel companies to generate revenue. McKibben and many others would like to see the opposite start to happen – schools should begin a process of divestment, taking away investments in morally ambiguous areas. The hope is that if we stop giving these companies such strong support, eventually they will have to stop burning fossil fuels and start looking at renewable resources. Divestment is part of the plan to keep away from that looming 565 gigaton statistic. Being a relatively new idea steeped in facts of which many of us are unaware, Fossil Free and 350 have prepared an extremely informative FAQ page. No one is under the impression that this will make a large dent in these ultra-wealthy companies, but hopefully it can be a sort of moral sign.

Utah is quite the hub of fossil fuel burning. This task seems almost insurmountable here, with so many big industries right in our own backyard. But there is plenty of interest, and we have to start somewhere. Recently, students created a Fossil Free U group – you can sign their petition here and look them up on Facebook (DivestTheU) if you’re nearby and want to get involved.

I expected to go to the Do the Math talk and walk out feeling the same way I usually feel when I learn about climate change – depressed and generally powerless. Instead I felt like I had just become part of a powerful movement, and was heartened to know that so many other people care. It’s time to put that caring into action. Bill McKibben and all of his fellow presenters did not focus on being fractured, but on being a community. They spoke of feeling a radical sort of passion in the room that did not stem from embittered anger, but love for the entire community that is Earth. Of finding balance with each other.

It all comes back to this balancing act. We need to balance what we have already altered, but this is enormously complicated. Germany is leading the way with usage of solar power, but is not without resulting economic issues. Somewhere there must be a balance between economics, comfort, morals, and health. Somehow we must balance what we know with what we can realistically do.

For additional, extensive information on the impacts of burning fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect, check out Carbontracker.org’s Unburnable Carbon.

Annie Gilliland is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah and is working with the Office of Sustainability in a fellowship.

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