Science of climate change made simple

timestamp icon
category icon Columns, Opinion

My greenhouse is covered with a thin plastic film. A few molecules of plastic are all it takes to make it 30 Fahrenheit degrees warmer inside than out. When coal, gasoline, and natural gas are burned, they produce carbon dioxide which traps heat just like the plastic film of my greenhouse.

Green plants recycle carbon dioxide, but they can’t keep up with the amount that we put out. Two hundred years ago, atmospheric CO2 levels were 280 parts-per-million; now they’re over 395 ppm. Every year globally, we burn 9 billion tons of fossil fuels. None of this is disputed.

The debate is about whether or not there are any consequences. Six years ago, the consensus among climate scientists was that man was accelerating climate-change by burning fossil-fuels.

The earth’s climate has always changed but never as fast as now. The change we are experiencing, is a response to the coal and oil we burned 50 to 100 years ago. Our average temperature has risen 1.4 Fahrenheit degrees since the pre-industrial age. Sea-levels are rising due to thermal expansion.

The scientific consensus is that a rise of 3.5 Fahrenheit degrees would be bad but survivable. Even if we stopped burning carbon today, scientists now forecast that we would blow past this mark just from what we’ve done over the last 50 years.

Each year that we continue our reliance on fossil fuels will add $500 billion to the cost of mitigation. Warmer oceans produce stronger storms, so New York is planning to build a sea-wall. The Clark County Health Department is planning for refugees coming from the hot southern states by 2030. The forecast is for the oceans and the Willamette River to rise 2 feet by 2050.

If global carbon emissions are steady for a few decades, temperatures will rise 7 Fahrenheit degrees producing more super-storms, super-droughts, and millions of heat refugees. But global carbon emissions are not steady, they’re increasing. The coal industry will facilitate more increases with its plan to export 36 miles of coal trains from Montana, through the Columbia Gorge, to Asia.

If we continue business as usual, temperatures will rise 13 degrees. At some point, climate change will be irreversible, and survivors living in caves. We can’t take a wait-and-see attitude because there are 50 years between cause and effect.

There is hope. Gov. Schwarzenegger recently said, “If every state were as efficient as California, we could close three-fourths of our coal burning power plants tomorrow.”

If the Asians don’t get our coal, they will have greater incentive to use their own solar equipment. The Chinese have copied German solar technology. They made it better and sell it cheaper than anyone in the world.

Exporting coal is the worst thing we can do.

Vancouver resident Don Steinke is a retired physics teacher.