The good news behind climate change ‘tipping point’

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I love chemistry. I majored in chemistry in college and then I taught chemistry for 38 years. And now I have been studying the chemistry of global warming.

After lots of analysis, looking at data and examining various articles, I have come to the understanding that global warming is real and we are partly the cause of it. I am concerned, but I am not worried. I am in the middle of an argument.

At one end of this argument there are deniers of global warming and, near them, people who acknowledge that there is warming, but believe it is just natural climate change. At the other end of the argument we have people who talk about tipping points and that, soon, it will be the end of the world. Neither extreme is accurate.

Temperature is the measure of the average kinetic energy of atoms or molecules. It is a measure of their motion. It is an average because there are a huge number of particles and they don’t all move at the same speed. There are three temperature scales: Fahrenheit (F), Celsius (C) and Kelvin (K). There are 6,300 places around the world where temperature and weather data are measured. The average temperature of the planet from 1951 to 1980 was 57 degrees F or 14 degrees C — both are the same temperature; they are different scales. In 2018, the average global temperature was 58.5 degrees F, an increase of 1.5 degrees F from the baseline of 1951 to 1980. The year 2018 was the fourth warmest year since we have been measuring.

While the temperature has been increasing, a scientist named Charles Keeling noticed that carbon dioxide is also increasing. For the last 10,000 years, carbon dioxide concentrations have varied from 275 to 285 parts per million (ppm) by volume. In 1958, it was 315 ppm. In May 2013, it exceeded 400 ppm for the first time. Experiments show that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Larger molecules like carbon dioxide, those consisting of at least three atoms, are better able to absorb solar energy than smaller molecules. Our air is mostly nitrogen and oxygen gas, both of which are made of two atoms.

We burn a lot of fuel to get energy. This combustion produces a lot of carbon dioxide. We are partially responsible for global warming.

At the other end of the argument are those that think the end of the world is near. Merriam-Webster defines “tipping point” as “the critical point in a situation, process or system, beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.” Some people claim that if the Earth warms up 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) more than the 1951-1980 baseline mankind will have passed a tipping point and there will be nothing we can do about global warming; we will be too late. The baseline average is 57 degrees F. We are now at 58.5 degrees F. If we reach 60.6 degrees F, the Earth’s atmosphere will just keep getting warmer no matter what we do.

When I searched online for the origin of 2 degrees C, I discovered it was a political goal. In 1975, an economist mentions 2 degrees. In the 1990s, the Stockholm Environment Institute suggests 2 degrees C as the maximum warming policy-makers should allow. There are lots of articles on its history. It is a political goal.

In a study published in Nature Geoscience, a person said that if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceed 1,200 ppm, it could push the Earth’s climate over a “tipping point.” This is three times our current concentration. And the author used the word “could.” Could is speculation, not scientific fact.

Somehow, a political goal — 2 degree C — has been combined with a speculation: that there could be a tipping point.

In examining the definition of tipping point, I am taking issue with the word “unstoppable.”

Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases; if those gases are removed, then the sun will not be warming our atmosphere as much. Warming will be reversed.

Chemistry has Le Chatelier’s principle, which states that, whenever change is applied to a system at equilibrium, the system will respond to reduce the effect of the change. In very simple terms, it will resist. Our atmosphere is a chemical system. Note that we have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide by more than 26 percent, but the temperature of the atmosphere has only increased 1.5 degrees F. The atmosphere is resisting.

This is the exact opposite of a tipping point. Every chemistry book has Le Chatelier’s principle in it. I have never seen a chemistry book with “tipping point” in it.

In summary, global warming is real, we are part of the cause and we need to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — but it is not the end of the world.

Bruce Stanton is a retired Washougal High School chemistry teacher. He graduated from Willamette University in Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry; earned his master’s of science degree from Oregon State University; and went on to teach high school for 38 years, including 20 years in Alaska and 18 years at Washougal High. Stanton can be reached via email at