The Goldilocks Planet
Our planet, Earth, is the only planet in the known universe able to support life. I stress here the word “known,” as statisticians are able to say that as there are trillions of planets in the universe, millions of them must support life. We also know of many planets orbiting stars which are said to be “Goldilocks” planets, as they are (as Goldilocks would say), just right. But they are only just right as far as the position and size go, but for liquid water and surface gravity, we have no idea really whether they could support life or not. Add into these uncertainties the fact that the nearest star is 4 light years away, which is approximately 24 trillion miles, and all of these so-called “Goldilocks planets” are much further away than that. The nearest is about 12 light years away. Our current methods of space travel allow speeds of around 160,000 mph, using gravitational slingshots, but by rockets alone, can only reach around 30,000 mph. It would take about 15,000 years to get to even the nearest star by current technology, making those “Goldilocks” planets as much of a fairy-tale as the original story.
So let’s focus on the real story, which is our own little planet Earth, which, as I said, is the only planet in the universe known to be able to support life, and the only home we have. On the Earth we have just the right temperature. Our position relative to the sun should make the Earth a relatively cold planet, an ice planet, rather than the blue planet we know today. During the ice age it was a cold planet, and what we believe ended that was a change in the Earth’s atmosphere through volcanic activity, which caused more of the Sun’s radiant energy to be retained. So, now, we have the right temperature, just about the right amount of water and land, just the right solid composition, and at this distance from the sun, we have just the right atmosphere. This is an atmosphere just right for both us and plants to symbiotically coexist, with a constant exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen between us. The Earth has just the right humidity and the right conditions for rainfall. It has the magnetic field that prevents the solar wind from blowing our atmosphere away. We have the ozone layer which protects us from savage levels of ultraviolet radiation. So, all of this is just right, as Goldilocks would say, and the Earth is really the only planet we can say with any certainty is “The Goldilocks planet.”
Life and Water
The conditions for the survival of life on this planet are so precarious and unusual that our existence is something of a miracle. Look at the behavior of water, for example. We all learn at school that as things get colder they contract, and having the same mass, are therefore more dense. Water behaves in the same way, but when it reaches 4°C, it starts to expand again and become less dense, so that the solid form of water, ice, is less dense than the water and floats on the top of it. In the winter, instead of the coldest water falling to the bottom and freezing at the bottom, it is the water at 4°C that falls to the bottom, so ice, which is less dense, forms on the top. This allows aquatic creatures to survive in the liquid water at the bottom. So, if it were not for this peculiar behavior of water, aquatic life and therefore possibly all life on land would not have been possible. This just adds to all those other things I have mentioned, the ozone layer, the magnetic field, and so on, without which our life would not be possible, and which make this planet Earth so unique.
The Tree of Knowledge, and The Garden of Eden
In the past few hundred years there has been a great evolution in awareness of the nature of our planet. Prior to Copernicus and Galileo, people thought that the Earth was at the very center of the entire universe, and even that the Earth was the entire universe, with the sun and moon being lights put into the sky by God for the convenience of mankind. The stars were merely fairy lights to decorate the night sky for our amusement. It was a very comforting picture, and one that claimed that we, like little children on our playground, were being looked over by the great Father God to see that all was well, and that no harm could come to us.
Since the time it was accepted that Copernicus and Galileo were correct, and that the Earth travels around the sun, we have made more and more startling discoveries about the nature of the universe, and we now know that the Earth is no more than a speck of dust in a boiling cauldron of chaos. If cosmologists are correct, eventually the stars will all fade, one by one, and the universe will become an infinite, lifeless, expanse of nothingness and darkness, enduring forever. This is all quite a dramatic shift of perspective for us to have to face, and, just as in the Garden of Eden, eating from the Tree of Knowledge has cast us out from childlike innocence to an adulthood full of insecurity, and uncertainty.
Grown-up Responsibilities, and Challenges
We know that the conditions for the survival of life on this planet are so precarious and unusual that our life is much more of a miracle than it seemed, even in those comforting days when we thought the Earth was our playground — permanent, safe, and secure. We now have to understand that the continuance of life on this planet is our responsibility, and considering the supreme idiocy, carelessness, and ignorance, displayed by so many, the thought that our survival depends on all people and nations cooperating is a scary thought.
There are known hazards that we will have to deal with sometime in the future. We might, or might not, survive the merging of the Milky Way galaxy with Andromeda, which is hurtling towards us. At some time in the future, all the hydrogen in the sun will have been converted to helium, at which point the precarious balance between gravity and the explosive outpourings of energy from the sun will shift to allow an expansion, and our Sun will become a red giant, and our little planet Earth, a glowing ember inside the Sun’s outer atmosphere. Before that, the Earth’s core might cease to generate the magnetic field, which protects us from the ferocious solar wind emanating from the Sun, and all our atmosphere might be swept away. Before that, super-volcanoes, such as at Yellowstone national park in the USA might erupt, filling the atmosphere with ash and blotting out the sun’s warmth for months.
Rocks in Space
In the 18th century, when scientists thought that planetary motion worked just like their clockwork models, with perfect spheres moving in perfect circles, in perfectly empty space, the idea that shooting stars might be pieces of space rock burning up in the atmosphere, was refuted by the bland statement by the French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, “Stones cannot fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky.” This is a good illustration of how we tend to impose our concepts upon reality, and refuse to see what is in front of our faces. Now we know that there are countless millions of rocks hurtling about in space, and the Earth could be struck by one at any time, with catastrophic consequences. There are people monitoring all those near-Earth objects, but so far, we have not come up with any concerted effort to ensure that we would be able to do anything about any one of them being on a collision course with our planet.
Although there are so many hazards in the future, there is one hazard that is with us right now, and if there were a Father God, it is just the sort of thing they might have come up with as an initiative test — a kind of easy one to start with, to see if mankind is capable of co-operating and working together in a rational way to overcome a simple problem, before we have to go on to survive much more difficult problems in the future. So, how are we doing? Not very well, I fear.
When Did We First Know About Global Warming?
Beginning with work by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s, scientists had understood that gases in the atmosphere might trap the heat received from the Sun. As Fourier said,
“Energy in the form of visible light from the Sun easily penetrates the atmosphere to reach the surface and heat it up, but heat cannot so easily escape back into space, for the air absorbs invisible heat rays, (‘infra-red radiation’), rising from the surface.”
The warmed air radiates some of the energy back down to the surface, helping it stay warm. This would later be called the “greenhouse effect.”
In 1859, the Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that some gases have the ability to absorb radiant heat, thereby explaining and confirming the greenhouse effect. Tyndall set out to find which, if any, gases in the atmosphere could absorb radiant heat. He identified several gases that did so, including water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2).
Svante Arrhenius was a Swedish scientist who was the first to claim, in 1896, that burning fossil fuels might cause global warming. He hypothesized a correlation between CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and temperature. He believed that the average surface temperature of the earth is about 15°C because of the capacity of water vapor and carbon dioxide to absorb radiant heat. This he called the greenhouse effect. Arrhenius suggested a doubling of the CO2 concentration would lead to a 5°C temperature rise. He, along with Thomas Chamberlin, calculated that human activities would warm the Earth by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
In 1938, G.S. Callendar argued that concentrations of carbon dioxide were increasing and raising global temperature. By the 1950s, most scientists accepted the idea of global warming, and believed that CO2 plays a crucial role in climate change, so that rising levels would have significant consequences.
In 1959 the physicist Teller gave a warning to the US oil industry that burning fossil fuels could cause global warming. (See CleanTechnica Article)
Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. [….] The carbon dioxide is invisible, it is transparent, you can’t smell it, it is not dangerous to health, so why should one worry about it? Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infra-red radiation which is emitted from the Earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect [….] It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.
At present the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 2 per cent over normal. By 1970, it will be perhaps 4 per cent, by 1980, 8 per cent, by 1990, 16 per cent [about 360 parts per million, by Teller’s accounting], if we keep on with our exponential rise in the use of purely conventional fuels. By that time, there will be a serious additional impediment for the radiation leaving the earth. Our planet will get a little warmer. It is hard to say whether it will be 2 degrees Fahrenheit or only 1°, or 5°.
But when the temperature does rise by a few degrees over the whole globe, there is a possibility that the ice-caps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise. Well, I don’t know whether they will cover the Empire State Building or not, but anyone can calculate it, by looking at the map, and noting that the ice-caps over Greenland, and over Antarctica, are perhaps 5,000 feet thick.
From July 23rd to the 27th, 1979, a scientific assessment of carbon dioxide and climate was made, and a report produced at Woods Hole, Massachusetts USA.
This was a report to the Climate Research Board, the Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and the National Research Council. In that report they stated:
For more than a century, we have been aware that changes in the composition of the atmosphere could affect its ability to trap the sun’s energy for our benefit. We now have incontrovertible evidence that the atmosphere is indeed changing, and that we ourselves contribute to the change. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are steadily increasing, and these changes are linked with man’s use of fossil fuels and exploitation of the land. Since carbon dioxide plays a significant role in the budget of the atmosphere it is reasonable to suppose that continued increases would affect climate.
In their conclusion they stated:
Having examined the principal attempts to simulate the effects of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate, we can assume a rate of increase that would lead to a doubling of airborne concentration at some time in the first half of the 21st-century. From this doubling we can predict a global surface warming of between 2° and 3.5° Celsius. However, it is expected that absorption of heat in the oceans, will initially mitigate the effects of warming, but that warming will eventually turn, and the associated regional climatic changes may well be significant.
An article appeared in Inside Climate News by Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer. In the article they state:
In July 1977, at a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.
In 1978, he warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.
The article goes on to say that at first, Exxon responded by launching its own research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and its impact on the Earth, but then began to see it mainly as a problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business. Toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. and worked instead at the forefront of climate denial, to create doubt about the reality of global warming. It lobbied against federal and international action to control greenhouse-gas emissions, and helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day. The millions of dollars Exxon spent since the 1990s on climate change deniers has long surpassed what it had once invested in climate science.
Current Climate Change Deniers
So, here we have it. Although Trump and his administration like to pretend that there is no such thing as global warming, that it is all a hoax invented by the Chinese, and have even eradicated all mention of it on government websites, and although the US oil industry appears to have taken the opportunity to spread misinformation and doubt concerning climate change, the science has been well-established starting from the early part of the 19th century. There is absolutely no doubt that our climate is deteriorating due to our own activities, and if these activities are not brought under control there is a very real danger that the Earth will no longer be able to support life. It seems extraordinary to me that individuals are willing and able to put their short-term economic interests above the continuation of life on Earth, by creating and spreading these false denials of climate change. Such is the unfathomable stupidity and wickedness of some living among us. Equally unfathomable are those who, for no better reason than to inflate their own egos, disseminate these falsehoods on websites, social media, and in comments. They add to the delay of urgent protection for all life on Earth, just so that they can pretend to be members of the inner-circle with the “insider knowledge” that other mere mortals, including 98% of the world’s climate scientists, do not possess.
What We Need to do Now
Had we started to do something about this 50 years ago, we would not need to do much at all right now, and if the politicians had started to actually do something at the time they just started to talk about doing something, the situation would not be as desperate as it is now. So far, despite all the talk, greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing, and to make it worse, the ability of our planet to absorb greenhouse gas emissions is also being reduced by foolish human activity. Global warming, which has already begun, is itself causing more greenhouse gas to be released from the thawing tundra, for example, thereby creating a self-accelerating process. This is accelerated further by the loss of heat-reflective white surfaces at the poles as the ice melts. All of this makes the need for our intervention very urgent, and our action needs to be immediate, robust, and extensive.
Every nation needs to introduce new legislation today which will ensure and encourage investment in, and development of, renewable sources of energy, and which will expedite the installation of what ever renewable energy plant is currently available. They also need to lay definite plans for the phasing out of all fossil fuel burning as alternatives become available, and to make every effort to make those alternatives available as soon as possible. This would include fossil fuel burning in power stations, transport, and for domestic and industrial space heating, and in manufacturing.
In the area of transport, this would need measures for encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles, and for positively discouraging the use of ICE cars, buses, and trucks. Ships, trains, and planes will also need to cease using fossil fuels, and can use biofuels, or where practical be converted to use renewable energy directly. All trains can be electric, as many are already.
In the area of power generation, extensive use needs to be made of wind generators both on-shore and off-shore, solar panels need to be installed wherever possible, and sufficient storage should be installed on the grid to buffer the mismatch between peak production and peak demand. All other methods of energy harvesting, such as hydro, wave, tidal, and geothermal need to be developed and utilized as soon as possible, and all the power produced by fossil fuels must be replaced by renewable energy sources at the earliest possible moment.
For space heating, renewable energy systems are already available, such as solar heat panels and heat pumps operated by renewable electricity. Air conditioning can also be powered by renewable electricity. It is also possible to produce gas from bio-materials, from otherwise non-productive land. (See CleanTechnica article)
In general, it must be made illegal to seek out any new sources of fossil fuels, or to drill any exploratory well or mine to test for the existence of fossil fuel deposits. All current fossil fuel production must cease, and wells and mines decommissioned, as soon as alternative energy sources become available. To put it more simply, all fossil fuels must be left in the ground as soon and as much as is practically possible.
We then need to look at energy efficiency so that the energy we are producing is not wasted. We also need to be conscious of the means by which carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere is absorbed. Plants, ranging from microscopic phytoplankton in the ocean to forest giants, are all absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, and without this process we could not live. We need to nurture and manage all of the land on the planet and the oceans to maximize the total of plant life and plant health.
Methane – The Other Green-House Gas
I have only mentioned CO2 so far, but methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas, and is released into the atmosphere from the following three sources:
Any rotting organic material, on farms, landfill sites, and occurring naturally in peat bogs and the like.
Bovine animals reared for food, of which there are billions of individuals in the world today. They release methane through the mouth, in the process of digestion of plant material.
Oil and gas wells, from which methane constantly leaks unless carefully managed.
It is simply not sustainable to continue consuming animals as food, and we all need to stop doing this for environmental, moral, and health reasons. If you must eat meat, eat birds or fish, or when it comes in, the new “lab” meat. Methane from rotting material needs to be carefully managed, and can be used as a bio-fuel. Methane-oxidizing bacteria can be employed to stop methane emissions, but these become decreasingly effective at temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius. Methane from oil and gas wells will cease once those wells are decommissioned, and in the meantime, it needs to be carefully managed. Methane from wells is a fossil fuel, and so should not be used.
As individuals, we need to look at our own lifestyle to reduce our use of energy and maximize our energy efficiency. This can be by large investments such as photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, electric vehicles, ground source heat pump installations, and home insulation, and also simple, low- or no-cost choices, such as changing what we eat, and how extravagant or otherwise, we are in our use of energy. People also need to stop voting for irrational politicians like Trump in the US, and the Tories in the UK.
This ends Part 1 of this article: in Part 2, coming soon, I will be talking about the contrast between what we need to do, as laid out above, but in more detail, as well as what we are actually doing, and the huge gap between what governments say and what they are actually doing.
In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter.