Saturday, 27 March 2010

Earth Hour

So, I’m sitting here in the dark, the only illumination being the dim light from my computer monitor, doing my symbolic bit for awareness of global warming. In case you didn’t know, we have Earth Hour this evening, where various organisations have asked us to turn off our lights for an hour as a sign of our awareness for the need for action on climate change. And wondering if it’s going to do a damn bit of good.

It is, I suppose, understandable that, after the long cold winter we’ve had, people don’t seem to be as worried about global warming as they used to be. An opinion poll published in Der Spiegel today reveals that only 42% of Germans fear the effects climate change could bring, down 20% on figures three and a half years ago. Similar results are reported from Great Britain. Apparently, recent criticism of admitted inaccuracies in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the public debate resulting from it has made many people feel that there has been a large amount of scaremongering about the whole issue. A quarter of all Germans even believe that Germany could profit overall from climate change.

I am not an expert in climate studies, but there are a couple of things that seem clear to me. Firstly, last winter means nothing – even if it did have me occasionally wishing for global warming as, shivering, I trudged my way carefully along icy footpaths or dug my car free from deep blankets of snow. That was just weather; we will go on having warmer and colder winters – and summers. Climate change is about long-range trends, over decades and centuries and that’s where the problems start. The statistics science really needs just haven’t been kept for that long, so the scientists have to rely on secondary evidence, tree rings and ice probes and such things. And that’s one of the main things making the data so open to different interpretations and conclusions.

But there are a couple of basic facts which give cause for concern. World population has been increasingly rapidly since the beginning of the industrial age. Two hundred years ago, it was around one billion, a hundred years ago 1.7 billion, fifty years ago 3 billion, ten years ago 6 billion, and around the end of this year we’re going to crack the 7 billion mark. Now all these people produce a lot of heat just by living and consume a hell of a lot of energy – particularly if they live well (which many don’t, but the amount who do is much larger than at any stage in the past).

We are producing and consuming more energy per head than ever in history. There are ever more cars and trucks, more and more of us fly in aeroplanes more and more frequently, we have more and more appliances, all of which need to be powered. Our homes are centrally heated, many have air-conditioning. And, with the exception of solar and wind energy and nuclear power, all this energy is gained by burning stuff. Additionally, because, despite all technical advances, we’re still not very efficient at this, a considerable amount of this energy is lost at every stage of the process, the way energy looses itself most easily; as heat.

In a very simplified way, from a chemical point of view, burning stuff always comes down to the same thing. Growing things store energy by using the only ultimately free source of energy, sunlight, to bind carbon molecules with lots of other stuff. Almost all the carbon for this comes from carbon dioxide in the air, producing free oxygen molecules as a by-product. When this carbon is released by applying an initial impulse of burning, it combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and releases that stored energy as heat. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution we’ve been burning everything we can get to produce energy, including vast amounts of fossil fuel, which is basically, solar energy which was stored over millions of years. And the carbon which was bound there has been released in the form of billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Nobody can seriously argue with any of this; the discussions arise when it comes to the consequences. The opponents of global warming theories, it seems to me, argue that the excess heat and CO2 we produce are not significant on global levels and, furthermore, that the earth itself regularly goes through warming and cooling phases which are far more significant. It only takes a bit more activity on the part of some major volcanoes to produce extra levels of carbon dioxide which equal or surpass that caused by humanity and, no matter how technologically advanced we have become, we’re still not up to controlling geological events. A couple of Krakatoas are capable of producing a greenhouse effect, without any help from humans.

There is some validity in these points, yet, in my opinion, they don’t reach the core of the problem. There seems to be clear evidence that global temperatures have been rising in recent decades, it is undeniable that the polar icecaps are shrinking and that glaciers are in retreat. That inevitably means more liquid water and rising sea-levels. Rising global temperatures means that weather patterns will change. Many millions of people on our densely populated planet depend for their survival on stable sea-levels and weather systems and this stability seems to be becoming shaky. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether climate change is anthropogenic or not, the evidence suggests that it does seem to be getting warmer worldwide in the past decades. And one thing is certain, humans are not helping to cool things down. Personally, I think it’s not a bad idea for us to start doing so. That’s why I turned out the lights this evening.

And now that Earth Hour is over here, I’ll turn them back on and post this …

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