Guest Spot: Amid pandemic, another threat looms large for next generation

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” 

Well, young friends, you’re in trouble. No, it isn’t coronavirus that will make your life miserable; we’ll conquer that threat. But global warming is another story. Those who tell you not to worry about global warming are the same people who think a snowstorm outside means the earth is cooling. These fools don’t understand the difference between weather and climate, and they apparently cannot grasp the concept of global average temperature. 

They are the same folks who think you can treat COVID-19 by injecting disinfectants into your body. The only way to inoculate yourself against this disease of ignorance is to learn the facts. Here’s a synopsis of the global warming problem that your generation must solve. 

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. There are “sources” and “sinks” of carbon dioxide, both natural and manmade. “Sources” emit CO2, while “sinks” remove and store CO2. The natural sources and sinks have been in balance for over a million years and they remain approximately in balance. However, since the 1800s, manmade sources of CO2 have overwhelmed all sinks, causing an increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

Why are GHGs a problem? The sun warms the earth. As earth warms, it must re-emit back to space the same amount of energy it receives from the sun, and it re-emits that energy as infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases absorb that infrared radiation, holding it in the atmosphere, and that causes global warming. The problem can be explained with this simple sentence: Human emissions of carbon dioxide cause increased concentration of atmospheric CO2, which causes global warming. 

That sentence exposes the problem your generation must solve. To stop global warming, you must remove all human emissions of CO2 and other GHGs and bring the sources and sinks back into balance. Why must you remove all human emissions? Because cutting emissions in half means you are still adding the other half of the emissions to the atmosphere, causing the atmospheric stock of CO2 to increase, causing additional warming. That’s why scientists tell us we must get to zero GHG emissions ASAP.

Unfortunately, your problem is getting worse. Recent research indicates that two important “sinks” of carbon dioxide are failing. The world’s oceans have been absorbing about 50% of the human emissions of CO2. But the oceans are warming and that means they are able to hold less dissolved CO2. Simple physics! You’ve seen this in action when you open a warm can of soda compared to a cold one. The warm one “fizzes” more because it cannot hold as much dissolved CO2 as the cold soda. 

Less dissolved CO2 in the oceans equals more CO2 in the atmosphere equals more warming. The other failing sink involves the tropical rain forests. These absorb CO2 during photosynthesis and store it in the wood and leaves of the trees. But recent research indicates that they are absorbing less CO2, and some areas of the Amazon rain forest are actually emitting CO2 rather than storing it. The causes appear to be human deforestation and tree mortality from rising temperatures.

As earth warms, permafrost is melting. Permafrost is “permanently frozen soil” — except it is no longer permanent. This melting permafrost contains huge amounts of dead organic matter that are being consumed by bacteria, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and causing additional warming. And, as Earth warms, Arctic sea ice is melting, exposing more ice-free ocean. 

The darker ocean absorbs more solar radiation compared to the sea ice, which reflects solar radiation back to space. This further warms the earth. Then there is the water vapor feedback. An atmosphere 10C warmer holds 4% more water vapor and earth has already warmed that 10C. Water vapor is the most prolific GHG, so increased atmospheric water vapor causes more warming, heavier rainfall and flooding.

Your generation has a massive problem to solve. There is a window of opportunity for action now but that window is quickly closing. There is one course of action you must not take: the ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand strategy we see from many of our political leaders. It’s your future that is at stake. Get involved and get loud!