Letter to the Editor: An easier way to understand climate change
Climate change is again under attack. President Trump says climate change is a “Chinese hoax” and Scott Pruitt, new EPA head, says scientists “still disagree” about climate change. Both are wrong. Scientifically, there is no longer doubt that climate change is real and caused by human activity. However, about one third of Americans, including Congress, are still skeptical. The reason may be political, or it may be that many do not understand the usual explanation (carbon dioxide) given for climate change. Therefore, a second, easier way may help.
The science of climate change is simple: burning fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) produces carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor. To date, scientists have focused on the role of carbon dioxide in causing global warming, probably because CO2 is easier to measure and track historically (from Arctic ice cores). This research shows that CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen exponentially since the beginning of the industrial revolution, far beyond those expected for normal variation, a process which leads to global warming and climate change.
However, it is equally valid to talk about the water vapor produced by burning fossil fuels. Like CO2, water vapor is normally invisible, but can easily be seen on cold winter mornings as steam from car exhausts, home and factory chimneys, and as the vapor trails of jet planes in the cold upper atmosphere. In effect, all fossil fuel burners (cars, trains, planes, homes, factories) are “steam engines” constantly releasing water vapor into the atmosphere. Data shows that the human burning of fossil fuels adds about 40 billion tons of CO2 and 16 billion tons of water vapor to the atmosphere annually, massive amounts which contribute about equally to global warming. However, warm water vapor is additionally important since it is the breeding component for tornadoes, hurricanes, and other forms of precipitation. Therefore, excess water vapor alone is making our climate “warmer, wetter, and wilder.” As one insurance association states, “..severe storms (wind, tornado, hail) are occurring with more intensity and affecting more areas of the country. During the past five years, claims related to wind and hail damage on a national basis accounted for 40 percent of all insured losses, averaging approximately $15 billion annually, and growing each year.” One only has to look at the nightly news to confirm this.
Other predictions for climate change, such as polar ice melting, are also coming true, often faster than originally thought. And as the polar and Greenland ice sheets melt, sea levels will rise significantly, causing global flooding in all coastal cities and low lying areas, already classified as a national security threat by the U.S. military. This ice melting may also affect the warm Gulf Stream current which would cause further climate problems for North America and Europe. Obviously, no civilized society should chance any of this. Aside from nuclear war, climate change is our most important global crisis, one which needs to be understood by the citizens and elected officials of all nations. Education and action are essential.
For skeptics, some local examples may help. The expansion northward of ticks and Lyme disease (warmer, wetter weather) and the recent collapses of the cold water shrimp industry in Maine and the lobster industry in southern New England (due to warming Gulf of Maine waters) are three troubling examples of how climate change is already affecting our part of the globe.
Ken Sawyer is a retired math/science teacher and oceanographer for the U.S. Navy.
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