The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

February 20, 2013

Editorial: Climate change

Successfully addressing it may take a miracle

By Jack Stevenson

— Scientists who study the environment of the planet where we live have determined that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is greater than the historical norm, and they believe the extra carbon dioxide and some other gases are causing climate change. The carbon dioxide level has been increasing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution about 150 years ago.

Wealth in the modern world is a direct result of the consumption of energy, especially the energy derived from petroleum and coal. This advance traces to James Watt’s development of a practical steam engine in 1765.

In earlier times, work had to be accomplished by humans and by “beasts of burden.” The steam engine and subsequent inventions converted the concentrated potential energy in wood, coal, and petroleum to mechanical energy that powered machinery, and those machines could do vast amounts of work.  

Gasoline, for example, contains a phenomenal concentration of energy. One gallon will propel my 3000-pound automobile at 60 miles per hour for about 29 miles. How much human energy would be required to do that?

The energy in wood or fossil fuels is released when oxygen is combined with the carbon in the fuel. One of the byproducts is carbon dioxide. We have learned, fairly recently, that our climate is affected by a delicate balance of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. Those gases trap heat which accumulates in the ocean waters. Some of that warm water evaporates into the atmosphere and eventually falls as rain or snow. Scientists expect that, in the future, storms will be more intense and droughts more severe than we have previously experienced.

Climate change has many causes. Deforestation is a contributing factor. The Virginia Company, the first permanent English colony in America (1607) was chartered by King James I of England. It was a for-profit stockholder company whose purpose was to obtain quality American timber for England’s expanding naval fleet. England had already been deforested.

Trees draw carbon dioxide into their leaves from the atmosphere, and the carbon becomes part of the tree. Forests are a natural carbon dioxide management system. A large percentage of the forests in the Northern Hemisphere have been cut for lumber, for firewood, and to clear land for farming or development. Now, the Amazon rain forest in the Southern Hemisphere is being cut at a rapid pace.

Sea level rise is a possible feature of climate change. Sea levels do change. During the last ice age, part of Canada and the Great Lakes area were covered by glaciers. Water in the oceans evaporated and fell as snow and compressed into ice in the northern latitudes. The ice forming the Canadian glaciers was stacked about two miles high, and ocean levels were about 300 feet lower than they are today.

In 1942, during the buildup for war, the United States sent military aircraft to England to help England survive until the U.S. could launch an invasion. In July 1942, a flight of P-38 fighters and B-17 bombers took off from Maine en route to England. Because of bad weather and navigation problems, they were forced to land on the Greenland ice cap. The crews were rescued, but the airplanes were abandoned.  Fifty years later, a team from Middlesboro, Ky., recovered one of the P-38s. When the P-38 was recovered in 1992, it was buried under 268 feet of ice.

In 1942 when the pilots made emergency landings on the Greenland ice cap, there were about two billion people living on this planet. Today, the number is seven billion, and population is increasing at a rate of 70 million people each year. For most of human existence, it didn’t matter how many trees were cut or how much carbon fuel was burned because there weren’t enough people to influence the climate. That has changed. Human population has increased 250 percent in 70 years.

A tree produces a growth ring in its trunk each year of its life, and the thickness of the ring indicates the growing conditions for that year. Tree rings are a historical record of local weather conditions. Ice and continental shelf sediments also offer a historical record.

Roman slaves operated silver mines and smelters in Spain about 2,500 years ago. Scientists

can tell the years that the smelters operated from core samples drilled into the Greenland ice cap because smoke residues from the smelters fell in Greenland and remained frozen in the ice layers.   

Scientists are acquiring an understanding of our changing climate by analyzing core samples from sediments, by measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, by observing the northward migration of plant and animal species, by recording the surface temperature of the oceans, and by measuring the acid concentration in ocean waters. Carbon dioxide increases ocean acid level.

Scientists from various fields of study who collaborate to study climate believe that our climate is changing, that most of the change is human-induced (anthropogenic), and that countermeasures should be taken. Possible consequences of a changed climate include mass migrations of desperate people escaping flooding coastal areas, crop failures, animal and plant species extinctions, violent storms, and cost-prohibitive insurance for real estate.

Life in American society depends on automobile transportation and truck logistics. We have to drive to survive. We cannot walk to the places we need to go, and we cannot use public transit, because, in most places, public transit doesn’t exist. People in the developing world want the same energy consuming luxuries the developed world enjoys, and corporations that pollute the atmosphere don’t want their profits diminished.

As long as profit can be made by activities that pollute the environment, it will be difficult to stop the polluting.

As long as individual sacrifice is required to moderate climate change, it will be difficult to achieve.

And getting seven billion people to agree on policies and sacrifices is no small task.

According to biblical literature, Joshua commanded the sun to stand still so that his army would have sufficient daylight hours to defeat an enemy. Interpreted as a futile gesture, it is analogous to our current attempts to address climate change. Interpreted as an irrefutable truth, it is the kind of miracle that humanity may need to successfully address climate change.

(Stevenson is a writer from Houston, Texas. He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee, as well as working in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America. As a retiree, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary.)