The Wonderful World of Science!!
“Back off, man. I’m a scientist.” – Dr. Peter Venkman, psychologist and para-psychologist
Since its beginning, science has had an intuition problem. Rigorous experiments and careful deduction can establish concepts beyond reasonable doubt, but there is a human tendency to trust only what we can see and touch, to believe what fits within the proportions of our existing ideas.
The oldest and most famous example of this is the fact that the Earth looks flat but is, in fact, round. Even from the top of the tallest mountains, the ground doesn’t curve away as we instinctively expect of something round. Instead, we perceive a flat horizon, stretching evenly as far as the eye can see.
To actually perceive a visible curve, you need to get really high,* and it wasn’t until the 1930s that foolishly brave balloon pilots attained the altitudes necessary to see the undeniable roundness of the Earth. Nevertheless, eggheads who sat down and thought it out managed to deduce that the Earth was round way back in ancient times.
(*No, not that kind of high. Though it would help.)
You can prove this yourself from just about anywhere, provided you know what to look for. Say you’re at the beach and a large ship is sailing out to sea. As it disappears over the apparently flat horizon, the hull will vanish first, then the deck, until, finally, only the topmost mast or antenna is visible. The ship isn’t sinking, it’s heading over the curve of the Earth.
Not all proofs are so simple, but, over the centuries, science has revealed a great many counter-intuitive things to be just as true as the roundness of our planet. The Sun and the Moon appear to be the same size in the sky, but one is thousands of times larger than Earth while the other is only a fraction its size. Lightning is fierce, deadly, and unpredictable, yet we have managed to distill its essence into the electricity that we safely run through the walls of our homes. Every solid object you’ve ever dropped on your toe (ouch!) is made up of invisibly tiny atoms that are mostly empty space.
Our day-to-day lives are filled with scientific truths that simultaneously explain and contradict the world we see, hear, and feel. Most of the time we don’t bother to think about the hugeness of the Sun, or the lightning in the walls, or how something that barely exists can hurt so much when it lands on your foot. Nevertheless, weird science crap like that is what makes our lives possible, and sometimes, in order to understand our lives and our world, we need to stop and ponder some of the counter-intuitive stuff.
If you’ve ever spent time in a classroom, chances are you’ve read (or been forced to read) the introduction to a science textbook of some kind. No matter the subject area, these books often start out by trying to overcome the natural weirdness of science by describing how that particular field of study is all around you, every single day. A physics intro might talk about gravity, keeping you pinned to the Earth. The chemistry version could discuss the molecular bonds that hold your chair together. A sociology introduction may note the web of connections that link people, including you, into communities.
Every science textbook can make this same claim because, stripped of lab coats, sample data, and unpronounceable nine-syllable words, all the different kinds of science are the same: the study of the things around us. Biology studies living creatures (us included). Psychology studies the way those creatures think (again, us included). Astronomy studies the stars and planets above us. Geology studies the planet beneath us.
The science of our climate, the precious six miles of air in which it exists, and how we are changing it, reaches into all of those disciplines. But it starts millions of years ago, at the intersection of biology and geology.
Millions of Years of Gettin’ It On
“Strange, isn’t it? Everything you know, your entire civilization, it all begins right here in this little pond of goo.” – Q, omnipotent space dickhead
Imagine a lake covered in slimy green algae. Every day, the Sun comes up and the algae use photosynthesis to convert that light into the energy it uses to grow. In the process, carbon atoms are separated from oxygen atoms and pulled out of the atmosphere, becoming more algae. Older algae eventually die and get replaced by younger algae. Then the old stuff sinks to the bottom of the lake, a process that might continue until the layer of dead algae on the bottom is hundreds of feet thick.
Next, imagine a forest of huge trees. Once again, the Sun comes up and those trees use photosynthesis to change light into energy and growth. Carbon from the air is converted into solid wood and the leftover oxygen remains in the atmosphere. Give the forest enough time, and all of its trees will fall down, with new ones sprouting on top. The wood and roots from the old trees become the new forest floor as the carbon within gets compacted under fresh growth.
Layers of dead algae, layers of dead trees, this is the point at which geology takes over from biology. Across a hundred million years and more, the algae, the trees, and the carbon they’re made of are buried thousands of feet below the surface of the Earth. The heat and pressure down there crushes them eon after eon, through the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, through the dawn of mankind, all the way past Mozart, swing music, Beatlemania, and hip-hop until today.
[Time Snake Graphic]
When those trees and algae were alive, they freely exchanged carbon for oxygen as they breathed. But there is (almost) no oxygen underground, and as the years pass, the carbon packs itself ever closer together. Splinters of wood become flecks of coal, and whole forests turn into rich seams of black rock. The slimy algae loses its green hue and turns into a yellow-black sludge we call oil, huge fields of it where once there were ponds, lakes, and seas. Both ignite easily when they are at last reunited with their old partner oxygen.
It is this ability to burn, to combust, that makes them valuable to homo sapiens, a species that did not exist when the coal was still forests and the oil was still pond scum. Modern geologists can read the terrain to find the long buried forests and lake beds. Once located, it’s just a matter of digging or drilling. The coal and oil can then be set alight to power factories better than any water wheel, heat homes more comfortably than any wood fire, or haul people and cargo across continents and oceans at speeds that would dazzle anyone who lived before these fossil fuels came into our lives.
Coal has been used industrially for about 190 years now. The oil industry is a titch younger, at 150 years. And the energy released by burning their products is what allowed humanity to create the modern world we call home.
Access to all that carbon gave us the power to master electricity, which lit up our nights and freed us to do more than sit in the semi-darkness of candlelight. Chemists and engineers used energy from millions of years ago to figure out how to filter, store, and safely pump water into our homes, sparing us from back breaking hours spent hauling buckets from rivers and wells. The doctors and researchers in spotless laboratories whose medical advances have doubled human lifespans in the last century couldn’t have done their work without grime covered oil workers and soot coated coal miners.
In short, the science and technology that allows us to live longer, healthier, and more interesting lives was made possible by setting prehistoric plants on fire. (Weird, right?) The tradeoff for all of that progress is global warming.
We’ve Made a Huge Mistake
“What’s the catch?” – American Folk Traditional
This is where physics, relentless and impartial, takes the wheel. The carbon that makes up all that coal and oil didn’t come from nowhere. It isn’t new. It’s been in the air before. Burning it simply returns it to where it was until the trees and algae sucked it into the Earth.*
(*Carbon was originally created inside dying stars before they went supernova, one of science’s most excellently named concepts. But that’s not important right now.)
Unfortunately, carbon is extremely good at holding heat, and adding even a little bit of it to the air makes the entire atmosphere significantly warmer. Here’s why.
Our atmosphere is made of basically three things, none of which is carbon. The biggest component is nitrogen (N2), at 78.1%. The second biggest is oxygen (O2), at 20.9%. Together, they make up 99% of our air, and, for reasons that you may or may not dimly remember from high school science class, they form stable chemical bonds with themselves. Because of that, science books usually show them as looking like a fourth grader’s drawing of boobs.
The remaining 1% of the air is almost entirely argon (0.9% overall). Argon (AR) manages to be even more inert than nitrogen and oxygen. It’s so stable and boring that it doesn’t even bond with itself; it just floats there. Because of that, its name is derived from the Greek word for lazy and its diagram is just a plain circle.
Those three simple elements comprise 99.9% of the air we breathe. The catch comes in at #4 on the list, carbon dioxide. When we burn that ancient plant matter, one carbon atom (C) from oil, coal, or another fossil fuel bonds with one oxygen molecule (O2) already in the air to form carbon dioxide (CO2). It makes up the overwhelming majority of that final 0.1% of the air. When drawn textbook style, it’s three linked circles in a row.
The big difference between most of the atmosphere and the carbon dioxide is that slightly more complex structure, three circles instead of one or two. The extra atom gives the CO2 more surface area and allows it to vibrate and absorb infrared radiation, which is the seven syllable term for ‘heat’. That’s why it’s called a ‘greenhouse gas’.
(Other greenhouse gasses include methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N20), and the less easily pronounced Hexaflouroethane (C2F6). Those are all more potent than CO2, but they’re also much less common and don’t last as long, so greenhouse pollution is usually expressed in CO2 or CO2 equivalents.)
Heat passes right through the simpler structure of all that N2, O2, and AR, but it gets stuck when it hits CO2 and other larger molecules. And therein lies our problem.
Like so much else in science, it’s counter-intuitive. Less than 0.1% of the air doesn’t seem like it should be able to so drastically affect our climate. On the other hand, 0.01 ounces of cyanide can kill a 200 pound man and a nail hole so small you can’t see it will deflate a tire and bring your whole car to a halt. Small things can have huge consequences and increasing that otherwise puny fraction of CO2 is one of them.
When our algal lake and ye olde forest were young, the amount of CO2 in the air was higher than it is today, and the Earth was a much warmer and wetter place because of it. If our lake was at the same latitude as New York, Chicago, and Boise are today, summer temperatures there could have routinely gone into the 160F range. That’s warm enough to cook meat. Perhaps the forest was a bit further south, on a line with Washington D.C., St. Louis, and San Francisco. There, daytime temps are even higher, and at night the mercury would only go down to 140F or so, which is hotter than any desert found on Earth today.
Warmer air also holds more moisture, so both places positively dripped with humidity, like standing inside a steam vent. And while the lake was probably pretty ugly, the forest would have been majestically beautiful. But you wouldn’t want to take a walk in either location. The heat would make you sweat instantly, but because the air is already so damp, your sweat wouldn’t actually cool you. In just a few minutes you’d become lightheaded and fall down. A few minutes more and you’d be dead from hyperthermia (which is the doctor word for overheating).
It took hundreds of millions of years (100,000,000s) to entomb that carbon into underground reservoirs of coal and oil and bring Earth’s temperature down to the relatively pleasant one we take for granted. But in less than two hundred years (200), we’ve managed to push enough carbon back out into the air to begin returning the atmosphere to the hot, primordial swamp it used to be.
Happily, we still have a ways to go before we get all the way back to that. Sadly, that time is measured in decades rather than centuries. The main puzzle now is why so many of us barely care, and that brings us to psychology and sociology.
That Old Diaper Smell
“You need to clean. Poorly, like he would.” – Amy Dunne, master of detail
Generally speaking, humans are bad at picking up after themselves. This starts when we are infants, pooping wherever and whenever we please, confident that some grown-up will change the diaper and wipe our ass. Since nobody likes to clean up after other people, one of the first things we teach kids is how to do that their own damn selves.
Climate change is similar, just on a much (much) larger scale than baby poop. The carbon we’ve spent the last two centuries putting into the air is the biggest mess in history. And, like a stinky diaper or any other mess, it can only be ignored for so long. When it comes to carbon, we’re at the diaper stage where you can smell it from across the room. And as much as we’d all like it to go away or clean itself, that isn’t going to happen.
The good news is that we already know roughly what we need to do, and the better news is that it’s going to be a lot more fun than changing a diaper.* The bad news is that there’s a lot of psychological research that says it’s going to be very difficult to get folks to realize that.
(*Again, because this is the most important part: daily life in a United States that’s genuinely addressing climate would be the American Dream: work less, eat better, play more.)
When it comes to global warming, there are basically two kinds of people, those who accept that human industry is causing it, and those who dismiss or deny that fact. The deniers get outsized press attention but are actually a small minority of Americans (about 27%). (We’ll get to them two chapters from now.) The majority know global warming is real, they just don’t like to talk about it and aren’t sure what we can do about it.*
(*There is actually a third category, people who accept climate change and never shut the hell up about it, even at parties. But they’re a very small group and not the target audience of this book.)
The reason most people instinctively avoid discussing or thinking about climate is straight line simple: global warming is grim and unfun. And who likes that?
As a rule, people like to put off unavoidable tasks. Students are notorious for waiting until the last minute to write that paper or study for that test. Adults may laugh at such juvenile behavior, but the annual rush of otherwise responsible grown-ups to get their taxes filed in mid-April argues that no one should be pointing fingers. Everybody procrastinates, and people who say they don’t procrastinate are just procrastinating earlier.
In addition to delaying unpleasant matters, we also don’t like to think about them while we’re avoiding them. Whether it’s something as serious as an illness in the family or as trivial as your sports team losing last night, if you don’t have to contemplate something bad, chances are you’ll move on from that topic as quickly as possible without even noticing that you’ve done so.
These natural tendencies are compounded when the unavoidable and unpleasant thing is far in the future. Sure, grandma is gonna die someday and we’ll have to figure out what to do with that condo full of knickknacks and yarn, but she’s still in good shape now so we’d rather not talk about it. Even bringing up a bad thing can feel like wanting it to happen, so most people simply pass on by and start talking about the weather or what’s happening next weekend.
Climate change is all three of these things: far off, bad, and unavoidable. Or, at least, that’s the way it’s usually presented. Of the three, the ‘far off’ part is outright false (hello, Miami!) and the ‘bad’ is subjective and disingenuous. ‘Unavoidable’ is true as far as it goes, but since climate change will be massively bigger or smaller depending on our actions, it is also misleading.
In reality, climate change is here right now. The worst aspects of it (“Hordes of panicky people are fleeing…”) are eminently unnecessary. And the ‘bad’ changes are only bad if you happen to be heir to an oil fortune or routinely fly on a private jet. So not only is climate change something we shouldn’t be ignoring, it’s something we should actively want to engage.
Unfortunately, inaction and delay can be very good things for the oil brat and Gulfstream IV crowds.* Their public relations employees exploit those natural psychological tendencies to make the majority of people who accept climate change falsely think that it is far off, bad, and unavoidable. While they’re at it, they also run long cons on the minority of people who dismiss or deny climate change.
(*The current crop will be fine. Their kids, on the other hand, will live long enough to regret their parents. But that’s a lot of fiscal quarters in the future.)
Before getting to the tricks of their trade, however, there is one more science thing you need to understand. And even by science standards, it is weird and counter-intuitive, which is what makes it so easy for dishonest people to manipulate to greedy ends: uncertainty.
Don’t miss out on TV weather jokes and Super Mario references! Keep your screen right here for the next chapter! Continue to Chapter 2 – The Biggest Video Game in the World: Understanding Uncertainty
Endnotes for Chapter 2:
Note: I try to footnote the hell out of things, but you are on your own for most of this chapter. Right up until the psychology and sociology there isn’t a single fact that we don’t expect tenth graders to know. As for the psych and the soc, I strongly recommend all three books below, especially for anyone who has to write or speak about climate change.
[1 – How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate by Andrew J. Hoffman, Stanford University Press, 2015. p11]
[2 – Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change bu George Marshall, Bloomsbury Publishing. p178-p184]
[3 – Hoffman, p58]
[4 – What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action by Per Espen Stoknes, Chelsea Green Publishing p54-55]