The Weather Outside Your Window

“Don’t be ridiculous! As President of Planet Spaceball, I can assure both you and your viewers that there’s absolutely no air shortage whatsoever. Yes, of course, I’ve heard the same rumor myself.” – President Skroob, short-sighted putz

On the rare occasions when you stop to think about it, the sky seems vast, a limitless dome stretching above. Its hugeness, however, is actually a trick of impression. Since we spend almost all of our time on the ground or very close to it, we value altitude more than distance. Compare the two and the atmosphere is swiftly revealed as no thicker than birthday wrapping paper on a child’s globe (literally).

The tallest building you can look out from in America is the Sears Tower in Chicago. The grandly named SkyDeck is a dizzying 1,354 feet high, up on the 103rd floor. On the ground, however, that same number of feet is barely a quarter of a mile, just a few city blocks. High school track kids run that far as a sprint, and any able bodied adult can walk it in just a few minutes. A car traveling at highway speed would blow past those 1,354 feet in ten seconds.

The atmosphere obviously extends beyond the Sears Tower, but not by as much as you might think. The “troposphere”, which is the fancy science term for “lower atmosphere”, extends only about six miles above the SkyDeck. Six miles is nothing. It’s a leisurely two hour walk, a moderate thirty minute bike ride, five lousy minutes on an interstate. Seven out of ten Americans commute farther than that daily.[1]

Demonstrating how fast a car would go through the atmosphere at 70MPH. It passes the Dalai Lama's house in two minutes and gets above commercial airlines in 5.

The thinner parts of the atmosphere go much higher, but that six mile layer contains all of the air we breathe, as well as the ubiquitous background we refer to simply as “the weather”. It is with us all the time, but is typically so boring that we usually discuss it only as small talk. Thanks to thermostats, light bulbs, storm drains, snow plows, and a whole host of other modern infrastructure, most Americans barely notice what the sky does on any given day. Meteorologists – sexiest of the nerds – tell us roughly what it’s going to be like, and we make minor adjustments as necessary.

Only on rare occasions is the weather extreme enough to get you out of school, work, or other unpleasant obligations. Outdoor fun like barbecues, a day at the beach, or an afternoon of sledding might get tripped up by a bad forecast, but most of what we do happens indoors, where outside conditions are little more than window filler. Global warming (a.k.a the greenhouse effect, a.k.a climate change, a.k.a the climate emergency) is changing that.

How much it changes the weather outside your particular window depends greatly on where you live, but we’ll get to that later. To get started, you need to understand only two things:

  • That paper-thin six mile band of air is warming up.
  • Because of that, the weather outside your window, and every other window on Earth, is getting nastier (more heat, stronger winds, and much bigger storms of all kinds).

Books, TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and websites typically treat that warming and nastiness as just another topical issue, to be debated alongside tax rates, zoning laws, sex scandals, and other high-brow matters of the day. But climate isn’t a political issue, nor is it a part of the economy.

Climate is the background for every issue, the canvas upon which all the social, technical, and political developments of our lifetimes will occur. And it is changing. And we cannot stop it.

Despite that towering importance, most people have – at best – a splintered grasp of global warming. Even for those who follow it closely, the outline tends to be hazy (something about carbon dioxide and polar bears) and the specifics are too disjointed to mean anything past yesterday’s headlines about wildfires, solar panels, and melting glaciers.

Worse, a lot of people feel bad about not understanding it. Climate is this big, looming, capital-T Thing that’s going to affect everyone on Earth for the rest of our lives, and most people know less about it than they do about celebrity gossip, sports teams, and that new show on Netflix. Well, this book is here to tell you: don’t sweat that.

National television outlets rarely cover climate, and when they do, it is usually in bite sized chunks that don’t fit into any larger story. Newspapers, magazines, and websites do better, but not by much. And most climate scientists can’t string two words together without lapsing into the kind of brain numbing jargon it takes a PhD to understand.

Making matters worse is the denier campaign, a coordinated, multi-decade, multi-billion dollar marketing effort to make otherwise sensible folks doubt the grade school science behind global warming. It is paid for by extremely wealthy people who stand to lose a great deal of money if/when the world begins slowing its consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas.

This private propaganda machine is also the reason a lot of American families can’t have a civil discussion about the very air they breathe. The people behind it are liars and jerks, and we’ll point and laugh at them and their venal foolishness later in the book. (Bite size example: Exxon used to have their tankers collect atmospheric carbon dioxide data as they sailed the oceans. They stopped when they didn’t like what they saw, but forgot to keep their mouths shut and ended up getting sued and exposed.)[2]

So, if you’re confused or intimidated by global warming, don’t feel bad. You’ve got a lot of company. And while this book won’t tell you everything about our air and what’s happening to it, hopefully it will show you some fun and friendly ways to understand it better than just thinking “OIL BAD-SOLAR GOOD” before you open a new browser tab to peruse the latest cat videos.

It’s true that oil is bad and solar is good, but understanding why or how much requires context and a general sense of the mess we’ve made for ourselves. It does not require a graduate degree or years of droning science lectures. The climate matters, to you and to everyone you care about. Don’t let physics nerds, policy dorks, or oil goons blunt your curiosity.

Global warming is tremendously exciting and it’s here now, affecting everything about our lives. If we are up to the task, we can stabilize the climate by making the country and the world awesome places to live, and all in less time than it has taken the movie Top Gun to go from Cold War propaganda to kitschy homoerotic classic.

This is a guidebook to the road between us and that kickass place. And if we fail, welp, that’ll be exciting too, just in very different ways.


Author’s Note: A Very Brief Rant About Why Celsius Sucks

“The metric system is the tool of the Devil! My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!” – Abe “Grampa” Simpson, noted coot

In most situations, the metric system is a demonstrably superior measurement tool. It is easier to use and harder to make mistakes with. To take but one example, if you’re cooking with standard, you need to know about seven different measurements of volume ranging from teaspoons and tablespoons up to quarts and gallons, each of which has its own unique conversion ratio (three teaspoons to a tablespoon, but sixteen tablespoons to a cup, ugh).

On the other hand, if you’re cooking with metric, you need to know liters. That’s it.

The weather is the exception that proves this rule. If you’re measuring temperature in a lab or a kitchen, Celsius is infinitely smarter to use. Water freezes at 0, boils at 100, and you go from there. But Celsius is all wrong for the outdoors. In Celsius, 0 is only mildly cold while 40 is uncomfortably hot and 50 will kill you.

Fahrenheit, on the other hand, is scaled perfectly for weather. 100 is dangerously hot, 0 is dangerously cold, and each ten degrees in between marks an intuitive gradation (e.g. 70s is great, but 60s means you might want a warmer shirt).

Since most of the world uses metric and climate is a global problem, it is usually expressed in Celsius. So you’ll see stories about how 1.5C warming is harmful but not catastrophic, 3C is a nightmare but probably a survivable one, and 5C is . . . well, 5C is bad. (We’ll get into the serious apocalypse stuff at the end of the book.) But look how puny the numbers are! Now, let’s take a look at those same numbers in Fahrenheit.

The widely cited 1.5C is about 3F, which makes things warmer but allows life to go on, the same way you might nudge the thermostat up or down on particularly hot or cold days. A 6F swing changes your attire, but can be coped with. And a 10F swing means you’re dealing with a radically different day than you thought you were. Since this book is about making climate change easy to understand, it will mostly be using Fahrenheit.

ADDENDUM: The U.S. is the only major country that doesn’t use metric. We should make a deal with the rest of the world: we convert to metric for everything except the weather if they switch back to Fahrenheit for the weather. It’d be win-win. They’d get better forecasts, and we’d get to stop wondering if grandma’s old recipe calls for 3 tsp or 3 tbsp.

Continue on to Part I – Grade School Science and Grade School Bullies

Endnotes for Preface:

[1 –]
[2 –]