In response to a tweet for a wider base of contributors, I offered my services as a libertarian and Environmental Scientist to provide a monthly science based column for United Liberty. I hope to examine scientific themed issues, the societal response to these issues, and policy (legislation, regulatory mandates and rules, and judicial rulings) surrounding these issues. I think that it is appropriate to start with the issue of our time.
An Inconvenient Beginning
We saw the graph in An Inconvenient Truth. It was aimed to scare us into action. What action? For starters, we could start to curb our carbon footprint by buying offsetting credits, a mitigation scheme that was proposed by a man who would actually profit from it.
The division on climate change (formerly “global warming,” formerly “global cooling”) started with the imperfect messenger. Mr. Gore’s message was an attempt to simplify the current status of the climate of the Earth. While most critics of global warming focused on the presenter making the point that anthropogenic forces were the cause of a warming trend, I was struck that the larger and more important variables in the climate equilibrium were not mentioned and remain largely uncovered.
When examining global climate we are caused to look at the timeline of Earth in unfamiliar measurements. Geologic time are what true measurable changes are detected at. We are looking at the last 150 years and asking the question, what did we do to effect the natural world? Well, quite a bit actually. We have transformed from agrarian societies to industrial. Utilizing new found energy sources to slake our insatiable need for the modern convenience of electricity and running water. That history is only partial, we need to examine the actual variables that cause climate change because climate change occurs over the span of millions and tens of millions of years and we have only been inhabiting this planet as a species for 200,000 years and exhibiting behavioral modernity for 50,000 years.
The history of earth is a history of wild swings in climate that come from changing concentrations of determining variables. For great periods of history, Earth has existed in Ice Ball form like Hoth from Empire Strikes Back. In the periods between glacial periods, life explodes and pollutes. The Cambrian Explosion happened because years of glaciation building up Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, causing a greenhouse effect, melting glaciers, and then cells that had evolved the skill to photosynthesize found themselves in the position to dominate and evolve into complex flora and subsequently fauna.
The data to make these assumptions is taken from ice core data which are given a time stamp to geologic periods by comparing the magnetic orientation of the water molecules and magnetic orientation of rockbeds over time. Since the polar orientation of earth varies over time, It is possible to track the history of rock bed through magnetic survey and their corresponding age from isotopic half-life dating, then compare those layers to ice core layers. The simple fact is that in the past 4.5 billion years, billions of variables have entered in the climate equilibrium, but the most constant and influential variables are the source of heat, insulating gases of the atmosphere, and the distribution of land masses.
The Largest Source of Heat is The Real Enemy
Man constantly assumes constants. Nothing is constant, not even the sun. Sure, it rises and sets every day, but it never is constant. The sun produces radiation in observable cycles that have increased in intensity and frequency of Sunspots and Sun Storms.
Since 1600, observed Sunspots have increased as has solar radiative output. This is the primary driving force of climate change. The Sun is more than just a star and a source for heat and light. The Sun is also the source of the Earth. Planets are accumulations of ejected materials that have collected and cleared their orbits. The Earth is primarily composed of Iron, Carbon, Silica,Nitrogen, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. Iron is the primary component of the core, Silicates and Oxygen are the largest components within the mantle, silica dominates the crust, and Nitrogen, Oxygen, and Hydrogen are the main components of the atmosphere and oceans. All of these elements were provided via solar ejection. Presently, the sun continues unabated to eject radiant heat and light through its activity, and as it increases in intensity, the earth heats up correspondingly.
No matter how much we would seek to decry our situation, the Sun will not turn off for approximately 5.5 billion years. In between then and now, the Sun will gradually expand until it reaches the Red Giant Stage of it’s life cycle, then shrinks to a White Dwarf. The sun will radiate increasing amounts of heat. At the same time, Earth’s orbit decreases in diameter every year as a result of the Sun’s gravitational pull. Current estimates are that liquid or solid water will not exist on Earth’s surface in 1 billion years, and therefore neither will life.
The Earth is an Enemy Unto Itself
The composition of the Earth has also been one of the driving factors of climate change. We all can think of the most obvious way, volcanoes ejecting large ash clouds that drive down surface temperatures for a period of time. However, volcanic eruptions of this magnitude have been much less frequent as the Earth continues an internal cooling trend. If Yellowstone blows, we will see a cooling trend for a few years. However, most of the population of the continental United States will not survive that event, so it shouldn’t matter to most of us. That not withstanding, one of the most misunderstood contributors to our current climate is seldomly talked about.
Approximately 3 million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama closed. Additionally the Mediterranean closed 6 million years ago. These two geologic events disrupted the natural Coreolis Effect that Earth’s oceans experienced where the primary current that drove our climate flowed counter to the Earth’s rotation in a circuit not inhibited by land masses. This flow generally contributed to the equator being clear of ice during the “Iceball Earth” events. The closures were driven by tectonic forces (upwellings and subductions within the mantle that drive the movement of plates). This has caused a very intricate Oceanic Conveyor Pump to establish itself.
The pattern of this circulation of water within the ocean has very sensitive pinch points. The most sensitive is in the North Atlantic Ocean. As our planet heats up, the subduction of dense water (cold and salty) becomes more difficult because of the increased concentrations of freshwater from glacial melt, which exacerbates the climate conditions that have adapted since the geologic closings of the Isthmus of Panama and the Mediterranean Basin. The Earth itself is a variable in the Climate equilibrium equation that seems determined to discourage life on its surface.
Carbon Dioxide is Not The True Enemy
How many times have we been told that if we decrease our output of carbon dioxide, we will decrease the Greenhouse Effect? carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, no question. However, it is not the worst of the greenhouse gases. The most devastatingly harmful greenhouse gas is Water Vapor. Water Vapor caused by the evaporation of surface waters is taught to us as children, but the chemistry of the molecule is ignored. Water Vapor is the most potent greenhouse gas due to the ability of the hydroxyl bond to absorb radiation in the infra-red spectrum, which amplifies the effect of warming and increases the evaporative process. to adjacent water molecules. However, Water Vapor molecules are only in the atmosphere for an average of 9 days before floculation of some kind. Which means that Water Vapor only exacerbates the effects of other greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide, but it does so in a much more effective manner than the gases themselves. This leads to an incomplete understanding of man’s effects of carbon dioxide concentrations.
In the middle graph, we see where carbon dioxide has risen and fallen in concentration over time. Falling concentrations have generally corresponded with glacial periods. Glaciation actually decreases carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations by trapping the molecule in ice and over time, depositing them into the crust. However, at approximately 18,000 years ago, we see that the real explosion of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This corresponds with the end of the most recent global Ice Age and the most harmful anthropogenic source of carbon dioxide. The Homo sapiens species adapted a behavioral practice unlike any other at this or any other time in the Earth’s history. Instead of hunting and gathering their food, which restricted population sides to just nomadic tribes especially adept at acquiring food on the go, we started farming.
Agriculture has been the greatest anthropogenic cause of climate change. We, as a species have severely affected the natural biomes of the earth when converting fertile lands that supported vast forests into fields for growing crops. The intake of carbon dioxide that the trees which were cleared for agriculture was enormous in magnitude. Planting small domesticated crops cannot make up for the difference and thus, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere grows. In conjunction, as the human species became more proficient in their techniques, larger populations of our species have been supported by this behavior. Thus, agriculture, as a behavior is our greatest accomplishment and worst enemy. As population continues to grow, we continue to adapt the earth to support it through agriculture and deforestation to make way for agricultural fields. The growing population exhales an ever increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and the deforestation increasingly inhibits the ability of other floral biota to convert carbon dioxide to other gases at a rate to normalize the equilibrium. As the concentration of carbon dioxide rises, so does the presence of Water Vapor, and there lies the dilemma.
A Policy to Help All
The Sun, the Earth, and our own need to feed an expanding population are the driving forces in the climate change equilibrium equation. Which of these are we actually able to change? Unfortunately, policy changes are not the solution to the dilemma. I cannot ascribe to the thought that further regulation of carbon footprints and energy credit banking/swapping schemes are the answer. As a scientist and observer, I believe that we have a duty to the natural world to not meddle in behavioral habits of a species. If our species continues to overpopulate and destroy their environment, perhaps the Homo sapiens species was not meant to be the dominant life form in perpetuity. I recognize that we have a duty to our future generations to try and keep this Earth functioning in equilibrium for their use. However, if we fail as a species, that is what Evolution is about. The dinosaurs dominated for a period of approximately 153 million years, but were eventually chosen for extinction or continued to evolve into their present forms (Yes, dinosaurs are still alive and well). Perhaps our current behavior needs to further evolve to a society where the consumption of raw materials is not insatiable. Maybe we need to be cognizant that modern medicine and cultural norms that have provided for higher infant survivability into adulthood is actually harmful to us as a species.
Do we need to limit our reproduction by policy like in China? Is that the intended scope of the US Government or the UN? In practice I believe that regulating reproduction infinges upon the liberty of an individual within society. I believe that it is up to self-determining individuals within a society to recognize the future facing them and respond accordingly.
Should we be seeking out a new home for our species like we see in most science fiction franchises? I think that is a lofty goal, but sometime over the next millennium, we might have to express a real interest in expanding beyond our own planet and terraforming other locations to continue the survival of our species. If we fail to preserve our species past the natural cessation of climate conditions that can support life on our planet, I think that is a shame to think that we are nothing but a blip on the Universal timeline. How involved should our governments be in this process? I believe that the NASA program has been an inspiration to many individuals that are interested in expanding and exploring. However, it is underfunded and like all government agencies, incredibly inefficient. I welcome the burgeoning space industry and hope that this entrepreneurial spirit to take a risk might be the one behavioral adaptation of our species that can assure that we survive as a species.
As to decreasing pollution or offsetting carbon dioxide outputs by anthropogenic sources, swapping energy offset credits will not help a process that is billions of years in the making. These schemes only benefit the holders of the mitigation banks, which include the messenger of An Inconvenient Truth. Decreasing your personal output is advisable, but again I do not believe that they can be enforced through governmental action because they are for “The Better Good”. “The Better Good” has been used too many times to propagate disastrous policies that infringe upon the rights of citizens, including the right to life. I say let us behave as we will, evolve if we can, and see what the ultimate results are.