Why on Earth Not

First, apologies for the delay in getting this post out. To my great dismay, I am not yet making enough money off this blog to quit my day job, which decided to consume a bit more of my time in recent weeks. But enough excuses, here we go. In the past six posts, we’ve basically gone over the following…

Everything can absorb energy in the form of photons, and therefore heat up to some degree (no pun intended). Everything with a temperature above absolute also emits energy in the form of photons, which can in turn be absorbed by other things. Air is a thing, so it absorbs and emits photons too, making our Earth warmer than if it didn’t have an atmosphere. Clouds reflect some of the Sun’s photons but also absorb the ones emitted by you and me, arriving at some sort of balance in the grand scheme of things. Liquid water absorbs a lot of photons and heats up, but ice reflects a lot of them and stays relatively cool. But if you float a piece of ice in water that’s getting warmer and warmer, the ice will melt, and the resulting water will absorb more photons and heat up accordingly. When we dig into the ice that hasn’t melted yet, we find strong evidence the Earth has been warming rapidly in the last couple of centuries, and other ways of measuring Earth’s temperature over the past several decades have confirmed that. The warming is strongly correlated with the concurrent rise in concentrations of gases that we have been pouring into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. Changes in global sea level from melting ice in the polar regions further confirm these trends. Our best and brightest minds have created sophisticated models that accurately predict the present from the past, and are therefore reasonably reliable about predicting the future from the present. And if we continue to burn fossils fuels at our current rate, the models all agree the consequences will be severe.

That’s climate change in one paragraph.

Suppose you don’t believe the models, even though there’s no reason to doubt them on general trends. You still have to contend with a planet that’s getting warmer. Suppose you don’t believe it’s getting warmer, even though it clearly is. Well, the most reliable force in the universe – the desire to make money – disagrees with you. As just one of countless examples you can find with minimal Googling, consider the winemaking industry. Grapes like a little bit of Sun, but they don’t like scorching heat. As temperatures rise at lower latitudes, the conditions become less ideal for growing top quality grapes. One solution to this problem is to start growing them at higher latitudes – and that is exactly what French winemakers have been doing for years now – buying up land in southern England. Assuming that’s not just a precursor to a future invasion, the French would not be spending their money doing this if climate change wasn’t real. It’s not just money either – the French have a great deal of national pride, so why on Earth would they make themselves more dependent on England if they didn’t feel overwhelmingly compelled to do so?

Suppose the climate wasn’t changing at all, even though it is. Let’s talk about the energy industry, which is often (and sometimes rightfully) blamed for slowing acceptance of reality. First, if I may digress (of course I may, this is my friggin’ blog), why are some people so opposed to advancement only when it comes to how we generate energy? We all happily lap up the advances in computing technology that have converted powerful computers from room-filling mainframes to PCs to phones to smart watches. But a sizeable chunk of us are perfectly content to accept that the only way to generate energy is by burning stuff. Meanwhile, a vastly more efficient resource visits us on a daily basis – literally like clockwork. The Sun has been churning out the energy required to keep Earth warm and livable for billions of years. Solar radiation itself – in the form of those pesky little photons – provides a direct source of energy, but the Sun also heats our atmosphere to drive the wind. Meanwhile, the technology to harness solar and wind energy has advanced tremendously in recent years, to where it makes just as much economic sense to the energy companies to make the switch as it does for consumers. And in fact energy companies have been major players in advancing those technologies. Why on Earth would they be investing in solar and wind if it didn’t make them money in return?

Suppose continuing to burn stuff was the best way to go, even though it isn’t. Here’s the problem: there are no more dinosaurs. Normally that’s not a problem, but in this case it is. All the dinosaurs that were ever going to die and turn into fossil fuels have done so. And sure, eventually other animals (including us) will turn into fossil fuels – but that will take millions of years. So for every dinosaur-equivalent of fossil fuels we burn, there are exactly zero available to take its place. Meaning we will run out at some point. I’m sure you can think of all kinds of things you use up at home. Do you just assume you will magically never run out? Of course not. So why on Earth would we make that ridiculous assumption as a species?

The climate change debate has been steered by myopic interests toward the same questions for decades now: is the Earth really getting warmer? Are we responsible? Will things go very badly if we don’t change anything? Should we do something about it? The answers to the first three questions are yes, most likely, and sure looks like it. Meanwhile, the answer to that last question is the same answer not just to climate change, but also to becoming more efficient, saving more money, and avoiding an energy crisis. It’s an answer best phrased as a question.

Why on Earth not?

The future should be so bright.

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