by Dr. Adam Weigold
Climate change is a controversial topic. While everyone’s opinion on it may differ, there are three basic schools of thought on the subject. First there are the “Believers”, also known by the monikers of Greenies or Environmentalists. Then there are the “Skeptics”, who include conspiracy theorists, fence-sitters and various vested interest groups. Perhaps the most important and most ignored group are the “Scientists”. Recently, some scientists have been saying that pollution could in fact be used as a tool to stop global warming and stabilize climate change. So can Pollution really help save the Planet?
Before we continue this discussion any further we must now decide what we mean by the term Climate Change Scientist. These guys are a relatively new breed of scientist and they come from many wide and varied fields of scientific exploration. Because Climate Change has recently attracted a lot of interest and funding it has become a very trendy area to specialize in for any aspiring scientist. There are three parts to this planets environment namely land, sea and air. Consequently every geologist, paleontologist chemist, biologist, botanist, agriculturalist, urban designer, oceanographer, meteorologist and TV weather presenter now calls themselves a Climate Change specialist. It’s a sexy title that is currently in vogue.
So many scientific fields, so many differing perspectives, so many vested interests…..so who to believe in all the “expert” opinions out there? The best place to start is to ask ourselves “What is Climate Change?”. Climate change phenomena, including global warming, is generally considered as the long term behavior of the earth’s atmosphere. You remember that thing called the atmosphere? ….that special mix of gases that surrounds the earth for 400 km like a blanket of breathable life. Most important is the inner 90 km which makes up the troposphere which we breathe and the stratosphere which acts as our shield. The very thing that enables us to exist also protects us from all the nasty things out there in the universe, like electromagnetic radiation for example.
The special balance of gases that exist in the atmosphere determines how much and what type of electromagnetic radiation gets through to us on the ground. Simply put, some types of EM radiation are good and essential for life, some types are bad and destroy life. So if the atmosphere is our field of interest then it is only logical that the best people to ask about climate change are the people who study the atmosphere on a global scale …in other words the Atmospheric Physicists.
You remember those guys don’t you? They are the same guys who discovered global warming in the seventies and eighties, and then ran around telling everyone it would soon lead to an unavoidable catastrophe if we didn’t stop polluting all this carbon dioxide immediately. The atmospheric physicists forecast that the point of no return, or the tipping point for major global warming, would likely occur in the mid-nineties. If we heated the earth up by only 0.6 or 0.7 degrees then the earth would continue heating up by a further 2 or 3 degrees all on its own. If we didn’t mend our ways by then the earth’s atmosphere would be irrevocably damaged, and the earth would then become a hotter and harder planet to live on.
No-one listened. The 1995 deadline came and passed and the earth had only heated up by half as much as predicted, which was within the realm of statistical variation. So the physicists lost a bit of credibility. It was all put down to crack-pot science and paranoia. The skeptics had apparently won a great victory. However their victory was to be short-lived. It turned out that the physicists were right after all. Global warming was real and it was being caused by increasing levels of man-made pollution via carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emitted into the atmosphere. As the carbon monoxide only lasts a few months in the atmosphere before it is fully oxidized into carbon dioxide this is really a carbon dioxide issue over the long term. The scientists predictive model had simply overestimated the speed of the warming process because they had ignored a hidden competing process that had slowed the warming effect. There was also definitely a tipping point, which was only recently passed a few years ago.
It seems whatever we do now to reduce pollution can only slow the inevitable long term shift towards a hotter climate. Our only option now is to adapt and survive. An estimated global temperature increase of just 2 or 3 degrees over the next 50-100 years will be catastrophic for our species, simply because of our huge numbers. A hotter global atmosphere means increases in global crop failure, ocean levels, flooding, storms, temperature extremes and other natural disasters. Moreover, entire temperature zones could ultimately drift in latitude by as much as 15 or 20 degrees. Tropical zones around the equator could be dispersed to far greater latitudes. While this might mean more water vapor in the atmosphere and increased rainfall in the cooler temperate and polar climates, it would mean more intermittent rainfall in the tropics. This could have a devastating effect on the world as a whole.
The tropical regions surrounding the equator account for around 40% of the world’s population or close to 3 billion people. More importantly the tropics also contain almost all of the world’s rain-forests which are effectively the lungs of the world. Global warming has the primary effect of drying out the tropical region and affecting the natural water cycle. This reduces the level of vegetation that the region can sustain. which in turn reduces the earth’s ability to turn all the carbon dioxide we produce back into oxygen.
It should be pointed out that there are two main sources of carbon dioxide that is heating up the world. The first is man-made pollution via the burning of fossil fuels. However an even larger source of CO2 is man himself. There are now 7 billion of us and many more animals that we keep as livestock. We all breathe in oxygen and spew out carbon dioxide which is then recycled back into oxygen by the world’s vegetation. Because everything on earth is interrelated global atmospheric trends can behave a little like runaway trains. Once past a certain tipping point it can only be slowed but not stopped until a new equilibrium is reached. We will just have to adapt to the consequences the best we can. Ultimately mother earth will evolve so as to reduce the biological infection on its skin. If the human race is the cause of recent increases in carbon dioxide levels, mother earth will likely cut our numbers dramatically to reach a new equilibrium with botanic life.
But perhaps this isn’t true. Perhaps we are not getting the “whole” picture and there is actually something we can do about reversing global warming?
Let us now take a look at the atmosphere from the long term viewpoint of an atmospheric physicist. These guys are the only ones not calling themselves climate change scientists, mainly because a PhD in any field of physics sounds a bit more impressive. Most physicists view physics as the one true science and other scientific disciplines as simply diverse sub-fields of physics. Physics describes the universe and everything in it. Moreover, many physicists look with disdain at how other scientific disciplines develop empirical theories and models based on retro-fitting theoretical parameters to observed experimental data. This delivers a very superficial understanding of how and why things really work which limits the ability to forecast and predict. In contrast all physicists are divided into two types; theoretical and experimental. Theoretical physics is based on pure thought experiments about how the universe and matter should behave without any input or guidance from experimental data. When theory produces numbers that are within the statistical error of the experimental data the theory usually becomes accepted as scientific law. The physicists approach to theoretical modelling and predictive forecasting is therefore based on a deeper understanding of why things work and how they behave. Physicists are also the only people who are actually looking at the big picture over the long term rather than the more focused or regional study of any single short-lived side-effect of increased carbon dioxide levels.
According to the atmospheric physicist the earth has always had an evolving atmosphere. The planet was originally just a hot ball of molten rock with a cooled outer crust and the only atmosphere surrounding it was extremely thin. It consisted of the two lightest and most plentiful atomic elements in space, namely Hydrogen (H) and Helium (He) that are spewed out from the sun. Over time these light gases escaped the earth’s gravity. The earth was a very hot, dry and dusty place that could not support any form of life.
Then the volcanoes started to erupt all over the earth’s crust like giant pimples of life. This highly volcanic surface spewed out steam and smoke that contained the 4 fundamental atomic elements for an atmosphere that could grow and sustain life. These elements, in order of increasing atomic mass, are hydrogen (H), carbon (C), nitrogen (N) and oxygen (O). These critical atomic elements are the soup for life and they exploded from volcanoes in the form of steam (or H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2) and ammonia (NH3). The steam could not escape the earth’s gravity and after cooling it condensed to form the oceans. The continual creation of new volcanoes ensured that some land mass existed above the ocean’s surface. The earth’s atmosphere, the oceans and the continents were born and they have been evolving and changing ever since.
Much of the carbon dioxide in the air dissolved into the oceans. Then over millions of years a new thing called bacteria evolved from the carbonated water of the oceans. This living biological matter was made up of lots of carbon C atoms and hydrogen H atoms forming organic molecules. The bacteria could live on energy from the Sun and feed on carbon dioxide in the water, producing oxygen as a waste product. Life was born and it was plant-like or botanic in nature. Over time this life spread, continually absorbing the carbon from the CO2 molecules and converting it into O2 molecules. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere dropped significantly while oxygen levels increased dramatically.
Meanwhile the ammonia molecules were being broken down by electromagnetic radiation from the nearby star (ie: sunlight) and transformed into Nitrogen (N2) and Hydrogen (H2) molecules. The hydrogen molecules being very light rose to the top, escaped earth’s gravity and drifted off into space. The rest of the gases formed the atmosphere and as long as botanic life grew on the earth’s surface or in its oceans the oxygen in the atmosphere slowly increased and the carbon dioxide levels slowly decreased.
When the amount of available oxygen reached over 200 times the amount of carbon dioxide available a new form of life emerged. This new life lived on energy stored in the existing botanic matter and oxygen in the air and water, converting it into carbon dioxide as the waste product. This new form of life was zoological in nature and it included all animals, fish, insects and ultimately us humans. Zoological life started feeding on the botanic life, putting CO2 back into the atmosphere and slowly depleting oxygen levels and increasing carbon dioxide levels. Long before mankind existed a battle between zoological and botanical life emerged on the planet’s surface and a corresponding battle between CO2 and O2 in the atmosphere followed. The type and complexity of the zoological and botanic life-forms that evolved at any given period in the earth’s history was largely determined by who was winning the battle of the atmosphere.
Over the eons of time a stable steady-state balance was ultimately achieved. A balance that promoted the symbiotic growth of both botanic and zoological life to exist in harmony with each other. Ever-more complex and diverse life-forms began to emerge in this relatively stable environment. Forests were replaced by grasslands and dinosaurs were replaced by mammals as the environment slowly cooled, volcanic activity dissipated and the various climate zones became established. Ninety-nine percent of today’s atmosphere is currently made up of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%). Other gases including ozone, argon and carbon dioxide account for the remaining one percent. Carbon dioxide currently makes up only 0.0385% of the earth’s atmosphere. These numbers for gaseous constituents do not include the water vapour in the atmosphere (ie: clouds) which recycles water between the oceans and the continents. In this relatively stable global environment the waste product of botanic life (O2) dramatically outweighs the waste product of zoological life (CO2) by a factor of around 550. Because of the intertwined relationship between the various contributing elements, small changes in the relative percentages of carbon dioxide and oxygen can now have dramatic effects on the future viability of all life on the planet. So an increase in CO2 levels by more than 20% over the last 50 years is a significant thing that our species has unwittingly achieved.
The sustainable amount of all zoological life in the future will be a direct reflection of the relative amounts of (1) carbon dioxide, (2) oxygen, (3) botanic life and (4) EM radiation transmitted through the atmosphere. These four elements will determine our survivability as a species on this planet. If we mess around with any one of these natural elements it will likely be at our peril. Zoological and botanic life will be forced to change, evolve and adapt if there is significant change in the levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen, botanical life or EM radiation. And right now it is the relatively high levels of CO2 and low levels of botanic life that are causing all the problems and forcing climate change!
Large sections of rain-forest have been savaged by man over the last 200 years and the earths lungs continue to get smaller. We need these rain-forests to help negate the increasing CO2 levels caused by our explosion in population and the industrialization of our society. Too much CO2 and not enough botanic life results in an unstoppable trend that could damage the viability of all botanic and zoological life on earth. However logic tells us that increased CO2 levels will ultimately result in an increase in botanic life dominating at the expense of zoological life. A few degrees hotter and the viability of our existence as a species comes into question. At least the plants will be ok in the end. They were first to arrive on this rock and will likely be the last to leave.
The increase in carbon dioxide levels has many long term side-effects. The first and most immediate side effect is global warming which results from the interaction of the carbon dioxide with the electromagnetic radiation from the sun. The sun emits intense radiation right across the electromagnetic spectrum. From dangerous high energy waves in the gamma ray, x-ray and ultraviolet parts of the EM spectrum through to the more beneficial low energy light in the visible, near-infrared, far-infrared and microwave parts of the spectrum.
Fortunately almost all atmospheric gases absorb the dangerous high energy gamma-ray and X-ray radiation. Moving to slightly longer wavelengths Ozone (O3) is an excellent absorber of UV radiation. The slim ozone layer is made up of one of the few gases that can help reduce the dangerous ultraviolet rays to tolerable levels. However the atmosphere is very transparent in the longer wavelength visible and near-infrared parts of the spectrum.
Almost all of this much safer optical radiation reaches the earth’s surface to heat up the planet. The heated planet surface then re-radiates some of this absorbed energy back into the atmosphere in the form of even longer thermal or far infrared wavelengths. Unfortunately many gases in the atmosphere absorb far infrared light and when these atmospheric gases re-radiate their own thermal radiation it is in all directions including back down to earth. Consequently some of the far-infrared radiation that the earth emits is trapped in a continual cycle between the planet surface and the air. This ultimately heats up the atmosphere, the continents and the oceans. This effect is well known as the greenhouse effect and the result is of course global warming.
The two biggest contributors to the greenhouse effect are carbon dioxide and water vapor. As the earth heats up there will be increased evaporation and hence more water vapor in the atmosphere (though less at the tropics). More water vapor can only increase the greenhouse effect which promotes global warming even further. Hopefully the reader is now starting to see how the cyclical nature of our environment can lead to many run-away train situations. When in the midst of a global feedback loop things can get crazy and unstoppable pretty damn quickly.
There is nothing we can do with the water cycle, nor would we want to try given its complexity and importance for life. Moreover ignorance begs disaster so until we understand the water cycle better it is best not to mess with it. Additionally, we have already established that we cannot stop the increase of CO2 levels, nor would it have any long term effect given we are passed the established tipping point. So how can we possibly slow this global feedback loop of electromagnetic radiation that is now warming the planet to our demise?
The answer may lie with the atmospheric physicists who first predicted climate change. Remember that hidden competing effect to global warming that effectively halved its rate of increase? This cooling effect is due to the phenomena of global dimming. Its effect partially masked the phenomena of global warming and conversely global warming totally masked the lesser effect of global dimming which was why it was not considered as an important process in the initial forecast models. The dangers of relying on experimental data to form a theory are again exposed says the true physicist. But at least we now know that global dimming exists and how it acts to offset global warming. Education can only help us in this battle for (or is it against) the global environment.
Global dimming works like this:
When we burn fossil fuels to use the stored energy inside we convert the carbon in the coal, oil or gas into visible airborne carbon particles (smoke or soot) and invisible gases (carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide). The cooler the temperature we burn carbon at, the more solid particles that are produced relative to the gaseous CO2 waste. The hotter and more efficient we burn carbon then the less visible smoke and the more invisible CO2 produced. The smoke or soot is highly opaque to visible and infrared light which means it absorbs the light. When enough of these solid airborne particles are in the atmosphere they act to reduce the visible and infrared light that is transmitted from the sun through the atmosphere to the planet surface. Hence the intensity of the sun’s rays are visibly dimmed at the planet’s surface. The less visible and infrared radiation that reaches the planet’s surface, the less that can be absorbed by the planet and then re-radiated back in the form of far infrared radiation. Hence the input into the global warming feedback loop is reduced and global warming itself is reduced. Potentially this could even reverse global warming.
There are natural sources of global dimming particles including the smoke plumes from volcanic activity. The industrial revolution has only added to the effect of global dimming over the last few hundred years ….. until very recently. Pan evaporation data across the world has shown that global dimming has been steadily decreasing since the huge spike in 1991 caused by the Mount Pinatubo eruption. This corresponds to the period when cleaner fuel processing started to emerge in our power stations and motor vehicles. Consequently global warming has dramatically increased as a direct consequence of a slowing global dimming. Nature and man’s only effective method of keeping global warming in check was now being reduced by our desire for improved energy efficiency. Perhaps nature actually had our primitive coal burning practices under control no matter how much we grew in population? Cleaner and more efficient fossil fuels and methods of burning these fuels has tipped the global warming / dimming balance in the favor of warming. Perhaps mother earth will ultimately resolve the situation with a massive increase in volcanic activity after it has finished heating. Then over time the balance would be reset and the zoological infection on its surface might be reduced.
It seems our recent but all too late effort to produce more efficient and cleaner energy with less pollution is actually helping global warming. We are now trying to produce more CO2 and much less visible smoke per Joule of energy created. But we may in fact be adding to effects of global warming with our efforts to be green and efficient. Here is a controversial thought…… it may be the case that our efforts to improve global energy efficiency have in fact caused global warming in the first place! Could the environmentalism movement be the cause of the impending environmental catastrophe we are now facing! As they say, a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous ….. very dangerous.
Despite all our good environmental intentions, did our lack of understanding about the interrelated complexity of atmospheric processes actually cause us to be the agents of our own demise? Could our very caring for the environment be an unnatural behavior for a zoological species to exhibit, and did mother earth already have our natural evolution into the industrial age covered with global dimming? Let us hope not, for the irony will be lost to history.
Given the many cases of irony that already exist in the environmental it would not surprise the Skeptic or the Scientist. The amount of CO2 pollution produced to build a new modern electric / hybrid car from scratch is more than that car produces via exhaust or electricity consumption over the next 10 years. Given the average lifetime of a car is less than 10 years this charge towards clean fuels seems highly counterproductive. It may be that driving a 30 year old gas guzzling smoke bellowing jalopy is the most environmentally responsible thing one can do. Recycling cars causes zero new pollution from manufacturing and the dirtier smoke produced can help to counter global warming. Not only are old cars producing less CO2 per unit of fuel burnt, they are also helping the process of global dimming with their more visible pollution. Consequently global warming can be diminished via two distinct consequences from burning fuel in a less efficient and dirtier manner. Oh, the irony of it all.
Nonetheless it does pose the more serious scientific question. Can we in fact use global dimming as a tool to stop global warming in its tracks, thereby giving us some control over the electromagnetic feedback loop and the earth’s viability for life?
The fundamental question of this article has now been asked ….. so this author will now pose a few more questions as both a physicist and an avid futurist. A classical physics thought experiment if ever there was one.
First, if the more primitive forms of burning carbon at lower temperatures are actually more environmentally friendly because it acts against global warming, shouldn’t we encourage inefficient dirty pollution over the more damaging and cleaner invisible pollution?
Second, shall we also now view driving classic cars, cigarette smokers, backyard barbecues, coal power stations, natural bush fires and volcanic eruptions as environmentally friendly things?
Third, if the net observable effect to our lives of encouraging global dimming over global warming is a 5-10% reduction in visible light from the sun, is this slightly darker world we live in worth the sacrifice of a stable environment?
Fourth, could we custom design some new form of pollution that is transparent to visible light but absorbs strongly in the near-infrared part of the EM spectrum? Such invisible pollution would still act to increase global dimming and cool the planet, without being observable to the human eye. Simple aesthetics may in fact behind our entire emotional reaction to pollution. The narrow spectrum sensors that are our eyes may have hidden the true nature of things from us. This focus on visible aesthetics may in fact be why invisible carbon dioxide pollution was ignored for so long!
Fifth, as a physicist I realize that my very existence is an act of carbon dioxide pollution and oxygen depletion for the earth. Our current views on pollution and our true role in the environment are often based on subjective, biased or uneducated opinions. Something needs to change. Despite only being the view of this sole author, shouldn’t somebody start funding serious investigations into this contrarian environmental philosophy soon? ……. before it really is too late?
I hereby coin the phrase “Pollution Engineering” as a new field that views pollution as a potentially useful tool to control the world’s atmosphere, instead of simply being an unwanted waste product that is out of our control. Manipulating pollution may in fact be the key to saving our planet and our species.
Big Scary Ideas indeed!
About the author: Adam Weigold is an Australian physicist, author and entrepreneur currently living in San Francisco. He is founder of the Lightning Gun Project and his current interests include military laser systems and laser plasma interactions in the atmosphere. His PhD dissertation was in the fields of Atomic, Laser and Plasma Physics. While he does not profess to be an expert on Atmospheric Physics he studied the field during his Bachelor of Science and has a basic working knowledge of the discipline.