Questions about Climate Change


There are many who doubt the global warming hypothesis. The doubts they express do offer some questions that when addressed can advance our understanding of climate change. Here we offer not to prove the hypothesis with data. Instead we offer mathematical and scientific reasoning to develop rules of thumb.

Written 2005

Formatted 2009

Is Global Warming malign?

This is a reasonable question. A two degree change doesn't sound like much. And if there are no negative consequences, why worry about it? There are plenty of other things to worry about. So can a 2 to 4 degree Celsius change in temperature really matter to the environment, or to us?

Concept 1: Polar ice caps and permafrost.

Here we reason in Fahrenheit. It seems reasonable to conjecture that the average temperature at the equator is 80 to 90 'F, and the average temperature at the poles is about -10 to 0 'F. So on the average each degree in latitude increase on the planet corresponds to approximately one degree Fahrenheit drop in temperature. Each degree latitude corresponds to 69 miles. So a two degree Celsius (3.5'F) rise in global temperatures would correspond to a retreat in the permafrost and glaciers of about 240 miles pole-ward. All ecosystems and watersheds that depend on this ice would be negatively affected. Similarly, the 2 degree change could expand equatorial deserts by 240 miles north and south. That could wipe out the agriculture of entire countries.

Concept 2: Ice capped mountains.

Some communities around the world depend on ice capped mountains for their fresh water year round. The mountain remains ice capped because for every 1,000 foot rise in altitude there is approximately 3.5 'F drop in temperature. Ice will remain on the mountain year round if the top of the mountain is below 32'F. So, a 2 'C rise in average temperatures would melt the ice caps and glaciers up to 1,000 feet higher. Some ice capped mountains don't have 1,000 feet to spare.

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Concept 3: Crops parasites, mold, rot and drought

Optimal farming depends on an ideal combination of temperature, rain, and soil for each crop. A 2'C / 240 mile shift in temperatures, might not correspond to a similar shift in rain, soil, political or economic regions.

Cold limits the life cycle of some parasites. So does a regular cycle between dry weather and rain. So what will happen to our crops if the winter cold spells decrease? What will happen if weather patterns lock up, and farm land gets too much rain, or long spells of drought. This has been happening.

Concept 4: Diseases

There are more diseases and carriers in tropical areas, and there is some evidence that epidemics occur in years that the tropics heat up. A 2'C could mean that the breeding ground for epidemics expands 240 miles from the equator in both directions. A increase in epidemics would be probable.

Concept 5: costs and fuel usage

It takes more energy to cool a structure by 2 degrees than to heat a structure by 2 degrees. Cooling requires that the heat be expelled. In cities, heat from each structure will be expelled into the streets where it increases the overall heat, requiring more cooling. Needing to cool down 2 more degrees will cost more money and natural resources than needing to heat up 2 more degrees.


Can Climate change really be Anthropogenic?

Can humans really be causing this? Can we really be that significant? Some people say that mankind is too small and the planet is too big for us to cause the change. Is this claim reasonable?

Magnitude example 1: Analogy AIDS

The ratio between the size of the atmosphere and the size of a human is about the same as the ratio between the size of a human and the size of a virus. The AIDS virus does not attack all the cells in the human body, only the T-cell which is a very small percent of the total cells in the body. When death finally occurs only a fraction of the T-cells have been infected. To say that humans are too small to affect the atmosphere is like saying that viruses are too small to affect human health.

Magnitude example 2: Analogy stacking tires

There are about 260 million Americans. Perhaps 100 million of them drive. Each driver will replace about 1 tire each year. In ten years that's 1 billion tires. Each tires is about 1.2 feet in diameter. The earth is about 24,900 miles around. So just ten years of driving Americans could create a wall of tires around the equator stacked 9 tires hire. If the tires that Americans use could circle the planet 9 times, what about the exhaust those cares emit? Add to that the houses and factories.

Magnitude example 3: Sequestering carbon

Much of the carbon dioxide we put into the air is the result of burning fossil fuels. Millions of years ago plants died and were buried by geological processes removing the carbon from the atmosphere. It took tens of thousands of years, possibly tens of millions of years for organic and geological processes to sequester that carbon away from the atmosphere. We are now returning that carbon in just a few hundred years. The geological evidence suggests that we are returning the carbon to the atmosphere hundreds of times faster than it was first removed.

Magnitude example 4: Cloud cover

We already know that cloud cover affects climate. Clouds lead to cooler days and warmer nights. On a clear sunny day step outside and look up into the sky. I have seen days when as much as 30% of the sky was filled with jet contrails. Jet contrails have been shown to affect climate. Similarly smog appear to affect climate.

Magnitude example 5: Observation & experience

Have we personally seen evidence that humans can create large changes? Consider some of the following:

  • In 2002, forest fires in Canada caused dark days in Virginia. A very noticeable change from carbon being put into the atmosphere observed nearly 1000 miles away.
  • In cities all over the industrialized world light pollution keeps residents from seeing the stars at night. Satellites photos show that every major city is clearly visible from space. Most of these lights are powered by plants generating atmospheric carbon. The carbon spreads through out the atmosphere just like the light.
  • The North American continent is crisscrossed by concrete. Everyday those highways are covered with a hundred million automobiles, each generating atmospheric carbon. If the continent itself is so covered with highways that it is hard to find significant area not paved, then all of that area is a source of atmospheric carbon.
  • Most American can not go a full week without depending on their cars. For most that driving amounts to more than 10,000 miles a year. That distance is equivalent to a trail of carbon a third of the way around the planet for each and every American family.

Common experience tells us that are actions on the planet are significant.

Is Climate Change really happening?

We've seen strong evidence that humans can alter the atmosphere by dumping carbon into it. But is global climate change really occurring? Follow this example and see for yourself.