Green House Gases and Automobiles
Recognizing mathematical thinking in a common news worthy issue
We have all heard the claim that green house gases generated by human activity, such as driving automobiles, are causing global warming. Some people argue against this claim. Activists have lobbied congress to regulate the automobile industry to create more efficient cars. Is this a wise approach? Is it the best approach? A little simple mathematical thinking can take us a long way in evaluating this problem. Below we will examine a few core elements of this discussion.
Part 1: Systems - Distinguishing between balance and imbalance
A system, such as our ecosystem, will be sustainable if it is balanced. Here we ask do we have evidence that human activity has made the atmosphere of our ecosystem unbalanced?
Systems: Source vs. Sink
Systems: More roads <--> More cars
Conclusions: For the atmosphere to be stable, the CO2 must be extracted from the atmosphere at the same rate it is being produced. The very human systems that produce CO2, reduce nature's ability to extract CO2.
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Part 2: Recognizing the factors in greenhouse gas production (considering only transportation for this evaluation)
Engine Efficiency and Pollution Control Devices
The environmental implications of this are severe. Suburban zoning laws and life styles have offset all of the efficiency gains of the engines in terms of total environmental impacts. Suburbanization has contributed more to green house gases than underefficient engines. Everything that is causing us to drive more is contributing to greenhouse gases.
Conclusions: Suburbanization and zoning laws are major causes of greenhouse gas emission.
The obvious implication is that an increasing population results in increasing greenhouse emissions. Similarly, increased dependency on technology results in increased greenhouse gases, even while engines become more efficient. If the number of drivers doubles, the fuel efficiency must also double, just to keep the emissions at the same level.
Conclusions: The rising population and dependency on technology are major factors in greenhouse gases.
Part 2 Conclusion: Indirect factors, such as population increase and suburbanization, can have a greater impact than direct factors, such as fuel efficiency.
Generalization: Environmental Impact = standard of living * Inefficiency * population
Problem solving ideally ends with recognizing how the elements of one problem, and thinking skills used to evaluate that problem, can be generalized to other problems. To generalize from this problem we recognize that each human alive has an impact on the environment, and the resources each human uses to increase his standard of living increase that impact. The population explosion is a factor in every environmental problem that humans create. Increasing the population results in increasing the problems. The desire to produce a better life, and inefficient methods of achieving that goal are also factors.
Part 3: Buffering
One of these buffering systems would be the ability of the planet to buffer the CO2 in the atmosphere, and to buffer climate changes that might result from changing CO2 concentrations.
The problem with buffering systems is that they have limits. Consequently, a buffering system will mask (cover up) the change that is occurring until the system is pushed beyond its limit. By the time the change becomes evident it is too late, the system is already out of control. If human blood is forced beyond the limits of its natural buffers, unconsciousness or death may occur.
Conclusion: If we wait until climate change and CO2 build up are clearly observable, we have waited too long.
Part 4: Record Temperatures
Some people claim that we still have many days where record cold temperatures are set. How could that happen if global warming is occurring?
Record temperatures are an element of statistics. So some basic statistics is needed to examine how many days of record temperature should we expect to have. Humans have been keeping temperature records, in some areas, for little over 100 years. The first year records were kept, every day had a record low and a record high for that day. Every month had a record low and high for that month and the year itself was both a record low and a record high. The next year we would expect that about half of the records would be broken. The year after that about a third of the records would be broken.
One hundred years later, we would still expect about 4 days (approx.: 365/100) to set a record high and another 4 to set a record low. We would expect a month to be a record hot or cold month only about once a year (12 months / 100 years of record keeping.) We would only expect a 1% chance of having a year that was a record hot, and equal chances of a record cold year. The rate at which records are being set is higher than the expected rate. This suggests that some type of change is occurring.
There is evidence that day time high temperatures are staying about the same as they had been, but night time lows are gradually rising. If this is the case, global warming will not be characterized by more high temperature records. Instead it will be characterized by a loss of night time cooling.
Conclusion: The rate that record temperatures are being set, (as well as record rain or drought) is an indicator of environmental stability. And that rate currently implies some type of instability.
Part 5: Secondary Effects & Chaos
The predicted change in temperatures is small, in fact, its only about 2 degrees. A change that small is smaller than most people will really notice. The increase in atmospheric CO2, and an increase in temperatures will be barely noticeable to most people. Even though the changes seem small there may be large secondary effects.
Large scale changes in the water cycle may occur bringing floods to some areas and droughts to others. The climate, as evidence suggests, may become more chaotic oscillating between drought and deluge. Instead of a weekly cycle of rain and sunshine, we have long spells of extreme rain and long spells of drought. If these patterns become more severe many farms may become unproductive.
A major part of the human population has become dependent on industrialized farming and food distribution methods. Farming is critically dependent on stable environmental patterns. Long term changes in any of the following could catastrophically reduce food production:
Approximately 300 million people are dependent on the food produced in the American West. Many of the alternative locations for growing food have been buried under human developments. If a change in climate should undermine the ability of the American West to produce food (e.g.: a drought lasting more than one year) then 300 million people would be forced to seek other sources of food.
If the polar ice caps melt, and they are currently melting faster than predicted, coastal flooding and storms will ensue. People who live in coastal areas, or depend on trade that occurs in coastal areas will have to adjust.
There is evidence that tropical warming has historically resulted in epidemics. If this is accurate, then we will face an increased rate of epidemics.
Environmental change, heating, droughts, fog, rain, etc. may change faster than the species in those ecosystems can adjust. If any ecosystem that we depend on, directly or indirectly, then we will have to make the adjustments.
The secondary effects of atmospheric change will most likely have a far greater impact on human life than the change in CO2 itself. We do not yet know what all the secondary effects will be.
Part 6: Overall Conclusions