By Michael D. Lemonick
I’m not big on taking note of milestones. They’re artificial, and usually meaningless, but people get all worked up about them anyway. I don’t like to stay up late on New Year’s Eve, for example, because Dec. 31 is a purely arbitrary date. Nothing real actually begins the next day, but we all pretend otherwise. I have similar feelings about the first day of spring, the temperature reaching 100° as opposed to 99° and all sorts of other magic-sounding dates and numbers that don’t have any real significance.
But since no law says I have to be consistent, I’m going to take note of a milestone that happened some time in the past couple of months, and which was reported last week by NOAA. For the first time in recorded history, and almost certainly for much longer than that, the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide, or CO2, has nipped above 400 parts per million in at least one part of the world. Monitoring stations in Alaska, northern Europe, and Asia have all noted readings above that level during this past spring.
In one sense, this isn’t all that important. There’s no meaningful difference between 399 ppm and 400, and the current world average is more like 393. Even in the Arctic, scientists know the CO2 level will drop back below 400 this summer, as trees in the Northern Hemisphere suck carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere (you can see the annual ups and downs as trees start growing in the sp...
By Michael D. Lemonick
I’ve got to admit I’m not the world’s biggest fan of geoengineering, and I’ve said so quite publicly. The idea is that if we fail to cut back greenhouse gas emissions and the planet’s temperature soars to potentially dangerous levels, we’ll have to do something.
I’ve got to admit I’m not the world’s biggest fan of geoengineering, and I’ve said so quite publicly. The idea is that if we fail to cut back greenhouse gas emissions and the planet’s temperature soars to potentially dangerous levels, we’ll have to do something.ding” clouds with a fine spray of seawater to make them whiter, or even, in one of the more farfetched schemes I’ve heard about, by sending little mirrors into space.
Or, since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years after it’s emitted, the something could be a new technology, like “artificial trees,” which would suck that most important greenhouse gas back out of the air.
There’s a long list of geoengineering ideas, but they all make me think of Edward Tenner’s classic work: Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Technological breakthroughs that solve one environmental problem all too often lead to new problems that are even worse (my favorite example is the advent of the automobile, which solved the great Horse Manure Crisis of the late 1800s). Nobody really knows what unexpected disasters could arise from geoengineering, and it could be...
By Michael D. Lemonick
Talk to people who care about the environment and you’ll hear plenty about pollution, deforestation, sustainability and climate change. What you won’t hear is the word “population,” unless it refers to populations of endangered species.
But if you think about it, the Earth’s booming human population is at the root of just about every environmental crisis that threatens the natural world. Last October 31, Earth’s population reached 7 billion people (unofficially, because there’s no way to pinpoint the actual day, but it was in the ballpark). Every last one of them taps into the planet’s resources as they eat, work and create waste in a myriad of different forms. By 2027 we’ll be up to 8 billion, and the U.N. predicts we’ll hit 9 billion in 2047.
Even now, however, the pressure on Earth’s resources is already extreme, and more people will only make it worse. Deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction, for example, are mostly the result of all those billions of people clearing land for places to live and grow food. Destroy natural habitats and you throw ecosystems out of whack, to say nothing of wiping species off the planet at such an alarming rate that scientists believe we may be seeing Earth’s sixth mass extinction (the previous five were caused by things like asteroid impacts or gigantic volcanic eruptions). All those billions of people burning wood and coal and oil, for heating, transportat...
By Michael D. Lemonick
During the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which ultimately killed more than 200,000 people, the first breathless news reports announced: “three deaths confirmed in tidal wave.” I’m not making this up. It was pretty idiotic — they knew from eyewitness reports how huge the tsunami was, and everyone knew perfectly well that the death toll would be enormous. What, exactly, was the point of reporting the first three? It was a blatantly meaningless number, presented as though the coiffed CNN anchors were conveying actual information.
I sometimes feel the same way when I see projections about sea level rise. The best scientists can tell us today is that the ocean is likely to be 3 feet higher by 2100. That’s likely to be pretty devastating, but it could turn out to be like those first three deaths in 2004.
A Red Cross disaster relief truck is caught in the flood from Hurricane Katrina.
Sort of, anyway. I’m not suggesting the sea will rise by 200,000 feet, of course. I’m also not comparing scientists with news anchors. The latter are required to keep talking whether or not they have something meaningful to say, and if it happens to be ridiculous, nobody will remember 10 minutes later. Scientists, by contrast, generally try to keep quiet unless they have something meaningful to say, and when they finally do, to be as honest as possible about the limits of their knowledge.
Still, it’s too easy for us lay people to miss the part about limits to knowledge. When the Intergovernmental Panel...
By Mike Lemonick
By taking climate change seriously, I always thought I was in the company of some of the world’s most accomplished scientists and most passionate defenders of the environment. But now, thanks to the campaigners for truth at the Heartland Institute, I know better. My real peers are some of the most despicable criminals and tyrants in modern history, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Fidel Castro.
I know this because Heartland has begun putting up billboards in Chicago featuring Kaczynski and the other villains in advance of the organization’s upcoming climate conference, to let Chicagoland residents know what’s what. “I still believe in Global Warming,” declares a scary-looking Kaczynski. “Do you?”
Credit: Heartland Institute.
Tough stuff, but you’ve got to love the reasoning, which Heartland explains on its website. “…what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the “mainstream” media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.”
It’s a breathtaking tour de force in logic: if a murderous lunatic believes something — anything at all — then everyone else who believes it is a murderous lunatic. By this impeccable reasoning, you’d better not be against smoking, because…so was Adolf Hitler (believe it or not, this gambit has actually been played). Hitler was also a vegetarian, at least some of the time, so if you subscribe to both of these beliefs...