When I sat down to dinner with a friend of a friend, I anticipated a philosophical and engaging discussion about politics and life. I did not expect a debate about the merits of climate research, especially coming from a nationally-recognized leader of an Arctic Maritime Research Facility in Alaska – a global warming skeptic in the scientific fields. A mathematician by education, he argued that we could draw no definitive conclusion with merely “half of the equation,” that “so many unquantified variables exist” that doing so would be premature and irresponsible. As an engineer, I found this logic to be fascinating. Sure we only have part of the equation…but isn’t that sufficient? Elementary thermodynamics dictates that the atmosphere must be warming…doesn’t it?
I won’t pretend to be an expert, but looking at global warming in terms of net energy
makes for a convincing “partial” equation. Broken down, the simplicity is surprisingly compelling: Combustion of carbon compounds releases carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased nearly 150 parts per million since the pre-Industrial era. Last year, humans released more than 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Like any atmospheric gas with more than two atoms, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which absorbs outgoing infrared energy.
The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So when infrared energy is absorbed into the atmosphere, the atmospheric energy content increases in the form of heat. With the introduction of increased energy into the atmosphere, more energy is a hand for each of the many meteorological cycles: each a function of convection in the atmosphere. Naturally occurring processes simply happen faster and to a greater degree: Windy areas will get more wind. Hurricanes will be both bigger and more frequent. Melting ice caps will melt faster. The world’s weather is caused by the movement of heat – a movement now only increasing.
So perhaps we don’t need the other half of the equation. There are almost certainly other sources of carbon dioxide. The apparent increase in global temperature may well be within an expected margin of error. But we agree that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are increasing. We agree that the Laws of Thermodynamics are indeed laws. You cannot manage what you do not measure, but in a closed system, there is then one possible conclusion: the atmosphere is warming. This is a simple cause and effect relationship.
Don’t call it climate change. Climate is a long-term pattern of weather, usually over a 30-year time span. Last year was the warmest on record, but it’s true: climate trends fall within a margin of error. Nonetheless, the globe is warming: we have an empirical equation and real-world results that suggest the same. Maybe, just maybe, if we look at the current predicament as a result of undeniable truths – namely the conservation of energy – we’ll agree that scientists really are close enough for all practical purposes.