Are the Winds of Change Finally Here?

By Hugh Johnson

ON THE INTERNET: Lynne Jackson invited me to give a ZOOM talk about the status of our climate change at the February 17, 2021, “Save the Pine Bush Meeting.” In this winter of COVID, it was easy to forget we are still in a climate crisis. Look what happened in Texas during mid February. Due to a collapse of the Polar Vortex and very warm temperatures right at the North Pole region, an exceptionally bitter Arctic air mass plunged southward through the Nation’s Heartland and took aim at the Lone Star State. The initial surge of cold air combined with a couple of storms, blanketed most of the state with snow, in some places exceeding a foot! Then temperatures tumbled to levels so low the Texas power grid failed, plunging millions into the dark along with no running water.

I gladly accepted Lynne’s invitation and gave a talk updating the status of global warming. I discussed the situation in Texas but emphasized while cold air has stolen the immediate headlines, our climate continues to warm.

While we endured an attempted political COUP, additional wild fires raged in California. Although they paled to the 4 million acres that burned in 2020 (a new record for California), they reminded us that“unusual” weather events continued. After these fires came the epic cold outbreak further east.

In spite of the recent cold snap, 2020 basically tied 2016 for the warmest year ever recorded. This happened despite a developing La Nina in the Pacific (cooling current). Also, we are not only in an 11-year sunspot minimum, but likely heading into an extended solar minimum that could last for 100 years! Many weather records were broken last year, including most tropical storms in the Atlantic basin (28) and the most tornadoes in the Albany National Weather Service area (14).

While the lack of sunspots reflect a slightly cooler solar surface, the scientific jury indicates it does little to halt the current warming. Lack of sunspots might allow for more occasional cold intrusions into our country and perhaps more storms and winter snow for some.

Nevertheless, I emphasized how CO2 continues to rise at an alarming rate. For many centuries our CO2 was around 225-250 parts per million (ppm), which has been an optimal level yielding a steady global temperature hovering around 14C (57F) .

The Industrial Revolution took place by 1800. Initially global temperatures slightly cooled, possibly the result of aerosols “trumping” the increased CO2. However, that all began to change by the 1980s. From that time on, with a few exceptions, our recent warming began, then accelerated in the 2000s. In fact, all but two of the warmest years in recorded history have taken place since 2000! Even during the pandemic, while people have driven less, allowing for clearer air, the level of CO2 remained elevated well over 400 ppm and continues to rise.

Luckily we now have a new political administration in Washington that recognizes “Science” and agrees that climate change is just as serious as COVID-19. President Biden signed a plethora of Executive Orders that placed us back into the Paris Climate Accord, banned oil and gas drilling on public lands and a “pause” on shipping oil through the Keystone Pipeline. These last two things could cut down on possible methane leaks. Methane traps heat at a MUCH higher rate than CO2. General Motors has vowed to produce only electric cars by 2035. Biden is planning for our country to reach ZERO C02 Emission by 2050.

Will all of this reverse Global warming? Probably not, unless we gain technology to actually remove more of the excessive CO2 from the atmosphere. However at least we will be headed in the right direction and bide more time to save our fate.

The earth has warmed about 1C (1.8 F) since around 1970. Many scientists fear if we warm to 5C (8F) above the 1970 values, we will be in peril if not perish. If we continue along our merry way by adding more CO2, this dangerous threshold could happen by 2100, if not sooner.

I concluded my presentation with a chart showing the carbon foot print of the many foods we eat. The data clearly showed that the beef industry leaves the biggest carbon foot print by far, and plant based industry the lowest.

A fair amount of questions and comments followed my talk. The most discussed question was the concern about the electric car brought up by my sister in Colorado. That’s ONE advantage of a Zoom call, anyone with an internet can join from anywhere! A few folks chimed in from various portions of the country.

While the electric car has a lower carbon footprint, it is certainly NOT zero. Other concerns included increasing accessibility to charge stations, increase the speed of charging the battery, and the concern about how to dispose of expired batteries. I stressed the technology needed to improve in all these areas to make the electric car truly competitive with gasoline vehicles.

John Wilcox added that once the Arctic ice caps melt, the albedo rate will decrease markedly and methane, trapped underneath it will be released into the atmosphere. I am so glad he did as I tried to keep my talk as short as possible since we all know Zoom calls can get tedious. I had discussed this scenario in past talks but it always good to remind every one of the potentially accelerating warmth that would result by melting all of the Arctic ice cap.

Grace Nichols put forth an interesting question about the Gulf Stream wondering if it would slow down or speed up. I think as melting ice would decrease the salinity of water, lowering its density, the Gulf stream would slow and weaken. Ironically as much of the earth would warm, this disruption of the Gulf Stream could bring sudden cooling to Europe which would be catastrophic as well. Anytime you cool or warm our planet 5C (8F), this could lead to an extinction of most animals and plants. This is indeed what happened 67 millions years ago as an asteroid 7 miles in diameter crashed into the Yucatan. The debris from it blotted out the sun, rapidly cooled the planet and ended the millions of years of dinosaur reign in less than a decade! Nearly 200 millions before that, the earth warmed more than 5C with a massive influx of CO2 from volcanoes, causing an extinction of most of the delicate life forms at that time.

Tom Ellis reminded us that the wealthiest class leave the biggest carbon foot print while the middle class and poor much less. He liked the idea of taxing the rich more for traveling on planes to “reign them in.”

In conclusion I emphasized that the pro climate change politicians hold a very narrow lead in Washington. In addition to reducing your carbon foot print a little, PLEASE reach out and try to convince at least one person on the other side of the political spectrum that climate IS a crisis. We can’t afford to go back to the previous climate policies.

Excessive CO2 emitted by fossil fuels IS the reason why our planet is on the pathway to human peril.

From the Save the Pine Bush Newsletter, April – May 2021.