Climate change is an issue that is as polarizing for Winguts as any. People on the right have been labeled “deniers” for laughing in the face of science, while the left has been accused of chasing unicorns and even selectively funding climate research to skew the data in their favor. Both portrayals are likely true to some extent, but there are two climate change questions I haven’t heard anyone even begin to explore which gives me cause to challenge all the rhetoric.
QUESTION ONE: How cold is cold enough?
Seriously. What is the “ideal” surface temperature for our planet? If in fact we as a species are absolutely convinced that Earth is warming to dangerous levels and we are committed to reversing the trend despite massive industrialization in places like China and India, then what is our goal for cooling? If a 3C rise in global surface temperatures is bad, then is a 3C fall good? Or do we desire to cool the planet by 5C or 10C or more?
Before we begin to even explore what the ideal temperature would be, there are some basic understandings we need to reach that most people are seemingly unaware of:
- Physics dictates that it takes more energy to heat an object by one degree than it does to cool the object by one degree. In fact, it takes more energy to heat a house in Boston each winter than it does to cool a similar house in Palm Springs each summer. Part of this is physics, and part is simple math. Let’s say the ideal temperature for any house is 72F. The house in Boston needs to maintain a 42F variance to average outside temperature, while the house in Palm Springs needs to maintain only a 24F variance each day. And just as it is with our planet, the ideal home temperature varies by person where one might prefer to keep their home around 68F while another is more comfortable with a house that’s 75F. If we cannot agree on the ideal temperature for our homes, how will we determine what’s best for the entire world population?
- The natural state of the universe is very, very cold. The temperature in space is normally around 450F below zero depending on how close you are to stars, planets, and super heated gas remnants from cosmic explosions. The only thing that separates us from species-killing temperatures is an amazingly thin layer of atmosphere that holds in some radiant heat. Our atmosphere is 300 miles deep — about the same distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles — and the temperature remains below zero just 4 miles above the surface, even above the desert and even during the summer. Picture yourself in a tent at the north pole and you begin to get the idea. (see visual aide above as needed)
- Our only source of heat is the sun. This sounds basic but it seems the masses don’t get it. People talk about carbon emissions as though it’s a source of magic heat, but seriously, very small fluctuations in the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface dramatically change how we as a species feel about getting out of bed in the morning. Volcanic ash, dust from asteroid impacts, and sunspots are just a few examples of things that can make carbon emissions seem like a fart in a football stadium. And this is only a little off topic — people fart a lot in football stadiums.
- Planet Earth does not care if we are here or not. It will be hot sometimes, and freeze other times. It will belch out volcanic ash and gases, and it will collide with cosmic objects. And no matter what we do, it will eventually be swallowed up by our own sun. It sucks to think about, but life on Earth is precious and extraordinary, and it is absolutely unsustainable.
Now that we have some context, let’s explore the ideal temperature for Earth’s inhabitants. First let’s take a quick look at history. The most recent mini-ice age (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Ice_Age) began around 1300AD and lasted approximately 500 years. This period is commonly referred to as “The Dark Ages,” (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages_%28historiography%29) because it was an absolutely miserable time to be human on planet Earth. There was widespread famine due to crop failures, and a few “endless winters” in Europe during which time snow fell in June and generations got used to a diet that consisted mostly of potatoes.
By contrast the earth has been warmer than it is now as recently as 1200 years ago. Around 800AD the area now known as California experienced a drought that lasted nearly 100 years. Today we’re finding artifacts left behind by Vikings 7,000 years ago (see: http://sciencenordic.com/items-lost-stone-age-are-found-melting-glaciers) as glacial ice retreats. As it turns out periods in Earth’s history that we would consider to be “comfortable” for humans have been few and relatively short lived.
If our goal is to cool the earth then we need to be very careful about what we wish for, and we need to be very specific about our target temperature. And unfortunately, what one culture considers to be “just right” will be cause for protest by another. Would people in Fargo, North Dakota, or Manitoba, Canada really complain much if our planet warmed a little? Do you think people in Ecuador would complain if the earth cooled by a few degrees? Statistically we have been exiting the last mini-ice age since around 1850AD and warmth and sea level rise has been pretty consistent during the past 150 years. The reality is that today’s climate is as close to ideal as humans have ever experienced, and no matter what we do as a species, it will not stay this way forever — and probably not for more than another 100 to 1000 years based on climate history.
Before we continue the endless debate around whether or not climate change is real and man made — the answer to which is actually irrelevant — we might want to spend some resources determining what our ideal temperature target is, and how to plan for worse case scenarios hot and cold.
QUESTION TWO: How does taxation cool the planet?
I haven’t yet read any article from any scholar or climatologist explaining the mechanics of how governments shaking more money out their peoples causes the planet’s surface temperature to cool. I think everyone can agree that infrastructure spending to improve air and water quality is beneficial, but let’s not pretend that paying higher taxes will help our government to actually impact the climate. Referencing our earlier football stadium metaphor, charging higher prices for football tickets will not cause people to fart less or impact the temperature inside an open roof stadium. If the climate argument is to be solely based on politically neutral science, then what’s the formula for tax dollars spent to degrees of cooling?
And then there’s the unfortunate realities of industrialization and poverty. If the United States were to cut carbon emissions to zero today, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will still double in the next 15 to 20 years thanks to China and India. And it’s really hard to convince masses of impoverished people who are worried most about food, water and sanitation that their progression to a modern middle-class lifestyle should be decelerated in order to preserve current world temperatures.
So if we are able to get all of Earth’s inhabitants to agree on what the ideal surface planet temperature should be, then we can look at what it would cost in terms of technology and human resources to get there. Only then can we truly assess whether we’re even chasing the right goal.
If you can answer either of the above questions we would love to hear from you.