Earlier this month, The New York Timesfeatured an article titled “Hockey in the Desert.” The article concluded that by building a hockey stadium in Las Vegas, the National Hockey League was contributing to climate change. The phrase “contributing to” is used over and over by political leaders and the media to voice concern about human-caused global warming, but “contributing to climate change” is a meaningless phrase.
In his address at Georgetown University in June of 2013, President Barack Obama stated, “…the planet is warming, and human activity is contributing to it.” In 2011, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, “…climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role…” In Congressional confirmation hearings, Energy Secretary Rick Perry affirmed that man-made activity was contributing to climate change.
Every human activity contributes to climate change. If you have a housecat, it “contributes to” climate change. As we burn sugars in our body, we produce carbon dioxide (CO2). Every time you exhale, you breathe out 100 times the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The real question is “What is the size of human contribution compared to natural factors?”
Earth’s climate is amazingly complex. It’s driven by gravitational forces of our solar system, radiation from the sun, and cosmic rays from stars in deep space. Climate is a chaotic, interdependent system of atmosphere, biosphere, ocean, and deep oceans. Climate has been changing through cycles of warming and cooling, tropical ages, temperate ages, and ice ages throughout all of Earth’s history. Climate change is not only real, it’s continuous.
Energy from the sun drives all weather on Earth. Sunlight falls directly on the Equator and Tropical Regions, where much energy is absorbed. Sunlight falls indirectly on Polar Regions. All elements of Earth’s weather, storm fronts, hurricanes, the jet stream, and even ocean currents, are driven to redistribute energy from the tropics to the poles.
The oceans have a powerful effect on Earth’s climate. The Gulf Stream current in the Atlantic Ocean dominates weather and temperatures in Europe. The El Niño cycle in the Pacific Ocean affects weather all over the world. The oceans have 250 times the mass of the atmosphere and can hold more than 1,000 times the heat.
Aerosols are an important factor in Earth’s climate. Dust from volcanos, desert dust, and pollen from plants rise into the atmosphere and influence the climate. Yet today’s climate scientists are obsessed with the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a small part of the overall picture.
Carbon dioxide is a trace gas. Only four of every 10,000 molecules in our atmosphere are CO2 and the amount that human industry could have added over all of our history is only a fraction of one of those four molecules.
Earth’s greenhouse effect, the capture of outgoing infrared radiation by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is said to be strengthened by emissions from industry and is blamed for human-caused global warming. But even the greenhouse effect is dominated by natural factors. Earth’s dominant greenhouse gas is neither carbon dioxide nor methane. Water vapor is Earth’s dominant greenhouse gas. Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the greenhouse effect is caused by water vapor and clouds.
Even the majority of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was placed there by nature. The oceans hold 50 times as much carbon dioxide as the atmosphere and the oceans are continuously releasing CO2 and absorbing CO2. When plants die, they release carbon dioxide, and they absorb CO2 when they grow. Volcanos above the surface of the ocean, and about ten times as many under the surface of the ocean, continuously emit CO2 and other gases into the environment.
Every day, nature puts about 20 times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as all of human industry, and removes about the same amount. If we halted all industrial CO2 emissions, we probably could not measure a change in global temperatures.
Political leaders and newscasters, understand that the phrase “contributing to climate change” is meaningless, so please try to use something a little more intelligent.
Steve Goreham is a speaker on the environment, business, and public policy and author of the bookOutside the Green Box: Rethinking Sustainable Development.