Most Americans Will Get This Simple Climate Change Question Wrong.




     Are you among the many bright people who have forgotten your schooling in chemistry and physics, or, maybe because your interests skewed toward English and history, never gained a firm foundation in sciences other than perhaps biology? Rapidly, countries around the world are beginning to transition to renewable energies, but unlike most other nations resistance is high in some quarters of the United States, including in the White House.  


     Do you believe global warming is real? If so, can you explain what causes it? Take a short quiz and see if you are on target or need to brush up on the underlying science.


     Global Warming is caused by:


  1. The ozone hole in Earth’s atmosphere that permits more intense sunlight/heat to strike our planet, thus warming it.
  2. The release of heat from human structures and devices, including coal and oil power generating facilities, industrial plants, commercial facilities, motor vehicles, homes, and black top paving on streets and parking lots.
  3. Fluctuations in natural but lengthy solar cycles whereby the Sun is undergoing a particularly intense period of solar emissions.
  4. Heat from electricity that seeps out from electrical lines throughout the world.
  5. None of the above.


     How did you do? The correct answer is number five. While the intricacies of global warming are indeed highly complex, and well beyond any simple discussion, the basics are not difficult. (To science teachers out there, please forgive this admittedly over-simplified explanation. It is certainly not a shortcut for reading the numerous fine textbooks or other works that provide thorough scientific explanations.)


     Sunlight exists at a specific short wavelength (shortwave solar radiation). The short wavelength allows it to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and strike the surface of our planet. The radiation then heats the Earth’s surface. Heat exists at a longer wavelength (longwave radiation), significant portions of which radiate off the surface back into space, particularly at night. 


     This process has been going on for eons, keeping Earth within a range of warmth suitable for life as it has come to exist on our planet. It is known as the greenhouse effect, and without it most life as we know it would not exist. Earth would be a frozen wasteland. However, with the advent of the industrial revolution in the 1800s, human beings began burning massive amounts of fossil fuels – predominately coal and oil – to power factories, heat homes, drive cars and trucks, etc. 

     When burned, fossil fuels emit prodigious amounts of pollution into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other fluorinated gases. These gases combine with water vapor to block a much greater portion of radiating heat (with its larger wavelength) from escaping through the atmosphere back into space. (To be clear, other human activities also produce fluorinated gases such as rice production and animal husbandry, but fossil fuel burning is the principal source.) The more fluorinated gases – referred to now ubiquitously as “greenhouse gases” – that are released into the atmosphere, the more they trap heat, increasingly the overall temperature of the planet. Since these gases remain suspended for many years, some for up to centuries, the addition of new emissions combine with older ones to enhance the blocking process in our atmosphere. The longer we continue to emit large amounts of greenhouse gases the greater danger we face from enhanced anthropogenic (human caused) global warming and the impacts it has, and will have, upon our climate. Climatologists recognize that we are now reaching the tipping point where the amounts of fluorinated gases present in our atmosphere are so large (in excess of 400 parts per million) that absent prompt, dramatic reductions, our planet will heat to the point that adverse changes to our climate will no longer be possible to prevent.  



(The author, Craig Benedict, is a retired federal prosecutor who specialized in environmental crimes.)