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Other greenhouse gases

CO2 is not alone in having infrared absorption and thus acting as a greenhouse material. Methane offers the same set of problems, but here the uncertainties are much greater, as there are immense quantities of methane trapped in permafrost and cold-water compounds, both of which may release gas as warming continues. If this happens and methane effects cut in as well, then the temperature rise will be rapid, spectacular, and far beyond our control.

Why are we reluctant to solve the problem of greenhouse gases?

The technology and science behind the design of a greenhouse is well understood, and has been so for far more than a century. The science is easy. The sun is hot and emits light over a wide spectral region, not just in the visible, but also out to longer wavelengths termed the infrared (which we can sense as heat). The maximum energy reaches us as visible light. This goes through the glass of our greenhouse and warms the interior. However, inside the warm greenhouse the emission is only at much longer, infrared wavelengths, and glass does not transmit this range of wavelengths. So visible energy comes in, is trapped, and heats the inside. Success: we have a hot greenhouse.

For our survival on the planet, we also need to trap heat to have liquid water and a warm enough temperature. For Earth, the greenhouse glass roof is replaced by CO2 gas in the atmosphere. This similarly allows visible energy in, and blocks some of the radiant heat from leaving the planet. Without CO2, we would freeze; with too much, an excess of the energy is trapped, and we will overheat. (Physics is a very simple subject.) Adding more CO2 from power stations, burning fossil fuels, etc. has changed the earlier balancing rate and trapped more heat. The atmosphere warms up, and this extra energy drives all the changes in the climate that we are currently experiencing. CO2 has been added by us, but this may soon be a minor problem, as the higher temperatures are beginning to melt permafrost at northern latitudes. This releases trapped frozen methane. As mentioned earlier, methane is also an effective greenhouse gas. Once this methane concentration rises, our global temperature will soar.

We understand the problem; it is serious; and it needs to be addressed immediately, either by technologies that we already have, or by applying intelligence to make improvements and new ways to minimize CO production or remove it from the atmosphere. It is a genuinely urgent problem that we have suspected for a long time, and now have the evidence to realize that we are the culprits causing the change. Therefore, why have we not taken any serious actions?

There are lots of words, international gatherings, and fine talk, but minimal action. Experimental scientists claim we need lots more research (i.e. they want more money to fund their activities). Theoretical ones run different long-term computer simulations, and then argue over the predictions they arrive at for 50 years in the future (the details are unimportant, as they all agree we will have overheated). Industrialists try to discredit all the evidence, because to change the way they operate would inevitably reduce profits in the short term and, for highly paid top management, would hit their salaries. Additionally, they may not understand the science and may not care what happens in 20 or 30 years, as they will have died by then. Others, for political reasons, say the whole prediction is fiction (i.e. a mixture of lack of scientific understanding, a rejection of anything termed science and technology, and a selfish focus on the industrial profits of their supporters). Finally, all of us have a natural reluctance to accept information that we do not wish to hear.

I have listed a range of reasons, as many people have written extensively about different aspects of our inaction and perhaps fail to publicly say that it is not solely motivated by profit. However, that is clearly a very major factor. Many books exist that are long, detailed, and well argued, but few of us are likely to read all the way through them. Nevertheless, for those who wish to be factually well informed and see how politics and commercial pressures have inhibited any action, there are many such books and articles, including Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate.

We cannot see greenhouse gases, precisely because they are transparent to visible light. So we do not recognize their importance. So as a digression I will offer an analogy. There once was a beautiful house on a steep hillside with a wonderful view. The rich owner was told by his maintenance engineer that the water consumption was steadily increasing by so many cubic feet per month, and the engineer and the plumber assumed this was an indication of a small leak in the plumbing underneath the floor of the very elegant bathroom. Also, because they were using more water, they suspected the leak was getting worse. The owner prized the expensive bathroom. He did not understand the units used by the engineer, nor any other implications. He was unwilling to spend a lot of money to rip up the floor and search for a leak he could not see. The cost of water was small, and so he just increased the money spent on the water bill. Unfortunately, the water leak produced a sinkhole, and one night the entire house collapsed and slid down the hillside, killing all the occupants. Foresight could have saved them, but ignorance, greed, and a desire not to admit any problems were the all- too-human causes for inaction. Any analogy with global warming is entirely intentional.

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