Science is Solid: The Time to Save the Planet is Now
It is very important that everybody understands something: science is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact.
Natural selection has ensured that life on Earth has been optimized to survive in the conditions present. We have evolved to live in contact with certain types of radiation, at certain temperatures and humidity, with a certain atmospheric composition. However, what has humanity been doing since the industrial revolution? Once the power of fossil fuels was harnessed endless amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have been injected into the atmosphere as by-products of human activity, which includes industry, transport, energy production and farm animal maintenance. This in turn has caused global warming and climate change, which is just starting to have observable effects. But if living organisms have evolved to survive certain conditions, what might happen when these conditions are changed? Reports of large parts of the Great Barrier Reef dying being linked to global warming can be found in the leading journal Nature. In 2014, a paper was published in the journal Science concluding that extinction rates could be up to 1000 times the likely rate without human activity. It is a well-established scientific fact that human modification of ecosystems is extremely damaging. We cannot continue to pump harmful gases into the atmosphere if we wish to maintain Earth’s biodiversity and status as a human-habitable planet.
It is very important that everybody understands something: science is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. And that global warming is happening is as solid a scientific fact as one could hope to get. You cannot make a scientific statement without an experiment, some mathematics or data inference to back it up. Scientists use experiments to arrive at conclusions about the world, and use these to explain what we see and make predictions about what things will be like in the future. Any guesses are usually educated. Personal opinion is an outcast, while verifiable data reigns. The fact that there are people who still say that it isn’t true, that climate change is a lie, is astonishing. And that some of these people hold positions in the most powerful government in the world is nothing short of terrifying.
Whether or not the damage already done to the atmosphere can be repaired is still to be answered, but one thing is clear: the global production model must be changed. Coal and oil must become an old mistake that children learn about at school, and renewable energies must be the new norm. Renewable energies such as solar, wind or geothermal still need research. Nuclear fusion, with the potential to be, for all accounts and effects, an infinite and clean energy source, is also in need of great amounts of work and funding. It is clear that efforts must be concentrated on improving the capacity of these technologies, if not for the Earth to remain habitable, then for the global economy. Sooner or later fossil fuels will be depleted, which would be a disaster if industry and commerce still depended on these resources.
Research and development is expensive, but produces economical returns which can sometimes outweigh its costs by orders of magnitude. It creates opportunities for education and creates demand for qualified workers, which further stimulates the economy. Why then has the world economy not shifted to a renewables-based model? Why is the world not preparing itself to avoid a large-scale crash which could happen once fossil-fuels are not easily obtainable? And, the most important question, why do we continue to risk destroying the planet which is our home, along with the Earth’s other inhabitants?
The reason must be, of course, financial. Some of the most powerful companies in the world have established their positions thanks to the fossil fuel model. And even though nobody could argue with the fact the end of the world is bad for business, it is still possible to maintain large, short and medium-term profits. I doubt changing to renewable energies will lead to the next socialist revolution, redistributing economic power to the working class, but it probably would shift the large-scale power from the current top 0.5% to a different top 0.5%, and this is undesirable for the higher-members of society. To change the current economic model, and stop global warming, they must be convinced that this is the only way forward.
If the battle against global warming was not hard enough before, today’s most famous politician has no reservation in expressing his uneducated opinion about climate change. It seems that Donald Trump, possibly the most powerful president in the western world, decided a long time ago that climate change is a hoax. Or so he says. After campaigning against climate change on television and social media, in March 2017 the US government announced a plan to study geoengineering techniques to mitigate the effects of global warming. Yes, mitigate. The technique proposed is one of many encompassed in the discipline known as geoengineering. The idea is to make active efforts to modify the composition of the atmosphere to reduce the effect of human activity on it. Some of the techniques this science proposes are fascinating. For example, growing biomass to use as an energy source: carbon is absorbed in the formation of the biomass, but less than the amount that is released to the atmosphere once it is used as fuel. Hence, the carbon footprint of this type of fuel is negative. This is not the path the Trump administration wishes to follow though.
The technique they wish to research consists in spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere. These particles reflect solar radiation back into space, hence reducing the amount of heat that reaches the Earth’s surface and in principle its temperature. The hope is that this way the effects of global warming can be mitigated, allowing the continued use (or abuse) of fossil fuels. Again, I am no expert on climate change, but some problems with this technique are quite obvious. First of all, global warming is due to infrared radiation emitted by the Earth, whose temperature is contained in the atmosphere thanks to greenhouse gases. It is not directly related to the light which reaches us from the Sun. The Earth will continue to be a source of infrared radiation even if its surface temperature can be reduced using atmospheric sulphates, which seems like a long shot. And in the meantime, the radiation and chemical composition of the Earth’s atmosphere would be modified. As discussed above, life on Earth evolved to live under certain environmental conditions. Once these sulphates are sprayed into the atmosphere, it is reasonable to assume they would spread uncontrollably, with unknown effects both on weather patterns (which are fragile enough without further manipulation) and on living creatures. One must also consider how changing the radiation composition of the atmosphere can effect plants, algae and other photosynthetic beings, whose metabolism is intimately linked with solar light. Plant lift is at the base of the food chain, and any problems they have to survive will affect other animals, and eventually humans, possibly leading to catastrophe.
The message is simple: humanity cannot continue its current way of existence without dire consequences. The economic model (and in general, the way of life of the population) must be changed if we are to survive in the long-term. Renewable energies are the only way forward, and patchwork techniques such as spraying sulphates into the atmosphere can have terrifying consequences, which from the point of view of a physicist may be very hard to predict and even harder to control. Instead of pumping more alien compounds into an atmosphere which worked perfectly well for thousands of millions of years before humanity’s interference, we must first try and reduce the incredible amount of carbon dioxide and other gases we generate, and then use techniques such as biomass to help maintain our existence at the same time that the damage done is slowly reversed. The task ahead is hard, and it will require compromise and sacrifice. But it is probably a better option than full destruction of the Earth’s ecosystem.