Environmental Stewardship: Evidence Matters

by John Berge

Faith is the basis, the essence, the sine qua non of religion. Facts are the basis, the essence, the sine qua non of science, at least since the Renaissance. Where and when we apply the one or the other is often the difficult choice for each of us.

As an example, a state legislator recently stated his belief that the earth is about 6,000 years old, is unchanging, and he would have that taught in school science classes. I believe this is a wrong application. An interesting sign in the recent March for Science read, “Evidence Matters.”

Personally, my faith tells me that we are to be stewards of this earth. We are God’s hands in doing this and other tasks. The facts tell me that global warming and climate change are real and that much, if not all, of the temperature increase since the start of the industrial revolution has been caused by human beings.

The facts are that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing to levels not previously seen in human history and has grown from around 270 parts per million to over 400 ppm since the sources of our energy changed from wood and animals to coal, oil and natural gas. Trees will recapture the carbon dioxide produced in the combustion of wood in one, or a few, human life times; fossil fuels will require multiple millennia to do the same thing. Hence, the growth of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. 

The facts are that temperatures world-wide have been increasing slowly since the 1700’s. Of late, almost every year has been hotter than the previous one. The great majority of environmental and climate scientists recognize these facts. Many of those who would refute them recognize the fact that their salaries are paid by companies in the fossil fuel business.

Some people are confused by the effects of the low concentration of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, only 400 molecules of carbon dioxide per every million molecules of air – almost all nitrogen and oxygen. Just one molecule in 2,500! Permit me a little physical chemistry teaching moment. Oxygen and nitrogen are diatomic molecules (two atoms per molecule). Their only vibrational modes are basically an in-and-out stretching mode that is in the infra-red or heat absorbing region of the spectrum.

Carbon dioxide is a triatomic molecule (three atoms) with more vibrational modes (symmetric and asymmetric stretching, twisting and bending) and thus able to absorb more of the heat energy being re-radiated by the earth into the atmosphere.

Methane is a pentatomic molecule (five atoms) and has even more vibrational modes that allow it to absorb more heat energy; it is up to 40 times more of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. All the molecules in our atmosphere absorb some of the heat energy radiated from the earth; without them we would be as cold as Mars.

But carbon dioxide and methane are the ones that human beings have increased the most in recent centuries. In fact, carbon dioxide concentrations have not been so high since the Pliocene epoch, 5.2 to 1.64 million years ago.

The two major, human sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are fossil-fueled electrical generating plants and motorized vehicles. That is why climatologists, other scientists and environmental stewards push for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind to produce our electricity and more efficient, hybrid and electric cars, buses and trucks to slow the ever-increasing global warming, climate change and sea level rising.

These are choices we and our government can and should make wisely.

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