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Letter: Climate change is elementary physics

By: Letter to the Editor

 | Aug 21, 2014 - 11:42 AM |
My heart dropped as I read the email from one our volunteers. The editor of a major Canadian newspaper said that there is still doubt about human-caused climate change. This letter, if published, will be sent to him.

Human-caused climate change is easily explained by the basic physics of energy in the atmosphere.

Except at the temperatures of absolute zero (minus 273.15 C), molecules are always in motion because they have innate energy at the subatomic level. When one applies heat energy to a system, molecules move faster.

To convince yourself, put food colouring in cold water and hot water and compare how fast the food colouring moves through the two temperatures of water.

Why is this important to know? Because the energy of water molecules moving and heat energy in the atmosphere are two driving forces behind extreme weather such as tornadoes and hurricanes.

Scientists have known for almost 200 hundred years that CO2, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, traps heat energy in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is also known that the more heat trapped in the atmosphere, the more water it holds.

Thus, by burning fossil fuels, we are adding heat energy and the energy of more water molecules moving in our atmosphere. According to Dr. James Hansen, humans are putting the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima bombs worth of energy into the atmosphere every day.

Throughout April, May and June, CO2 in the atmosphere was over 400 ppms and it hasn’t been this high somewhere between 800,000 and 15 million years ago – long before humans existed and when the oceans were 30 meters higher. As well, May and June were the hottest May and June on record.

It is not just the level of CO2 that is of concern, it is also the rate at which it is rising. Over the last 150 years humans have increased the Earth’s CO2 levels from 280 ppm to 400 ppms.

The last time the Earth’s CO2 rose this quickly was during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), 55 million years ago.

The geological record of the PETM tells a harrowing tale of massive global climate disruption and extinction because positive feedback loops kicked in over a very short time period and the Earth heated up faster than animals and plants could adapt.

Climate disruption is elementary physics: more heat + more water in the atmosphere = more severe weather.

Humanity has unleashed climate disruption upon our only home, Earth. However if we unleash the power of the free market we can transition to a low carbon economy with relative ease.

A market-based price on carbon will grow the economy. Ignoring climate change will have profound negative effects on the economy. The brightest business minds are coming to similar conclusions including the CD Howe Institute and the Conference Board of Canada.

I feel lucky to live in a city where our local media accepts the science of climate change.

Our community, as we did in 2010, is having a town hall during the municipal election where climate change is one of the major concerns, to take place Oct. 1 at St Andrew’s Place.

Cathy Orlando
national manager, Citizens’ Climate Lobby (Canada)

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