Science that reveals our impact on the future can be difficult to accept. If we cannot see, immediately, that the health of our planet is in jeopardy, we have difficulty believing there really is a problem. Still, it can be startling to hear folks vehemently proclaim that they do not believe in global warming, as though climate change is a matter of belief. In 1824, a French scientist, Joseph Fourier, discovered the “greenhouse effect.”
“Fourier calculated that the Earth was a lot warmer than it should be according to estimates based purely on its distance from the Sun. He surmised that the planet’s atmosphere must be slowing down the rate that the planet radiates heat away into space. Light from the Sun passes through the atmosphere to warm the land and oceans below, but the atmosphere prevents this heat escaping – just like the glass in a greenhouse.” -”History Extra,” December 2018. (BBC History Magazine is a British publication.)
Then in 1896, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, noticed that the gas carbon dioxide (CO2) was especially good at trapping heat radiation. Based on his observations, Arrhenius concluded that “...the massive increases in atmospheric CO2, caused by coal burning during the industrial revolution, would fuel Fourier’s greenhouse effect and lead to global warming of the planet.”
In 1938, Guy Callendar, a British scientist, noted that, between 1890 and 1935, due to the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide levels had increased by 10 percent. In that time our planet had warmed by a half a degree Celsius.
“It was the first solid scientific observation linking climate warming with human carbon emissions.” -”History Extra.”
Naturally, few believed it. Even so, concerned scientists have been warning us about our climate for more than a half century. Even in my childhood, in the 1950s and 60s, “Life” magazine ran articles about climate change. Despite being warned for decades, some acquaintances and friends assure me that climatologists have it wrong. Many of the doubters presume that the scientists are victims of delusional panic. Those who question the scientific investigations say, that it is simply not possible that we puny humans can have such a calamitous impact on this enormous planet and its atmosphere. Actually, I do understand that response. It is incredible that we can have that much effect on our world. Yet, according to an NBC News report, on Saturday, May 11, “...sensors at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii indicated that concentrations of the greenhouse gas — a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels — had reached 415 parts per million (ppm), meaning that for every 1 million molecules of gas in the atmosphere, 415 were of carbon dioxide.”
According to Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University, Earth has not seen this level of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the Pliocene Epoch — from about 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago.
“During that period, average sea levels were about 50 feet higher than they are today and forests grew as far north as the Arctic,” Jackson explained. So, even though we struggle to comprehend how we can possibly be destroying our home, climatologists keeping warning us — using their scientific data — that, in fact, we are. In an effort to understand the devastating impacts we can have on our world, consider the example of the poor passenger pigeon.
In 1850, Simon Pokagon, a 20-year-old tribal leader of the Potawatomi, encountered a horde of passenger pigeons. In his later years, Pokagon recounted being startled by the tremendous flock when he was camping on the banks of Michigan’s Manistee River. Pokagon wrote that it seemed as though, “...an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me. As I listened more intently, I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm, and beautiful. (The mysterious sound came) “nearer and nearer. While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front, millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.”
Besides the thundering noise they generated, passenger pigeons were so abundant that when flocks nested in forests, their weight broke tree branches and toppled whole tree trunks. That’s not to mention that the droppings that coated those trees generated a foul odor.
The birds were so plentiful that both town and forest dwellers, across our nation, complained about the pests. A typical incident, reported in Columbus, Ohio, in 1855, indicated that an enormous cloud of pigeons blackened the sky for two hours as it flew over town. Nevertheless, beyond being a major pest, the pigeons were very tasty. That’s where humans became the problem. By the 1870s, the development of the telegraph and railway systems made commercial marketing of passenger pigeon meat easy.
Wisconsin’s Kilbourn City Mirror in 1871, reported, “Hardly a train arrives that does not bring hunters or trappers. Hotels are full, coopers are busy making barrels, and men, women, and children are active in packing the birds or filling the barrels. They are shipped to all places on the railroad, and to Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.”
Alas, our ravenous appetite for the pigeons led to the species demise. Since the extinction of the passenger pigeon, “...researchers have agreed that the bird was hunted out of existence, victimized by the fallacy that no amount of exploitation could endanger a creature so abundant.”
We were guilty of hubris. Or rather, we underestimated our impact. We were certain there was no way we could possibly kill off millions — possibly even billions — of those pests; so, we dined on passenger pigeons until they became extinct.
(The passenger pigeon information is from the May/June 2014 issue of the “Audubon Magazine.” It is worth a visit to: https://www.audubon.org/magazine/may-june-2014/why-passenger-pigeon-went-extinct.)
Our planet lives; it breathes and it can be ruined. No, we, likely won’t drive the planet to extinction. Actually, we hazard becoming extinct! One friend suggested that future generations, being smarter than us, will be able to solve the climate change dilemma before Earth becomes uninhabitable. Now, I would like to believe that. However, I am afraid if we don’t act now, there will be no options for future generations. My generation — Baby Boomers — were once the future generation and we failed. Now, we hand this dilemma off to our children. Hopefully, they do better.
Bill Nye, the famed Science Guy, appeared on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” Sunday, May 12. Without mincing words, Nye talked to millennials, citing data about global warming. Plus, he offered a pointed demonstration with a globe and a propane torch. In the demonstration, he used some language that is uncharacteristic of him. Note, this demo is not for children.
However, Nye makes a critical point and we should heed his words.
Pat Nevada, whose opinions are her own, lives near Gettysburg.