The following paper was written as a presentation to the Congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, IL, on October 8, 2006.  This presentation was one of many by different speakers on global warming over the year.  The words below are the personal thoughts of Dr. James R. Carter and do not represent the policies or positions of the Church.





Global Warming, An Unintended Consequence?

Eighteen thousand years ago we in central Illinois were covered with a continental glacier.  Obviously, there has been warming since then.  Much of what we know from the past is based on Europe and North America where people have kept records that we can get easy access to.  If we are going to talk about Global Warming we need to understand the entire world and we still have much to learn.

Scientists drill into ice to gain an understanding of the past.   Only months ago scientists announced reaching 800 thousand years ago into Antarctic ice—much further than anywhere else.   We always assumed climate change occurred mostly in the polar areas.  Recently scientists examining glaciers in the tropics and sub-tropics have found much change takes place there too. 

Much research on climates of the past now comes from the oceans, which make up 70% of the Earth’s surface.  Exploring the ocean floors is quite recent.  In the late 1960s new data from the ocean floors led to the theory of Plate Tectonics.  This revolutionized our thinking.

The concentration CO2 has been measured for about 50 years on Mauna Loa – atop a mountain in Hawaii, far from any industrial areas.  Thus, it is a good measure of the state of the atmosphere.  And from that remote site we see the concentration of CO2 increasing year by year. 

Thirty years ago there was some concern about cooling and people talked about a return of colder conditions.  But, the cooling seemed to end and warming became the concern.

In the past ten years we have heard much about Global Warming.  Then the many hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in 2005 got our attention.  Many people were ready to believe that global warming had to be involved, but, not many paid attention to the fact that the number of hurricanes in the eastern Pacific was below normal at the same time.  And, 2006 has been a very quiet hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico.  But, we are now excited about Global Warming so let us consider this while everyone is interested in the topic. 

How did we get into this situation?

Let us go back to the beginnings of Industrial Revolution, about 200 years ago in England.  There was a wood crisis for Britain was becoming deforested as wood was used for fuel and many other purposes.  The Industrial Revolution brought together the use of coal and steel to make machines to replace manual labor.  The first application was in the textile mills.  Soon they had steam engines to pump water from the deep mines so they could get even more coal. 

Coal was the first of the fossil fuels to be employed, then petroleum, and then natural gas.  All of these fossil fuels are very convenient, plentiful and quite inexpensive.

Over the decades we see the development of trains, steam ships, automobiles, air planes.  We moved from local environments to global environments, for good and bad.  Most of us have traveled to see this world.  We eat foods from around the world.  We even drive to Church.

On the farm we substituted fossil fuels for animal power – one of the benefits of this is more land has gone back to forests for we do not have to use land for pasture and grains to feed the draft animals.  This is particularly true in the eastern part of the U.S.

With these fuels we have gained control of water resources for irrigation and water supplies.  We drink quality water that is safe.  We have removed pestilence.  A century ago malaria was very common in the U.S., including here.  Great efforts have been devoted to public health programs, world-wide.  We have removed smallpox and have almost removed polio. 

And, we now have electricity, giving power to the people.  Lighting at all hours--great for reading and education.  With refrigeration we mastered the preservation of food.  And we have heating and air conditioning; radio and television; computers, and coffee.. 

In total, better nourishment, public health, vaccinations, and medicines.   We have prolonged life and lowered the death rate.  This has been fantastic and all of us benefit from the developments, almost all keyed to the ready availability of fossil fuels.

But, there is the Law of Unintended Consequences

By lowering the Death Rate, population has exploded.  We have seen a 4-fold increase in world population since 1900.  Currently, world population grows by 75 million persons per year.   How large is that?  Let me put in terms of deaths from the December 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the Indian Ocean where some 200,000 persons died of a consequence of that event.  That is twice the population of Bloomington/Normal.  200,000 persons is how fast world population grows in one day.

Might the 4-fold increase in human population over the past century have some relationship to the systematic increase in CO2?   Thus, our existence might be part of the problem.  And, while population has gone up the consumption of resources by persons like us has gone up dramatically.  As Pogo the Possum used to say, ‘we have met the enemy and it is us.’

So, we have greatly expanded the population and the consumption of resources.  Now, how do we reverse our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce the detrimental human impact on the environment? 

First, let us reflect on some other atmospheric problems that we have addressed

On average, cities are warmer than surrounding rural areas -- the so-called Urban Heat Island.  Cities are warmer at night and warmer in the winter.  Consider all of the ways cities differ from the country side.  They are made of different material and normally have less vegetation.  They have many impervious surfaces which affect ways water is moved and stored.  Cities make heavy use of fuels and machines.  If and when we move to more green cities we might lessen this effect but cities will always be different than the countryside.

In 1900 a company would show smoke pouring from tall smokestacks on their letterhead stationary because this was a measure of progress and reflected well on the company.  Then, in Donora, PA, in 1948 smoke accumulated under a temperature inversion for days, resulting in many deaths.  This was an embarrassment to the country that had only recently succeeded in World War II.  Then in December 1952 London suffered through a terrible smog event, causing some 4000 deaths.  This was a product of the London fogs and the smoke from low quality coal burned in their small fireplaces, in combination with an inversion.  Those two events moved us to clean up the air in terms of visible pollutants.   (they now use cellophane and light bulbs in the fireplaces in London.)

Dust storms were common during the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.  Dust clouds reached to Washington, DC.  We created the Soil Conservation Service and adopted many new practices in the ways we take care of the land.

After WWII, the people of Los Angeles noted they had watery eyes and breathing problems.  Research found the problem to be photo-chemical smog from the automobile.  We now have automatic shut-offs on our gas pumps and catalytic converters on our cars.  Southern California no longer leads the country in terms of Ozone alerts and pollution days.

We observed that forests in Europe were dying.  We found similar problems in the eastern U.S.  The culprit: acid rain.  We banned the use of high sulfur coal and instituted policies to make precipitation less acid.    

Tetra-Ethyl Lead was something you wanted in your gasoline so your car did not ping.  Then we found lead is very detrimental to humans.  We abandoned leaded fuels and now have banned lead from our environment.

In the 1980’s we observed increased intensity of UV radiation over Antarctica – the Ozone Hole.   The problem: certain gases persist and drift into the stratosphere, where they are exposed to ultraviolet radiation under extremely cold conditions.  These CFCs were considered to be miracle gases when they were developed in 1928 because these gases were inert and would not combine with any other gases.  They were great for refrigeration systems.   But, we have found out they do interact with other gases in the stratosphere when hit with ultraviolet radiation, leading to the Ozone Hole.  With the Montreal Protocol, we banned CFCs and some other gases.  Now we are starting to see a recovery of Ozone in the Stratosphere.  But, one of the gases we chose as a substitute is a greenhouse gas (another unintended consequence).

These are examples of what we humans have done to fix problems in the atmosphere that have come about because of things that we did.  The problems have been Unintended Consequences of our Actions.  We did not set out to create these problems.

Now it appears that we are experiencing warming because of the increasing concentrations of the Greenhouse Gases, especially CO2.  These gases absorb the longwave radiation from the Earth and thus warm the atmosphere.  Note this goes on 24 hours per day, not just after the Sun goes down as many people imply.  We want some greenhouse warming for it makes our planet livable, but we do not want too much.

I need to note that the most dominant Greenhouse Gas is water vapor.  No one is suggesting humans are changing the balance of water vapor in the atmosphere.  But, recognizing water vapor as a greenhouse gas adds to the complexity of the discussion.  And, water vapor condenses to form clouds and we do not understand the role of clouds in global warming.  Clouds are a major unknown. 

Jet contrails are clouds.  In the 3 days after the tragedy of 9/11 planes were banned across the US and there were few contrails.  The consequence there appeared to be a greater range of temperature – cooler at night and warmer during the day.  During the day more Sunlight was able to get to the surface and thus we had warmer days.  At night, more longwave radiation was able to pass through the atmosphere, and thus we had cooler nights. (Subsequent analysis of the data casts some doubt on the significance of the event.  After all, it is a very brief sample period and it can not be replicated in real time.  But, as seen below contrails are real and sometimes can be relatively important.)

This example of contrails over Indianapolis in mid-afternoon shows that they can make a significant contribution in the balance of energy on some days.

And, a few scientists have observed a decrease in the intensity of sunlight reaching the surface.  This decrease in sunlight appears to be based on very small industrial particles in the atmosphere causing more sunlight to be reflected back to space.  When we cleaned up the skies in the 1950-1980s we got rid of the larger particles--the soot.  We did not get rid of the finer particles and now they seem to be a concern.  This has been called global dimming and it has been suggested that this dimming might counter balance warming from greenhouse gases. 

In a similar vein, we know large volcanic eruptions have had significant impact on global temperatures.  In 1991 Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted and spread ash throughout the atmosphere.  Global temperatures fell by almost 1 degree F for a year. 

This thinking has led to talk of purposefully injecting fine particles into the upper atmosphere to cool the Earth.  Would it work?  Would there be any Unintended Consequences?

Let us return to the greenhouse gases, GHGs, particularly CO2.  

Our first goal should be to slow the rate of growth of the production of GHGs, and ideally to stop the growth. 

After all, if you are in a hole and you want to get out – the first thing to do is to quit digging. 

Many of these gases persist for many years so it will take time to stop the growth of GHGs.

How?  Windmills and solar panels will help, but only a little.

The Kyoto Protocol is a small first step, and most countries are not meeting their goals.  U.S. never signed on.  China and India are not part of the process.

Based on the way we addressed the acid rain problem, we can buy and sell CO2 as a commodity, what is called emissions trading.  First, we need to set standards for the production of CO2.  Then, if firms do not meet the standards they have to buy polluting rights from someone who has extra rights to sell, or pay a big penalty.  This rewards those who cut back and penalizes those who continue to produce GHGs.  Thus, it is an incentive to change behavior.  Many countries of the world are doing this, but the U.S. cannot participate in these markets because we have not signed onto the Kyoto Protocol.

And, we need new ways of thinking.  An article in U.S. News on the chemical company DuPont illustrates what can be done.  DuPont voluntarily slashed energy usage as well as greenhouse gas emissions--now 72 percent below 1990 levels. And, they have made a big profit doing so.

Most of us have not given much thought to energy and waste before.  Energy has been too cheap and getting rid of waste has been too convenient.  It is too easy to go on as we have in the past.

One of my favorite example is the frost free refrigerator in your house.  These refrigerators have a heating coil in the freezer.  It comes on a couple of times a day to melt the frost in the freezer.  The melted water goes down the back into a pan.  As the fan on the motor of the refrigerator blows it evaporates the water into your kitchen.  Thus, you buy electricity to put warm, moist air into your house and buy electricity to run the air conditioner to take warm, moist air out of your house.  This is ridiculous in the summer.  Surely, we humans can do better than this. 

NYC is reported to be the most energy efficient city in the U.S.  Few people have cars, so they use public transport, or walk.  The high density permits efficiencies. 

Compare that to central Illinois.  Here we live in individual houses, separated from every place we want to go.  Cars dominate.  Everyone has to have a car.  I would like to ride a bike, but I am not comfortable riding a bike in this traffic. 

I see no way we can cut our energy use in half living in separate houses scattered over the land.  It would be easier if gas prices would stay very high, but that does not seem to be happening.

But, there are people working on better designs for new structures.  We see green buildings in Chicago and in Normal

I highly recommend the recent TV series of five programs called design: e-squared on The Economics of Being Environmentally Conscious.  They look at buildings, which use 40% of our energy and produce 50% of the GHGs.

In the program on China they note that great numbers of people are moving from the countryside to the cities.  Over the next 12 years, China needs to produce housing for 400 million people.  Note, the population of the U.S. is only 300 million.  They realize that new thinking must be used to meet that goal

Are there any technical solutions to address the buildup of GHGs?  Some people hope so.

Considerable thought is being given to the capture and storage of CO2.  The process is called Carbon Sequestration.  They are looking at pumping liquefied carbon underground into old gas fields and oil wells.  And, doing so might help get more oil from oil fields.  Will there be any Unintended Consequences from this?   I suspect there will be many.  And it will take a lot of energy to sequester the carbon. 

I am not very optimistic that we will be able to reduce the concentration of GHGs significantly.  But, neither am I concerned that the world will soon come to an end.

And, I think it is not out of line to be concerned about tipping points.  For example: as ice melts in the Arctic and from glaciers in mountains, the surface goes from lighter color to darker color.  This will result in less reflection of sunlight and more absorption, leading to more warming.  This is a feedback mechanism.  We know there are many feedback loops in the climate system, and most of these we do not understand very well.  And, there may be some we do not know about.

Why are we concerned about global warming?

There are many reasons we should be concerned about global warming, but then there are many other things we should be concerned about too.  I believe the main reason we are concerned is that any significant warming will force changes.  Most of us are comfortable with the environments we know.  We have learned to bet on the behavior of our current environments.  Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but we don’t want to see changes that might shift the odds.

What will be lost?  What will be gained?  Each of us has our own standards of what is important.  For some, polar bears starving because of the lack of ice in the Arctic is their concern.  Others appreciate an open Arctic Ocean for shipping. For many it may be a matter of survival.

Should be we concerned about rising sea levels?  Yes, but if we are really concerned why do we subsidize people to live on the coast in areas likely to be flooded?   We need to adapt to the reality of the consequences of what we are doing to the atmosphere. 

Indeed, we have gained much from the ready availability of fossil fuels.  All of us have benefited in many ways.  But, there are those Unintended Consequences.  It is time to address those consequences, and, it will not be easy.


Addendum:  I did not address this in my talk, but I think global warming is part of a larger issue.  My major concern is that all persons in this world attain a meaningful and sustainable role in society.  Far too many persons, particularly young persons, do not have the opportunity to get an education, or a job, and cannot hope to compete in our global world.  In many cases these persons will do anything to survive.  As such, much behavior is illegal and/or damaging to the environment and fellow humans.  I think the consequences of this situation are far reaching.  As experience dramatic climatic changes, they are likely to only exacerbate this human concern.  And, such behavior adds to global warming problems, be it felling of forests for fuel or agriculture, dynamiting coral reefs, release of toxics into the atmosphere or water bodies, having unwanted children and so much more.

I have web pages on world population and climate change and global warming.  Both of these pages are somewhat dated, but they do reflect my thinking on these subjects. 

See:  for my population overview.  

Dr. Carter's master pages