Case for Change - Sustainability on Planet Earth

Updated: Apr 12

Section 1 - The Big Picture

Chapter 1 - Case for Change

Julie Smith, March 30, 2022,

This blog provides an overview of chapters in my book on sustainability. I will post a blog as I complete each chapter, with a link from the chapter title at the top to the pdf of the complete chapter. The complete chapter provides more details that support the discussion in the summary, and includes the references that were used

What you will find in Chapter 1:

Is our planet in trouble? How do we know? Getting to the root of the problem, Is it our Fault?

Is our planet in trouble?

This is the first and most basic question we need to answer. If we’re not in trouble, then there’s no point in writing this, and I can go take a hike. Or write about something else. The math, science and data show that we are on a bad path to destroying our planet. And, when I say “destroying our planet”, what I specifically mean is “rendering our planet uninhabitable for life as we know it, including humanity”. I didn’t really wake up to global warming until perhaps 10 to 15 years ago, when scientists’ predictions about temperature increase started to become an actual reality, as opposed to a mere hypothesis.

How do we know?

We’ve already decimated 68% of the wildlife species on this planet in just the past 50 years, and in North America the total bird population has declined by 29%. The Monarch butterfly population is down by 95%. We’re even beginning to see impacts of global warming on contagions and previously eradicated diseases. The number of cases from diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas have tripled in the U.S. in the last 13 years, infecting humans and wildlife with Lyme disease. In the oceans, we have lost half of the coral reefs and ocean life in the past 50 years, from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution. When we’re decimating the life that makes up the intricate balance of ecosystems on the entire planet, while ignoring the problems and continuing with business as usual, we’re in deep, deep trouble here. When we have a global emergency on our hands, and can’t even convince ourselves there’s a problem significant enough to bother with, that’s even scarier.

Getting to the Root of the Problem.

We get all this depressing news about the environment, but how do you choose between all these issues? What can I personally do about that last rhino or wildfire? At the end of the day, it turns out that all these various problems are actually mere indicators of problems, and not necessarily underlying causes. We need to cure the disease, not just the symptoms. Whatever is killing the wildlife is killing our planet. So, how do we get to the bottom of that? Something is causing the temperature to rise. Global temperature has risen and fallen constantly since the planet was formed. Is this simply part of a normal cycle for our planet? What, specifically, is causing the temperature to rise? How much of this temperature rise is from human activity, compared to all the other possible causes? If it turns out that mankind’s release of additional greenhouse gasses is causing the temperature increase that will doom future generations, then we have a serious ethical obligation to do something about it. Don’t we? Did we really cause this much damage in such a short period of time, essentially a sliver of time, compared to the natural trends over the previous hundreds of thousands of years? I wanted to see if higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations actually correlates with higher atmospheric temperatures. To get a sense of this, I simply plotted CO2 concentration and temperature on the same graph.

This graph shows that temperature definitely increases as CO2 increases. Also, it aligns with the commonly accepted scientific knowledge that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that increases atmospheric temperature at a predictable rate. The equation on the chart defines the best fit straight line through the data points, each of which represents one year of average temperature and CO2 concentration for that particular year. The regression coefficient of 0.86 means that the atmospheric CO2 concentration is about 86% of the underlying cause of temperature increases on the planet. It’s also fair to say that around 14% of the temperature increase is from other factors, most likely tectonic factors such as volcanoes, tectonic plate movement, proximity to the sun, etc.

Is it our fault?

To see if our fossil fuel emissions could be causing the increases in atmospheric CO2, I plotted the atmospheric concentration against human-caused CO2 emissions.

The regression coefficient of 0.97 means that fossil fuel emissions are about 97% of the reason that the CO2 concentration is increasing in our planet’s atmosphere. If human CO2 emissions are causing increases in atmospheric CO2 concentration, which is leading to increased temperatures that are causing global warming, then the next obvious step is to see what direct impact human CO2 emissions has on the temperature.

This trend has more scatter in it, because it combines the relationships between fossil fuel emissions, atmospheric CO2 concentration and temperature, into a more general and very useful relationship. The lower regression coefficient of 0.798, which we’ll just round to 0.8, means that human-caused fossil fuel emissions is about 80% of the underlying cause of global warming. This leaves about 20% that we can attribute to the other natural factors that increase temperature.

Personally, I find these relationships between human CO2 emissions and global warming both depressing and encouraging. It’s depressing to think our fossil fuel emissions are truly the biggest reason for global warming, that us little itty-bitty humans are actually capable of killing an entire planet with our activities and our technology. At the same time, it’s encouraging to see that our emissions are specifically the main reason for global warming, because it means that if we’re really the reason for the temperature increase, then we might be able to reverse the trend. At least, in theory. That is, if we can muster the will and the spine to do so. Next, let’s figure out what we need to do. And how to do it. And then let’s do it. This is important. It’s about balancing with our planet. The only planet we have. We really need to do this. Together. As a human species. We are supposed to be the most intelligent species on the planet. How hard can it be?

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