Every time something happens on earth – every action, every thought, every motion living and dead – energy powers it. Energy drives everything.
Friends make fun of me from time to time when I make these basic, blindingly obvious observations out loud and seem to think that they are profound. But I do think that is profound. Whatever observable thing happens in front of you, you can understand it in terms of energy. And it’s not that hard. Maybe I’ll explain it in another essay. For now, it’s just a statement of fact to build on.
The same can be said of everything that happens in the universe, but tonight we’re on earth.
The label “global warming” represents or names a continuing human made process, the capture and storage of additional energy in the system which is Earth. You. Me. Chica here in my lap. My laptop. The frogs singing in the yard. The mouse annoying me behind my stove. Air. Water. Bugs. Rocks and dirt. Everything there is around you. We are adding energy to all of that. I’m stating as a fact the following: We have increased and continue to increase the total amount of energy stored in the terrestrial system, meaning planet Earth, everything on it, and its atmosphere.
People tend to make it complicated, but it’s really quite simple. It is not about the air, or the water, or the weather, or the cars and trucks, or the carbon dioxide. We have added energy. From there the laws of thermodynamics govern what happens. The laws of thermodynamics are inescapable; the laws of thermodynamics work all the time every time in every situation we know of so far or have managed to imagine. We use the actions these laws describe to cook our food, heat our homes, move our cars and stop them, fly our airplanes, generate our electricity – the laws of thermodynamics are among the most fundamental principles of the layer of reality we live in, the visible layer above quantum mechanics.
One of the ways these wonderful laws show themselves in nature is through weather. Things get hot, things get cool, energy inevitably moves from hot to cold and moving energy does work. Moving energy makes stuff happen. The more energy moves and the faster it moves, the more stuff happens.
The sun shines (radiates energy) on the world, but not evenly all over all at once. Where sunshine hits the air the air gets warmer. Hot air doesn’t weigh as much as cool air, so it floats up and gets even thinner, and thick air expands into the space where the air got thinner and we call that “wind.”
Don’t get me wrong. Global warming doesn’t cause wind. This was already happening before we increased the amount of available energy. There has been weather on Earth for as long as we’ve had an atmosphere. The sun has always provided energy.
Various things happen when energy moves around through the atmosphere. And move it must. Move is what energy does. Wind blows, as described above. Water evaporates. Water condenses. All the free energy in the system, current energy from the sun and energy stored here locally, contributes to the stirring of the atmosphere / hydrosphere. Energy stirs the air and water.
There is more energy in the system now than there was yesterday. We call it heat and measure it with a thermometer, but heat is just energy in one of its many avatars. Yesterday there was more energy stored on Earth than last week. Last week there was more than in 1900. By 1830 there was already measurably more energy in the system than there had been in the previous, oh, ten thousand or so years. Energy makes weather. More energy makes fancier weather.
More energy makes bigger faster rain. More water moving from down to up, up to down, faster. 100 year floods every few weeks.
We need a new name for them. Maybe we should call them “water” and either move out of the river or live on floatable houses. If we move we have to move completely out of all the river, as defined by the highest historic high water line wherever it is. Because the river is going up to that highest high water line more often than it used to, and it’s always gone there. That’s how the high water line got there. Living in a fixed house below the highest high water line was never a real good plan, but it’s gotten worse. People all over the eastern half of the continent, and especially in Louisiana, used to live in floatable houses. Or houses on stilts. Houses that worked just fine if the river was running through the yard. Time to get back to that. We’re not this stupid.
More energy makes faster winds. Warmer warms. Colder colds. Free energy doesn’t sit around. It moves from here to there, doing work along the way. Higher pressures and lower. It could not be any other way. The laws of thermodynamics say so.
It is the least informed question imaginable to ask if this or that weather event was “caused by” global warming. Of course. Of course not. This isn’t a junior high school debating society. All weather always, since the earth has had an atmosphere, is caused by all the available energy in the system. It is that simple. It is not God’s breath. Energy makes every thing that happens, happen. We have added energy to the system.
There may be no more important set of facts for 21st century literate well fed humans to internalize than the facts of energy and weather.
Here is how it looks from here: We have two sides of a an incomplete conversation about global warming. One side is either lying (the rich ones) or believes in magic. The other side (the Better Guys, in my opinion) is talking about putting up solar panels and inventing self-driving cars. Which is all well and good, but it is not going to have any short term positive effect. Long term positive effect, yes, but it won’t help the next few decades much. The reason we need to do something now is for humans not yet born. We are borrowing this planet from them.
The humans already here have made our (electrified waterbed) bed and we’re going to sleep in it. We need to start making serious short term plans how we’re going to live with what’s already done. If you just think about what is actually happening out there, the continuing capture and storage of additional energy, it is obvious that even significant changes right now won’t prevent, for instance, a massive rearrangement of where our coast lines are. The molecules are already in the atmosphere and they capture energy. We are still adding to them. We can’t stop it or even cut it down drastically all at once. We are acting like people who have jumped off a bridge and don’t believe they’re going to hit that water. Why aren’t we discussing the everyday reality of what is happening around us?
Most Americans of average intelligence are capable of understanding the basic principles at work here. Few do. Why is that? The laws of thermodynamics are easier to learn than the rules of football, and many Americans know the rules of football.
Football is unlikely to end civilization as it has been.
Under our current system there is no money in teaching people what I am talking about – basic reality. So nobody does it. The current American social theory is that everything worth doing is worth doing for money. I don’t agree. Reality is relatively important. Reality matters. It may even matter as much as who wins the Super Bowl.
We are going to have to live with global warming weather. It would be good to adapt to it, but adapt or no we’re living with it. It’s the only weather we have. Right now. Global warming weather is the only weather that there will ever be, from a human perspective. Global warming weather is not a threat, it is our everyday reality.
Summer thunderstorms here in northwest Missouri are stronger than they used to be. No, they’re not all read-it-in-the-news storms, but we routinely get storms like last night. Flash flood warnings. Rescuers pulling people out of their cars in Kansas City. At least one car fully submerged in the street. This was just a new normal regular late August thunderstorm in a hilly town. Yes, that storm always could have happened. Energy is like that. It goes where it must, and sometimes a whole lot of it winds up in one place, and Hoo Hah! Gully Washers! Rip Snorters! Only now it’s almost every storm. Then when you get what would in the old days have been your Gully Washer, things get out of hand and everybody sees it on the TV. Then they go back to the baseball game. Or to Election 2016 The Movie. Or maybe they get evacuated to a shelter somewhere.
What I mean by adapting, is we need to change our lives so that these storms don’t destroy our homes and kill us. The storms aren’t going away. “We’re brave. We’re tough. We’ll rebuild.” Wrong. Every time a town washes away everybody acts surprised. Meaning no offense, but it’s not a surprise. Which town washed away may be a surprise, but the fact that we lost another one is not. I find the pretense offensive.
I’m not kidding about building floating houses. Move completely out of the river, or build a floating house, or quit asking for my money when it rains. It is not stopping. Accept that the only way to measure any river anywhere is by its maximum extent. If you live within a river’s maximum extent you are going to get water in your house. Many rivers’ former highest high water line is obsolete. Gotta move farther than that. Or float. I’m tired of disaster area declarations for easily foreseeable events. That wasn’t a disaster; that was a rainstorm. That’s what they are like now.
I’ll help you fix your problem. I don’t mind my tax money helping to foot the bill – we’re all Americans and ought to be in this together. However, I’m tired of helping you not fix it. Everybody out of the river. All the rivers. Start tomorrow. Or build a floating house. People were still living in floating houses in the United States in living memory. We quit it fifty years ago so now it’s impossible? Why?
Sea level rise is not going to happen at 3.728 cm / yr, or any other stupid average number. One day you’ll be above water, one day under. The water will recede for a while. It will come back. This is the New Normal. Let’s get real.
We need to have a realistic discussion of what we might do about it. We can’t stop it. Do we want to do anything? Maybe it’s best to assume that at least some humans will survive no matter what happens, and go with what we’ve got. Ride it out. I don’t know what’s coming. Neither does anybody else. But we’ve never known what was going to happen next. The invisibility of the future didn’t start just because we heated up the planet, so… just go with it? But if that’s what we’re going to do I’d like to hear somebody admit it. The moment somebody says, Roll back emissions to [any year except 1800] levels you know that person is not serious. Or doesn’t understand the principle. As long as we keep adding certain molecules, with carbon being the best known one, to the atmosphere faster than they go away, we are going to continue to capture more of the energy that falls on us from the sun. Heat is energy in one of its commonly observed forms. So the world is getting warmer.
If we want to do anything that might have a perceptible effect it must be drastic and it must be directed to the point of reducing new energy capture and storage. Energy is the issue. Stored solar energy. This isn’t about carbon dioxide. Or cow flatulence, although virtually all 9 year old boys like to talk about it. Blacktop roads capture energy. Parking lots too. I believe that any realistic discussion is going to require a willingness to give up cars as we know them, totally, forever. Almost all transportation will have to be on trains; they are simply the most efficient option we have. I have some ideas about local transportation but I’ll save them for now.
If we continue to live by any of the norms of today, from sports cars to supertankers to skyscrapers, we are going to continue to accelerate global warming. The sun has a lot of energy. We keep thinking up new ways to capture and store it. The more we store the more exciting life here is going to get.
We can’t stop global warming or prevent it. Global warming is here, the energy is here, the enhanced energy capture/storage system is here. It would not be too great a stretch to say that humanity has never faced an equivalent challenge. It would be good if everyone who can do so learns what is going on here so that we can bring all the intelligence in America into this conversation. This is too big a deal to be left to a handful of self-selected experts, no matter how well intentioned.