Exhausted Atmosphere?

A crisis by any other name still stinks

They say language is important, but I don't believe them. Words serve the devil as nimbly as a saint. It takes a lot of words to make an idea, and the job can be done many ways. Good ideas feel good no matter what language they come in or how clumsy or elegant the delivery; bad ideas are dangerous whether expressed with vulgar words or promises sweet as a spring meadow. Ideas are more important than the language they are expressed in.

I fear the devil has control of the language we use to discuss the atmospheric crisis. Certainly the confusion surrounding this issue is not the handiwork of any reputable agent. While uninformed opinions contribute to the trouble, the name given this crisis has given scientists a devil of a time.

Just as "survival of the fittest" is a lousy description of evolution that has perpetuated controversy, "global warming" describes a symptom of the problem but not the cause. "Climate change" better describes what will happen if we continue overdosing the atmosphere on exhaust fumes, but it still describes a symptom. We need to name this disease for its cause.

The cause is plain: Methane, carbon dioxide, and other gases have spiked above natural levels over the past century or two. Though combustion technology has gotten cleaner, economic and population growth has driven up exhaust production. The end result has been a steady rise in emissions to the point where we generate about 7 billion tons of greenhouse gases each year. That number will double by mid-century, given current growth rates.

Though nature can absorb much of our waste, we are producing exhaust faster than she can consume it. Atmospheric studies make this obvious. Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases have been directly observed in modern times, and trace evidence of ancient atmospheres has given us a clear picture of how gas concentrations fluctuate as the planet goes through cycles of glaciation and retreat.

In 800,000 years of data spanning dozens of ice ages and tropical periods, carbon dioxide has never reached the levels we see right now except during catastrophic events like the volcanic eruption 75,000 years ago that left a thick ash layer on every continent. That brief poisoning of the atmosphere nearly wiped out an ape with an affinity for coasts and rivers and the capacity to make maps and abstractions of its world. Having survived that, we are now generating more exhaust than our atmosphere can absorb, like a volcano spread across a million exhaust pipes erupting day after day without end.

This crisis has already taken its toll. Knoxville was once known for its soot, and asthma and respiratory ailments have increased with the expansion of industry and automobiles. By the 1970s enough exhaust gases had accumulated in the atmosphere to turn rain acidic. The sulfur and nitrogen gases responsible for acid rain have been regulated by a credit-trading market for almost three decades, and high-elevation Appalachian forests are no longer burned by rainwater like they once were. Rain is still more acidic than it should be, but it is not as damaging to forests and waters.

Carbon dioxide readily forms weak organic acids, and there is evidence rocks erode faster and seas grow more acidic as the gas accumulates in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, which makes energy available to weather systems. The trapped heat can alter climate patterns and melt glaciers. "Global warming" is just part of the crisis. Too many machines are making too much exhaust. We have been working on this crisis in stages for at least a century, and it will be a problem until we figure out how to live within our planet's means.

Rikki Hall is editor of the Hellbender Press, a non-profit, independent newspaper dedicated to environmental education.