Imagine an extinct earth. Without her mantle of living organisms, the earth would be a sterile, bland rock-strewn orb swirling through the solar system rather than the beautiful beacon of sapphire, emerald and aqua she is today. Earth is the only known planet with life. If we take for granted life’s continued existence on her surface, we squander this greatest of miracles. Life is the exception rather than the rule in the universe. Conveniently, we don’t need to wonder what will happen if we continue down our current path of reckless destruction. Our solar system provides a case study.
Our Earth has a sister who resides one planet closer to the sun. Venus is not as different from Earth as one might think. The mass, diameter and rocky composition of the two planets are nearly identical. Venus, however, is the hottest planet in the solar system despite a dense atmosphere that allows for only about 10% of the sun’s rays to reach her surface and Mercury’s much closer proximity to the sun. Why is Venus so hot? The Venusian atmosphere is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide resulting in a runaway greenhouse effect that heats the average surface temperature of the planet to a scorching 465 degrees Centigrade (1)*. Her atmosphere is also tainted by noxious sulfuric compounds that form corrosive acids making the surface of Venus more like a brimstone incinerator in Hell than the dwelling place for the goddess of love for which the planet is named. The toxic brew that comprises Venus’s air also contains the same constituents that we here on earth blithely spew from our coal burning power plants into our own atmosphere. We need only to look to our sister planet to see where the consequences of our actions might lead.
By measuring carbon dioxide levels in air bubbles trapped in arctic glaciers, scientists have been able to estimate atmospheric levels of the gas as far back as 1,000 C.E. Up until the beginning of the industrial revolution about two hundred years ago, CO2 concentrations remained relatively constant at around 280 parts per million (2). Once we started burning fossil fuels to energize our machines, CO2 levels started to steadily increase, and they have been going up ever since. The latest data indicates our atmospheric levels today are about 386 parts per million and rising (3). Our addiction to energy has launched one of the greatest experiments in human history.
Politics, Religion and Science
The current debate over global warming is one of the most puzzling political conundrums of the 21st century. On one side, the vast majority of atmospheric scientists from all over the world contend that a build up of certain gasses in the atmosphere including carbon dioxide emissions from global consumption of fossil fuels is causing an increase in the earth’s average temperature. On the other side is a group of entrepreneurs (mainly in the fossil fuel trade) and some politicians who receive campaign contributions from those same entrepreneurs who argue against it. The fact that there is any debate at all is a testament to the powers of propaganda. According to a recent Gallup poll, as many as 41% of Americans believe the specter of global warming is exaggerated, choosing to believe those with an economic interest over those who are actually experts on the subject (4).
Some are also manipulated into misguided ideas by their religious leaders. The late Jerry Falwell, noted televangelist millionaire completely dismisses the concept of global climate change as a tool of propaganda created by anti-establishment radicals for the sake of undermining America’s capitalist economy. He has stated, ‘I urge everyone to go out and buy a SUV today (5).” Mr. Falwell, like many fundamentalists, believes that his male God up in heaven is in control of everything here on earth. God has a plan and won’t allow humans to destroy His planet, unless of course, that is part of His plan.
Unfortunately, the simple “God is in control” explanation for everything allows humans to carry on with their destructive behavior with no need to fear the consequences. In this world view, we can just keep on going until all of the resources are contaminated or simply used up. The famine, poverty, environmental devastation and massive human suffering that have resulted are okay according to evangelicals like Falwell because God must have willed it. Humans who are clearly responsible for their own predicament are blameless. If Falwell, contrary to all scientific evidence and logic turns out to be correct, then he and a very small handful of those who embrace his ideology will be raptured away to Heaven while the rest of us continue to suffer for all eternity for our sins. On the other, more likely hand, Falwell is delusional, the earth will be dead, and we will be extinct.
Regardless of who is right, it would be prudent to err on the side of caution. Surely, a God that blessed us with the powers of intellect and the ability to apply the scientific method for logical understanding of the world around us wouldn’t have given us these gifts to ignore and actually refuse to use them. He wouldn’t have created a magnificent planet with amazing complexities and beauty so that we can pollute it, use it up and kill it. Why would He then condemn us to Hell for trying to protect and care for his marvelous creation?
Another sad aspect of our historical human nature is we suffer as a species from procrastination putting things off, even if we know we shouldn’t, until they become critical. Unfortunately, in the case of global warming, we will have to be proactive, even when the worst signs of the impending disaster are not yet obvious, if we are to be effective at controlling the problem at all.
Every time we belch pollution into the air, we are condemning the elixir we breathe and our very breath to impurity. When we absently and senselessly consume resources, we are depriving ourselves of a greater wealth. When an organism needlessly meets its demise by our senseless and selfish hand, we are depriving ourselves of a priceless miracle that material wealth can never replicate. What are the reams of waste paper, toilet paper and packaging sitting in landfills compared with an ancient forest? What is the value of driving an SUV compared with the peninsula of Florida or the isthmus of Bangladesh? How does our selfish consumption of fossil fuels compare with a Polar Bear’s right to life?
We do not need to live this way. Our human civilization, with the powers of reason and inquiry, has advanced sufficiently to be able to meet the vast majority of our energy needs with technologies that will not exterminate life on earth.
1- European Space Agency (ESA) at www.esa.int/esaMI/Venus_Express
2- Data from http://www-das.uwyo.edu/~geerts/cwx/notes/chap01/co2_change.html
3- Data from http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/
4- Gallup Poll, March 11th, 2009 at http://www.gallup.com/poll/116590/increased-number-think-global-warming-exaggerated.aspx
5- Outside Online Magazine, May 2005.