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Volume 15, Issue 16 ~ April 19 - April 25, 2007

Where We Live

by Steve Carr

Our Deadly Double Bind

Greenhouse gases and toxic remissions are locked in a global tug of war

It was 1961, and America had just elected its youngest president, John F. Kennedy. As the former senator from Massachusetts addressed the public for the first time as commander in chief, he announced that within a decade, Americans would walk upon the moon.

He might just as well have said that we would all join hands, sprout wings and fly to heaven. NASA had no idea how such an interstellar feat would be accomplished. But our nation had been given its marching orders and on July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced on the surface of the moon, gathering rocks and snapping photos like dough-boy tourists on a lunar beach.

At a National Geographic lecture the other night on the phenomenon known as global dimming, the speaker reminded us of the Kennedy challenge and the even more daunting task we people of the planet Earth now face. We have 10 years to save the planet from cataclysmic environmental disaster. That isn’t much time.

“Where is the next John Kennedy?” asked producer David Sington. “Where is the leader who has the vision and force of will to declare to the world that we will defeat global warming by the end of the next decade?”

Someone in the audience shouted, Al Gore. Lord knows our former vice-president has indeed sounded the alarm on global warming with his powerful film An Inconvenient Truth. Gore deserves a medal and an Oscar, but I fear he lacks that special something that makes people want to act.

Earth in Precarious Balance

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist of fate, scientists have discovered we’re in for a double whammy. The planet has warmed dramatically over the last 100 years, but sunlight has dimmed. Something is cooling the earth at the same time it is heating up. That something is pollution. Specifically, the sooty emissions from industrial smokestacks, volcanoes and airplane exhaust.

About 50 years ago, a young Israeli scientist was measuring sunlight on garden plots in the Sinai Desert to determine how much water the plants would need. He was shocked to discover that there had been a seven percent reduction in sunlight over the previous 30 years. At about the same time, a German scientist was measuring the same diminishing sunlight in the Alps. Both scientists surmised that something in the upper atmosphere was blocking the sunlight on a global scale. Even more controversial, they concluded this loss of sunlight had cooled the earth by one degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The scientific world scoffed at their findings, primarily because everyone knew the planet was getting warmer — not colder.

It wasn’t until 9/11 that global dimming was proven correct. For three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all commercial aircraft in the United States were grounded. Climatologists at several thousand monitoring stations scattered across North America monitored and analyzed the sunlight levels and surface temperatures.

The Rub Herein

The first thing that was obvious was how much clearer the skies over America were. Without the ever-present hazy clouds from jet contrails, the skies were bluer, cleaner. There was seven percent more sunlight, exactly the amount found missing years before in Israel and Europe. They also calculated that the earth’s temperature was one degree Celsius cooler.

Climate change, this means, is much worse and more complex than we had imagined. The various poisons we spew into the air each day, killing thousands of people every year from respiratory illnesses, are helping to prevent the ice caps from melting and a sea level rise of several feet.

This gets confusing because invisible greenhouse gasses, like the carbon dioxide that comes out of the tailpipe of our cars, are not the same as the sulfur dioxide that comes from a power plant smokestack. Carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide are locked in a global tug of war.

Who will win?

Global warming is more pervasive, and the scientific community agrees that the planet continues to get hotter.

That still leaves us in a deadly double bind. As we reduce our toxic emissions, we will at the same time unwittingly be contributing to global warming and hastening our demise.

So pick your poison, and don’t ever doubt that Mother Nature has a very twisted sense of humor.

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