by Jeffrey Bennett
Published in the Denver Post, July 22, 2012
Jeffrey Bennett won the 2012 Colorado Book Award (general nonfiction) for his book Math for Life, and a 2012 Nautilus Silver Medal for his children’s book The Wizard Who Saved the World, a copy of which has been donated to every public elementary school library in Colorado.
On average, we are roughly 50 to 60 years older than our grandchildren are or will be. Therefore, our grandchildren will be our current ages in about 50 to 60 years.
Colorado has been burning. It’s still early summer, and already we’ve lost several lives and hundreds of homes, with economic damages that may approach or exceed $1 billion.
The wildfires serve as tragic reminder that for all our technological prowess, we remain dependent on the natural world. Most of the time, we are served well by nature’s beauty and bounty, but we still look small and impotent against natural disasters. This reality has always been a part of the human experience, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever find a way to change it completely.
But what if we could tilt the odds? Would you deliberately choose to tilt them so that raging wildfires, strong heat waves, severe drought, and tremendous storms all became much more frequent and more devastating? No one in their right minds would do so, but as a society we’ve made this very choice. The reason is simple: Despite any debate you may hear in politics or the media, there is no scientific doubt that global warming is tilting the odds the wrong way.
The statement “no scientific doubt” might seem overly strong, particularly if you are skeptical of the reality of global warming. But the scientific case is easy to understand.
First, there is no scientific doubt that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. This fact was first measured in the laboratory more than 150 years ago, and is necessary to explain why Earth is warm enough for life to begin with, as well as to explaining the temperatures of all other planets in our solar system.
Second, there is no disagreement that the burning of fossil fuels is adding carbon dioxide to our atmosphere. This fact is confirmed by direct and ongoing measurements that have been made since the late 1950s, and it is traced back further through evidence from tree rings and ice cores.
Clearly, if carbon dioxide traps heat and we are adding more of it, we should expect global warming to occur, and the data leave little doubt that our world is indeed warming. Globally, for example, the 11 years since the turn of the millennium have been 11 of the 12 hottest years on record. This warming means more total energy in the atmosphere and oceans, which explains why we see more frequent and severe weather extremes on a local level. Here in Colorado, the number of annual wildfires has increased nearly five fold over the past half-century, and while global warming is not the only cause, the fact that our state has warmed about 2°F and become about 15% to 20% drier during the same period makes it impossible to dismiss as a major factor.
We have tilted the odds far in the wrong direction, and we are on track to make things much worse. Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is about 40% higher than it was at the time of the American Revolution, and it is rising fast enough to reach double that value within about 50 to 60 years —when, on average, your grandchildren will be your current age. Given that the effects we see today are the result of “only” a 40% increase, imagine what your grandchildren will face when the increase reaches 100%, or more.
So for anyone who still harbors doubts, I suggest the following challenge. Write a letter to your grandchildren, to be placed in a time capsule and opened 50 years from now. Tell them exactly why you’ve chosen to believe or dismiss the evidence for global warming, and what you decided to do about it. Remember that your decision will determine how high a price your grandchildren will pay for the changing global climate, and I believe you’ll realize that we must take immediate and dramatic action to turn our economy away from the use of fossil fuels. After all, it’s about time that we stop tilting the odds against our grandchildren, and try tilting them in their favor.