Global Warming And Fossil Fuels And All That

I usually try to stay away from political and religious issues. Global warming is an issue that seems to be political and religious at the same time. However, since so many people who don't know a whole lot about it seem to have a strong opinion on the subject, I might as well put my 2 cents in. I don't know a whole lot about it either, you see, so that should qualify me to have an opinion.

Greenhouse Gases

We  have to talk about greenhouse gases first. The most notorious one is carbon dioxide, or CO2. There's other ones like nitrous oxide and methane for example, but let's not make things unnecessarily complicated.

Greenhouse gases trap heat. Let's just stick to carbon dioxide. This gas reflects infrared radiation that is emitted by the earth into space back to the earth. Thus, it causes the temperature of the earth to be higher than it would be without carbon dioxide. This is actually a good thing. It would be very, very cold on earth if we did not have greenhouse gases. I have read various estimates of how much colder it would be, suffice it to say that you could ski in unexpected places in the middle of the summer without greenhouse gases.

The fact that greenhouse gases trap heat is undisputed, by the way. Except maybe by people that have doubts about the Round Earth Theory.

I always have this problem that I think too much about things. So, if carbon dioxide reflects infrared radiation, how come it doesn't reflect the infrared radiation from the sun back into space? This radiation is what is warming the earth in the first place, so how come that greenhouse gases don't have a cooling effect?
Well, consider that the sun is kinda hot. Something upward of 5000 degrees Celsius at the surface. The wavelength of the radiation by a hot body is dependent on its temperature. My suspicion is that the wavelength of the infrared radiation emitted by the sun does not get reflected by greenhouse gases (or to a lesser extent, at the very least). However, planet earth does absorb this radiation, and gets hotter in the process. The infrared radiation emitted by the earth has a different wavelength, since the earth isn't nearly as hot as the sun. The radiation emitted by earth does get reflected by greenhouse gases. So, greenhouse gases cause a net warming of the earth.
That's my theory, at least.
There are a few arguments that support this. In elementary school (!), my teacher taught me that the sun does not heat the atmosphere. It's the earth that heats the atmosphere. He didn't explain why, but who am I to doubt the guy?
Also, consider that it get colder when you climb to a higher altitude. If the sun were warming the air, it should get warmer the higher you get.

Next issue. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been rising in the past centuries. This is also rarely disputed, mainly because you can measure this.

Then, humankind has been dumping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the past several centuries (specifically, since the Industrial Revolution). You cannot dispute this. Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide.

I don't want to get into agriculture and the fact that it emits methane into the atmosphere. And there's the issue of (methane) farting cows. Funny as it may seem, this may actually have an influence on methane concentrations in the air. Never mind.

Finally, something that is sometimes disputed. Global temperatures are rising. Although there are short term fluctuations, on average, over the past centuries, global temperatures have been going up. Plenty of data to support this, look it up if you don't believe it.

Is Humankind Causing Global Warming?

So far, we have three facts that are pretty clear.

1. Carbon dioxide traps heat.
2. Humankind has been increasing carbon dioxide concentrations.
3. The average global temperature is rising.

From a scientific point of view, it is very reasonable to suspect that the three facts are connected. This is not "junk" science as some people would want you to believe, it is a valid hypothesis that humans are causing global warming.

Now, is there actual hard scientific evidence that this hypothesis is true? In my opinion, no, the jury is still out on that.

There are arguments that Mother Nature is causing far more temperature fluctuations than humankind ever could cause. The fact that global temperatures have been changing quite a bit over the ages seems to support this. The implicit hope in this is that if the temperature fluctuates naturally, the current trend may reverse itself naturally. Maybe.

My point of view is that dumping massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere surely can't be helping, though.

So, maybe the current trend is caused by something other than burning fossil fuels. It seems likely to me that humankind, if not the sole cause of the problem, sure isn't helping things.

Is Global Warming A Bad Thing?

Some people argue that global warming may be a good thing. Some areas of the planet might become suitable for agriculture where they are not right now. If you live in Alaska, you probably would not mind somewhat milder winters.
However, if you live in Bangla Desh, you may want to start building an ark. All bad jokes aside, although some areas of the planet may benefit from higher temperatures, others may suffer devastating effects from it. I think that major climate changes will have an overall negative effect on the earth as a whole. But that's my opinion.

One of the effects of global warming is rising sea levels. A few myths need to be debunked. Melting of the North Pole ice will not cause a rise in sea levels. The North polar ice cap is floating in the ocean. Just like an ice cube in a glass of water, the melting of the ice will not cause a rise in the water level.
The Antarctic ice is a different story. Antarctica is a piece of land. There's quite a bit of ice there. The melting of this ice will cause a rise in sea level.
However, the main rise in sea levels cause by global warming will be due to the simple fact that the ocean water will expand when it gets warmer. This is elementary physics. This effect will be far more significant than the melting of the Antarctic ice. (Yes, yes, the volume of water will actually become less between temperatures of 0° C and 4° C. Above 4° C it expands though. The average ocean temperature is higher than 4° C. There).

There's the theory that rising CO2 levels will stabilize by themselves. You see, a lot of plants and trees and stuff are actually limited in their growth by the current CO2 levels. So, increasing CO2 levels should cause the green stuff to grow bigger, which would cause it to absorb more CO2.

Rather convenient, if somewhat wishful thinking. There's one problem with this. The consensus in science seems to be that the biggest part of carbon absorption in the earth's ecosystem seems to be caused by algae and such in the oceans. There's no telling how this mechanism would be affected by rising temperatures. It could very well break down.

This leads to the very disturbing theory that global warming will cause a runaway effect. Simply put, it goes like this: higher temperatures lead to higher greenhouse gas concentrations, which leads to higher temperatures, etc. In time, the oceans will boil away, but humankind will have ceased to exist long before that. There is speculation that this may have occurred on the planet Venus (which is the ultimate furnace from hell, it has a CO2 atmosphere with a density of 90 times the earth's, and a temperature high enough to melt lead).
Now, this runaway effect is just a theory, but it seems a pretty big risk to take. To quote R.E.M., it may be the end of the world as we know it.

It always surprises me that some (otherwise sane) people argue that global warming is not 100% scientifically proven, so there's no reason to do anything about it. Even if it isn't 100% certain, I think it is completely irresponsible to just ignore it. If it turns out to be true, we're all toast (literally).

So, to come back to the question: is global warming a bad thing? I think it probably is. But the question is not so relevant as you may think, in my humble opinion.

It Is Moot

Talk about a bold statement. I think we can forget the previous argumentation altogether. We (the world) have to stop burning fossil fuels anyway. They are running out, you see.

Now you are going to think that I have switched to the wrong medication. Aren't the oil companies telling us that they have a reserve for at least 75 years or so? Yup, that's what they are telling us. They don't mention that a lot of these reserves are very hard (read: expensive) to exploit. The "cheap" oil may already be running out right now. Oil wells have a tendency to become harder to exploit as they get exhausted. Add this to the fact that the global demand for oil is growing at a frightening pace, and the fact that most of the world's oil reserves are in politically unstable regions, and we see a pretty grim picture.

So, what about coal? Admittedly, there's probably a reasonable amount of coal left that can be dug up. Cars don't run all that well on coal, though, not to mention aircraft. Hmm. This means that the coal would have to be converted to electricity. This is perfectly possible, has been done for many years. It causes CO2 emissions, of course. And although, technically speaking, cars can run just fine on electricity, I don't see it happening for airplanes any time soon.

So, what about nuclear energy? Doesn't cause any emissions, true. Does produce nuclear waste, though. You probably know that this stuff is kinda nasty. Not to mention the fact that nuclear reactors produce plutonium, which is bad for your health and also can be used to make nuclear bombs (very bad for your health). There is currently no good way to get rid of the nuclear waste.
Furthermore, nuclear reactors produce electricity. Your car does not run on uranium. Electricity is really cool stuff, but the same problem as with coal applies here.
Did I mention that nuclear power , if a feasible solution, will only last a short time? The world has uranium reserves for about 80 years or so. That seems a long time, but consider that less than 20% of the worlds electricity is generated by fission reactors. That's only the electricity, mind you. Now, suppose we double that amount. That means that 40% of electricity comes from uranium. It also means that we only have 40 years of uranium left. That's a very short time for a problem like this. So, if you don't believe in "no nukes, they're dangerous", maybe you'll believe in "no nukes, it's not helping anyway".

Hey, what about nuclear fusion? So far, when I said nuclear power, I was only talking about nuclear fission. You sort of assumed that anyway, admit it. Although I think nuclear fission will not help a bit, I kind of like the idea of nuclear fusion, mainly because the fuel (sea water) will last for millions of years. Fusion is much safer than fission as well. Only problem is that commercial nuclear fusion is still 30 years away. Or so they say. But that's what they said in the 1950s. It has been 30 years away ever since.

Now, there's no getting around the fact that to maintain our means of transportation (cars, planes), we will have to somehow convert electricity to some other form of energy. Simply put, you gotta be able to put it in your gas tank. Maybe cars can run on batteries, but planes will be a whole different kettle of fish. There's a solution for this, fortunately. It's called hydrogen. Can be made from water and electricity. Burns rather cleanly too, since it mainly produces water. Of which we can then make hydrogen (and oxygen) again. Cool. You might even be able to make planes fly on hydrogen.

All this goes for alternative energy sources like solar and wind power as well. It produces electrical power. Which will have to be converted to something else, presumably hydrogen.

Funny thing is that most sources of energy are essentially solar energy anyway. The sun allows plants and stuff (like algae) to grow. The plants essentially bind carbon. The plants then rot and eventually turn into fossil fuels. Takes a long time, though. Solar energy is obviously solar in nature. Wind energy is generated by the sun as well.
Two notable exceptions to this are hydrogen (interstellar in origin, but not produced by the sun), and uranium. Uranium is created by a so-called supernova. This is just a fancy word for a star exploding. Although the uranium in the earth came from some exploding star, it wasn't our sun. Our sun has not exploded yet.

How To Increase Available Energy

In light of the world's ever increasing demand for energy, there is a lot of discussion how to make more energy available. Drilling in wildlife areas, squeezing oil out of rocks, coal, solar energy, wind energy, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, whatever. All these things cost a lot of money.
By far the most cost-effective way of making more energy available is conservation, or in other words, using less in the first place. There is still a tremendous amount of energy that can relatively easily be saved. Really.

Enough rambling. Time for some form of conclusion.


In my opinion, the whole global warming debate is moot. Fossil fuels will run out sooner than later anyway, so that problem will somehow solve itself. Problem is that if we run out of energy suddenly, the effects will be pretty bad. The world needs to limit fossil fuel consumption, in order to buy more time, and to make a smooth transition to alternative sources of energy.

But that's just me..

Please send comments to