On April 17, 2012, I attended the Clarkstown Town Board meeting on the rumor that there was to be a brawl between Councilman Borelli and Highway Superintendent Ballard over expenditures on keeping our streets and roads resurfaced. It turned out the rumor was true - Borelli threw a couple of right-handed sucker punches which Ballard easily dodged in a good variant of the Ali 'rope a dope' routine. I gave the fight to Ballard on points and look forward to the next event between Borelli and Clerk of the Works, Ed Lettre, during which I expect to see a towel thrown in.
Anyway I digress ....... In the midst of this mayhem Councilwoman Lasker opined that she was very worried for her grandchildren and what was to become of them with the looming disaster of global warming. Having grandchildren myself and believing that the H1N1 virus is a bigger threat to them than global warming, I felt a need to research the question of global warming since silence had descended on the assembled citizens following this dire pronouncement from Councilwoman Lasker. I did not dispute the councilwoman's assertions at that time in the fear that it might possibly cause panic in the auditorium.
But the way I figured it the Black Death in the 14th century took several years for the fleas to travel from where it started in China to where my ancestors lived in Ireland because people journeyed only by horseback and sailing ship back them.
With the influenza outbreak in 1918, which killed 50 - 100 million, the spread was somewhat faster because of the motor car and steam ships.
But with modern jet travel if something comes out of the chickens in China today we could all be gone by this time next Thursday.
Anyway I digress ....... I thought I would email my high school friend, Jim who had done a study on global warming several years ago and ask him to allay Ms Lasker's fears for her grandchildren. Jim and I attended one of the elite schools of Europe, the Belfast Royal Academy, not because either of our families were rich ... we were as poor as field mice ... but we were damn smart 'mice' and so we were accepted in with the stupid aristocracy. They ridiculed us because we didn't know how to eat properly with a knife and fork ... we ridiculed them because they didn't know how to solve differential equations.
Anyway I digress ..... Jim was very smart ... at the time I thought he was smarter than me. It turned out he was but even Jim wasn't as smart as Denis Weaire. Jim could solve one differential equation every 15 minutes - Denis could solve 15 of them in one minute. Denis went on to take a First Class Honors Degree in Mathematics at Cambridge University, being the second youngest person ever to do so - the first being Isaac Newton. He later ended up as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the most prestigious scientific organization in Europe and along the way he supplied the mathematical theories behind the Beijing Olympics National Aquatics Centre.
Anyway I digress ..... Denis was not interested in stopping global warming - they had forgotten to put a heating system into the National Aquatics Centre - so I turned to my friend, Jim and asked if he could reassure me that I was more likely to die next Thursday from a viral infection from China's chickens than from Councilwoman Lasker's global warming concerns. Jim graciously wrote to me as follows....
"Dear Michael: As a quick recap, dry air contains by volume 78.08% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.95% argon and 0.038% carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of other gases. Air also contains on average 1% water vapour, not steam, not clouds, but gas."
That piece of information I knew already since Jim and I were in the same physics class with our Jewish Protestant friend, Bernie Jaffa. There were only two types of Jews in Ireland when I grew up - the Protestant Jews and the Catholic Jews. Since ours was a protestant school, and Bernie went there, he was on our side ... a stout protestant Jew! Jim and I envied Bernie because he didn't have to attend the religious instruction classes in which we were required to figure out an answer to the question: "What is the chief end of Man"? Apparently, the correct answer was: "To glorify God for ever". I thought Bernie might know the answer but he was of no help offering as the most likely Jewish answer: "Sex!”
Anyway I digress..... Jim continued with some more trite information causing me to wonder if he was indeed smarter than me since he seemed to be only parrotting Councilwoman Lasker's position.....
"The average global temperature is rising. This is an undisputed fact. The question is whether it is part of a natural cycle or that mankind is wantonly destroying the planet."
Aye, there's the rub, Jim! Councilwoman Lasker is on the 'wantonly destroying the planet' side of this differential equation. Are you on the side of the 'Chinese Chicken breeders' or the 'American Industrialist planet wreckers'?
"The UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has developed the hypothesis that this global warming is due to "anthropogenic" CO2 ……."
Jim could have said 'man-made' but being smart he used the Belfast Royal Academy word 'anthropogenic'. Anyway I digress .......
"….. caused by combustion of fossil fuels, notably coal, gas and oil, as well as deforestation by burning. There is a correlation between rising temperature and rising CO2, but correlation does not imply causality."
Good point, Jim, straight out of Mrs. Popplewaite's third grade logic class. I remember how Bernie explained correlation and causality to me:
"Ice cream sales increased by 10% in 1955. In the same year shark attacks on swimmers went up 20% in California. Therefore people in California should not eat ice cream."
Brilliant, I said, and then he offered that:
"If he went to bed one night with his shoes on and I woke in the morning with a headache, he should take his shoes off before getting into bed so I wouldn't get headaches".
Brilliant, Jim said. Anyway I digress ......
"The big question is whether more CO2 is causing rising temperature, or rising temperature (by various natural phenomena) is causing more CO2. To show how complicated things are, the following factors are involved: Sun luminosity - Earth orbital cycles - Earth albedo, due to reflection from ocean, land, and ice packs - Oceanic currents, ocean surface gas exchange - Cloud cover, the effect of dust and cosmic rays on cloud nucleation - Water vapour, a greenhouse gas, present at average of 10,000ppm versus CO2 at 380ppm. - Volcanoes!"
Volcanoes? Hey, Jim are you going to tell me that volcanoes pump more CO2 into the atmosphere that my BMW? What is the influence of man-made CO2, compared with the natural carbon cycle in the atmosphere?
"In 1995, the IPCC data showed about 90 gigatons carbon in annual exchange between sea and atmosphere, and an additional 60 gigaton exchange between terrestrial vegetation and atmosphere, giving a toal of 150 gigatons carbon per year. The sea is the largest contributor."
Jim, what about fossil fuel combustion?
"Using the IPCC data, there is an annual contribution of 5-6 gigatons of carbon (< 5% of the total exchange). The major Infrared absorbing gas in the atmosphere is water, not CO2. CO2 is a minor contributor because of its relatively low concentration. If you apply the known Infrared absorption of water vapour and account for the differences in concentration (admittedly water vapour is very variable, but on average 10,000 ppm), the IR absorption is 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than CO2 at its concentration of about 400ppm. Water vapour therefore accounts for more than 95% of atmospheric Infrared absorption. There is nothing magic about CO2. It contributes only its IR absorption. It is not reactive like ozone. But it readily dissolves in water and comes out when the water is heated. Think about carbonated drinks."
At this point I did think about a drink and headed off to have a scotch and soda which to my amazement emitted quite copious bubbles of CO2 as it sat slowing warming in the glass.
Anyway I digress ......
"The dominant source and sink for CO2 are the oceans (about 2/3), the rest being terrestrial vegetation. The CO2 contribution from combustion is within statistical noise of the major ocean and vegetation exchanges. The conclusion is that concerning the Earth's carbon cycle, the man-made contribution is so small that our resources would be much better spent on other challenges facing us. The temperature changes are causing the CO2 changes, not the other way round."
"The tail is NOT wagging the dog!"
Could my friend, Jim, be right and Councilwoman Lasker wrong?
I headed for Google where I found, that for all of the numerous ice ages through which our planet has gone, the rise in temperature of the earth has always preceded the rise in CO2 levels. Twenty thousand years ago Rockland County began emerging from the last ice age, which left all the rocks lying around here that give the county its name. We have been in a period of global warming ever since but soon, as the graph shows, we will start a slow and relentless decline in the Earth's temperature which will take us back to the next ice age.
I will be long gone before then and so will Councilwoman Lasker's grand-children.
However, let us hope that both of our sets of grandchildren do manage to make it beyond this time next Thursday!