Many people throw around terms about climate change without bothering to explain them.
I think this is a big mistake because misunderstanding the words can lead to misunderstanding the problem. So, without further ado, let me cut to the chase and try to clear up some common misconceptions.
First, is there a difference between climate and weather? Absolutely! Weather is the atmospheric condition of the moment. This can include temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind, etc. You can look out your window and see what the weather is like.
Climate, on the other hand, is the long-term average of weather conditions. For example, in Athens, we have always had snow within a week of my birthday, mid-January. This is one long-term climate trend that I have unofficially observed since moving to the area in 1981.
When scientists warn about climate change, they are warning about changes in long-term averages.
Weather data has been collected worldwide since 1880, and climate statistics are compared to that year as the baseline. When we compare data from around the world, we find that in 140 years of record-keeping, the 10 hottest years ever recorded have happened in the past 15 years. Not every year is warmer than the previous one, but there is a clear and alarming change happening to our climate.
Second, what are “greenhouse gases?” Many gases combine to create the greenhouse effect, but the major ones are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide.
These are all naturally produced and released into the atmosphere by bacteria, decomposing organic material, lightening fires and, of course, animals breathing. But humans have greatly increased the amounts released through our everyday activities.
When we breathe, we release CO2 which is mostly absorbed by plants. But when we use coal, natural gas, oil, other fossil fuels or wood, we create much more CO2 than plants can absorb. This excess goes up into the atmosphere.
Methane is created when dead plants and animals decompose, especially in wetlands (remember swamp gas?). Termite mounds also produce a great deal of methane. But methane is also created through some not-so-natural activities.
Natural gas extraction is a major source of methane in the air as is, surprisingly, the gas produced during the digestive process in the multiple stomachs of cows. Humans are responsible for the huge populations of cows in the world and, believe it or not, gassy cows are a major producer of methane!
Nitrous oxide is also known as laughing gas and its short-term effect on human brains has long been documented. It is naturally created by bacteria in the soil, but modern farming practices have accelerated the production of nitrous oxide by frequent tilling of soil and use of nitrogen as a fertilizer. Other gases are also part of the mix, but these three are the most impactful chemicals as well as those most clearly associated with humans.
Third, how does the “greenhouse effect” work? The greenhouse gases float up to the ozone and create a layer, much like the glass in a greenhouse or the windshield of a car. We all know better than to leave a pet or a child or a Snickers bar in a closed car, even on a mild day.
The sun shining through the windows will heat up the inside of the car well above the outside air temperature. This is the science behind that heat: when the sun’s rays come through the windshield, they are shortwave light and can pass through easily.
Once here, they cause surfaces to warm and the warming surfaces emit infrared or longwave radiation. Infrared light cannot pass through the glass and the heat is trapped. Shortwaves continue to increase the temperature, creating the condition of the closed car being hotter than the outside air.
The greenhouse gases act like the glass in your car. Shortwaves from the sun can pass through, but once they heat up surfaces, the infrared heat cannot escape. In your car, you can roll down the window, but on our planet the only solution is to slow down the activities that are creating CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. Ozone is the insulation necessary to keep our planet’s temperature livable, but greenhouse gases are too much! They are like wearing a down parka in the summertime!
Fourth, should we all be buying land in Canada? Well, maybe. But much more effective would be to change some of our lifestyle choices so that we can stay here.
You know the spiel: burn less coal, gas, wood and oil; use more alternative energy; improve farming methods; use substitutions for nitrogen fertilizers; and (I am not making this up) give your cows food that has been specially developed to reduce methane production.
Kathryn Hunter is from McMinn County and holds a bachelor’s degree in Forest Resource Management from the University of Idaho and a Master of Forestry from Yale University. She has worked with the USDA Forest Service locally as well as living and working in natural resource management and protected area conservation in eight foreign countries.