Energy and Climate
As I write, record-breaking Hurricane Patricia is devastating Mexico. Global warming doesn't create such hurricanes, but tropical storms pick up more energy from warmer seas and become more powerful. Indeed, hurricanes have become more destructive over the past 35 years.
Climate – global or indoor – is the product of heat (a form of energy), air and moisture interactions. Heated moisture evaporates. The warmer the air, the more vapor it absorbs.. Warmed air expands. Lighter by volume, it rises and cooler, denser, air rushes to take its place - winds blow, drafts cool the house. Cooling air releases the moisture it can no longer hold and the energy it has absorbed along the way – it rains, condensation precipitates on windows and other cool surfaces in the house. The energy released feeds storms, melts snow atop roofs, causing ice dams.
Increase the heat: change the climate. As carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants collect in the atmosphere, they trap solar heat like a blanket, causing the planet to warm. Local temperatures fluctuate naturally, but average global temperatures are rising faster than ever in recorded history. Unless we curb greenhouse gas emissions, average U.S. temperatures could rise 3 to 9ºF in this century. Earth has never been so warm in human experience. According to the US Global Change Research Program, "global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced" and "climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow."
The changes impact our economy, health and communities in diverse ways. If we don’t aggressively curb climate change, we invite disaster, scientists warn – certainly for our children and grandchildren. Coal-burning power plants produce 2.5 Billion tons of CO2 pollution annually, automobiles nearly 1.5 Billion tons. Houses heated by burning fuels are not far behind. The good news is that technologies exist to make cars run cleaner and consume less fuel, modernize the power grid, generate electricity from nonpolluting sources, and cut our energy use through efficiency. But we must put these solutions to use.
Global warming is already damaging the United States. Since the early 1950s, snow accumulation has declined 60% and winters have shortened in many areas. Melting glaciers, early snowmelt and severe droughts cause water shortages and damage agriculture in the American West. Rising sea levels cause coastal flooding along the Eastern seaboard, and the Gulf coast. Warmer sea surfaces fuel more intense hurricanes. We face troublesome new pests and mosquito-borne diseases. Habitat disruption – coral reefs, alpine meadows – is driving plants and animals to extinction.
We can slow climate deterioration by reducing pollution from vehicles, buildings and power plants; putting existing technologies for cleaner transportation, efficient buildings, and renewably generated electricity into widespread use; and conserving energy. Alas, while the technologies exist, the corporate and political will to put them to widespread use does not. Companies vested in outmoded technologies pressure politicians to halt inconvenient regulations. Local governments are afraid to raise taxes even when resulting savings would more than reduce them. For progress to be made, we the people must demand it.