This column is about how fossil fuels have heated up the Earth’s atmosphere which in turn drives the changes we are seeing in the climate. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution around 1750, people have used fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – to run more and more machines.
People burn fossil fuels to create heat and electricity for our homes and other buildings.
Fossil fuels are used to run agricultural equipment, transportation vehicles and industrial machinery that produce the products we use daily.
The problem is that when fossil fuels are dug out of the ground, and again when they are burned, they release carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases we call the greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases are chemical particles that go into the atmosphere (Patz & Levy, 2015, Chapter 2). The Earth’s atmosphere is the blanket of air that surrounds it and is held in place by gravity. It serves three purposes. It holds the air that we need to breathe. It is part of the water circulation cycle. It keeps Earth’s temperature in the range that plants, animals and people need to live.
The atmosphere has existed for millions of years. Scientists who have studied the atmosphere have determined that there is correlation between Earth’s temperatures and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For most of this time there was only a small amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
There were natural processes that kept carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. These involved two types: Biological processes, which included storing carbon dioxide in trees and plants, and physical processes which locked up carbon dioxide in rocks and in the oceans.
Coal contains so much carbon dioxide because it was derived from plant material that was sequestered underground for millions of years.
The sun emits sunlight as waves of electromagnetic radiation in the visual spectrum.
These waves are short and are not absorbed by the greenhouse gases.
However, the Earth then re-radiates heat back to the atmosphere in infrared waves. These waves are longer and are absorbed by the greenhouse gases.
These gases then trap the infrared waves as heat in the atmosphere; not allowing the heat to float back out of the atmosphere (Jacobson, 2012, Chapter 3). This is much as the glass in a greenhouse keeps it warm inside.
About 1980, there was so much research collected that many scientists realized that human use of fossil fuels was affecting the amount of heat in the atmosphere.
These scientists predicted that by 2015 the Earth would become hotter and there would be more severe weather such as heavy storms, flooding and tornadoes in the Midwest, plus hurricanes and droughts elsewhere. This is exactly what we have seen.
If we continue to use coal, oil and gas it will lead to even more global weather problems.
Hotter weather around the world is leading to melting glaciers and ice sheets.
This is causing sea levels to rise on the world’s oceans. Americans who now live near the Atlantic and Pacific coasts will need to leave because of floods; some of them might move here to DeKalb.
Hotter weather, floods and drought can affect farmland. Hotter weather and drought can cause land that now grows fruits, vegetables, and grain to dry up.
Midwest land might become too hot to be appropriate for corn and soybeans in the near future. (Levy & Patz, 2015, Chapter 2).
To keep the climate from becoming much worse, we need to change to renewable, clean energies. Some scientists such as Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University believe we can reach 100 percent of our energy needs through solar, wind, thermal and water sources of energy.
Jacobson has developed road maps that show how the transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy can be accomplished (Jacobson, Mark, 2018).
• Meryl Greer Domina of DeKalb is co-chairwoman of 350Kishwaukee, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the Kishwaukee River Watershed that exists to allow everyone to participate in the global climate change movement. This column is part of a monthly contribution by 350Kishwaukee titled Our Changing Climate.