Climate Corner: All in this greenhouse together
Jan 7, 2023
Although the basic physics of climate change have been known for more than a century, it remained out of the public’s attention for decades. In the 1980s, media outlets began bringing scientists’ concerns into the mainstream. Over 37 years ago, on Dec. 11, 1985, an article appeared in the New York Times with the headline: “Action is Urged to Avert Global Climate Shift.” This article reported on a bipartisan hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Toxic Substances and Environmental Oversight which was headed by Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican. Although more recently climate change has become a partisan and divisive issue, at that time senators of both parties were interested, concerned and in agreement about the seriousness of this situation. At the hearing, scientists called for action to avert a predicted warming of the earth’s climate resulting from buildup of carbon dioxide and other man-made gases into the atmosphere. They warned this greenhouse effect would produce radical climate changes with possible catastrophic results in the next century unless steps were taken immediately to deal with the problem. Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University, the leading planetary astronomer at that time, was one of the scientists that spoke. When Durenberger introduced him, he was presented as discussing “how our past and present may well affect our future.” His speech to the group is available on YouTube.
Sagan identified the purpose of his speech as “…to give some sense of what the greenhouse effect is, to try to say something about the greenhouse effect on other planets (and) to underscore that this is a real phenomenon…” He also took “…the liberty to say a few remarks about what to do about it.” He began by stating that the power of human beings to “both intentionally and inadvertently make significant changes in the global climate and ecosystem” has occurred for tens of thousands of years; however, Sagan noted that this power has grown as technology has grown. He then went on to explain the Earth’s climate as well as the greenhouse effect on it, including its causes and its long-term and global consequences. He discussed the fact that every planet with an atmosphere has some degree of a greenhouse effect and talked about the greenhouse effect of our nearest planet, Venus. Because the atmosphere is almost entirely CO2, Venus has an absurdly high surface temperature.
Also reviewed by Sagan were the “things that can be done” to address this global warming problem. These included more efficient use of and fewer government subsidies for fossil fuels, as well as use of alternative energy sources such as solar power and safe fission power plants, “which are, in principle, possible” and which, “whatever other problems they may provide, they do not provide a greenhouse problem.” These “other problems” were addressed in a recent Climate Corner column and presently, the future of nuclear power is being rethought. In closing, Sagan discussed the fact that global warming is “a problem that transcends our particular generation” and warned, “if we don’t do the right thing now, there are very serious problems that our children and grandchildren will have to face.” Another point made was that “what is essential for this problem is a global consciousness.”
Regrettably, almost every government across the globe isn’t doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The burning of fossil fuels continues with little regard to the impacts on the climate or the “very serious problems that our children and grandchildren will have to face.” After 37 years of not doing “the right thing,” global warming has grown from the climate change predicted to an emergency climate crisis with impacts felt worldwide. Unfortunately, future generations will indeed be facing “very serious problems” that could and should have been addressed decades ago. Sagan’s final statement, “The solution to these problems requires a perspective that embraces the planet and the future because we are all in this greenhouse together,” fell on deaf ears. We can only hope that increased public awareness of the fact that we are on a fast track to climate disaster, coupled with the ever-decreasing costs of renewable energy sources and the climate investments included in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, can help provide a livable planet for future generations.
Giulia Mannarino, of Belleville, is a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.