Timberlake: Solving global warming is our number-one priority

Ian Timberlake

Road-tripping out west over Thanksgiving break got me thinking about geology and climate more than ever before. The trip took my car over Iowa and Nebraska plains, through the Rocky Mountains and into Arches National Park in the middle of nowheresville Utah; Onward to Zion National Park and then Yosemite Valley in California.

The Iowa-Nebraska plains that lead upwards to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains are the direct remnants of the Great Ice Age that began 2.5 million years ago. Technically it isn’t over because Greenland is still covered by a thick sheet of ice that is a result of the beginning of The Great Ice Age. Once the thick ice over Greenland melts, The Great Ice Age epoch will be terminally over.

The Great Ice Age smoothed over the Midwest plains after ice, miles thick, descended down from Canada and into the region of the United States that was between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. The ice began receding and melting, flattening the contour lines of the Midwest even more. The Great Lakes and Minnesota’s “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is also a direct result of glaciers carving out land and melting into the remaining space.

In between this Great Ice Age are what’s called “interglacials,” cycles of relatively warm and cool periods that cycle on a consistent 100,000 year loop. We can accurately record the average global temperature from nearly a million years ago by examining bubbles inside cores of ice from Antarctica.  

Using the same method, among other methods, we can also examine the air quality from nearly a million years ago. According to NASA and NOAA, the rise and fall in average global temperature every 100,000 years fits the rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the air every 100,000 years like a glove.

According to where we are in the glacial cycle, we are overdue for a period of cooling.

With Earth behaving normally, provided it continues the consistency of at least half a million years, we should soon experience a relatively quick drop in global temperature. Not “Day After Tomorrow” quick, but quick over the course of 1000 years. This interglacial drop in temperature, like the last half million years, should roughly be about ten degrees celsius, or 50 degrees fahrenheit, on average.

Twelve thousand years ago we spiked in warmth, as we should have, but have yet to drop as we should have. At every temperature spike over the last half million years, the level of CO2 in the air is nearly always around 270 parts per million and has never been higher than 300 parts per million in the time we have been capable of recording.

In 1950 we were at a CO2 level of approximately 280 parts per million, according to NASA, and today we are almost 400 parts per million and rising exponentially. That’s 100 parts per million higher in the last 60 years than has been recorded in the last half million.

It is an undeniable fact that CO2 levels correlate with global temperature levels; that’s not the argument. It’s also an undeniable fact that Earth is warming, when it really should be cooling right now, but that’s also not the argument.

The argument is to what extent are humans responsible for CO2 and temperature change.

In 1880 the global temperature was on the decline and hit a low in 1910, a low as per the last 130 years. Not surprisingly, the industrial revolution for many nations was beginning around that time, and the temperature has been increasing since.

Ice has been melting and water levels have been rising. This is something that is expected to happen as part of a regular cycle. The issue that we have is the rate at which the waters are rising and the ice is melting. It’s a rate that we can’t keep up with, a rate that is too quick for people of especially poor areas in the world to relocate – a sad reality, given that these poor areas in the world are usually the least responsible for CO2 production.

The extreme height and rate of CO2 in our atmosphere is already causing immediate and measurable problems. I’m not talking about predictions; I’m talking about current measurements like ocean acidity, the breaking of large portions of the ice caps, droughts and failing agriculture, the health of people and animals and unnatural rate of ocean rise to name a few.

The realization of our position is a sort of double-edged sword. On one hand, the amount of CO2 currently in the atmosphere is preventing the Earth from cooling in the cycle that it has for the last half million years. That takes the burden off our shoulders of having to deal with another ice age, which would be the most catastrophic natural disaster the world has ever seen.

But now we must deal with the effects of high atmospheric CO2.

The latter is much worse. It’s an unpredictable experiment we are running, with our entire species in one boat. Much like what was said about nuclear warfare, “we don’t have another planet in which to run the experiment.”

Regardless of the extent in which humans are responsible for the extreme levels of CO2, we should treat it as if it is our problem. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong. If we’re right and do nothing about it, we die pathetically.

The rise in temperature and CO2 in the world literally needs to be America’s and the rest of Earth’s number-one priority. Not the economy, which is a never ending kerfuffle. Not foreign policy; everyone can’t ever be happy at once. Not even civil rights, as nasty as that sounds and goes against nearly everything I say. This issue is a matter of preserving our species, which is the pinnacle of all human goals.

There are only two reasons for doing nothing. Number one, you don’t believe we can do anything about the fact the CO2 and temperature levels are rising well above their expected rate. And number two, you think we don’t have a right to mess with God’s plan.

Both reasons are silly and will lead to our demise if the problem doesn’t reverse on its own, which is unlikely.  

Iowa State strives towards being a “green” campus, which is all fine and dandy, but it’s not enough to just put in LED lightbulbs, use wind power and recycle.

Engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs need to work together and implement new technology, from the ground up, that dramatically reverses our carbon footprint. That’s our only hope to solve this problem.

Take an active role in making this happen; don’t fight it because you’re afraid of something new. Embrace what it means to actually be green.