A real sting in the tail: cut pollution and the world gets hotter

We just have to change.

If ever humankind’s influence on our surroundings was of little consideration, then the straightforward theory of global dimming should wake you. The theory complements, rather than contradicts, that of global warming to present a state-of-the-world picture that should be disturbing.

And if you get excited by the profundity of simple scientific endeavour, then this BBC Horizon documentary should excite you.

For example, I had no idea that for over a hundred years agricultural scientists have been measuring the rate at which water in a saucepan, left outside in the open air, evaporates, one day at a time: simple – and you might think meaningless. But not so, when the dots were joined with other dots, by chance…

I also learnt that, in the days after the attacks on America in September 2001, when all aeroplanes were grounded, the skies were clear of air pollution – and the temperature rose dramatically.

So the documentary leads from the theory of global dimming – by which air pollution has been keeping the planet cool – to a concrete explanation of what caused late twentieth century famines, killing millions of people in Africa, and the heatwaves of Europe in 2003.

The main problem presented is that, as we reduce the pollution of airborne particulates (from the burning of fossil fuels) we will find our climate getting quickly hotter. ‘The earth could be far more vulnerable to greenhouse gases than previously thought’, and global warming predictions could be too conservative by a long shot. To borrow a biblical concern – and mirroring the language of scientists – we could well be living in ‘the last days’. We’re talking here of temperatures on the planet ‘unseen’ (says the narrator) in four billion years – before complex life emerged. ‘This is not a prediction, but a warning’; business as usual ‘is suicidal. […] We have to tackle the root cause’.

We’ve got twenty-five years, at most, to effect the necessary change.

Update (10.10.07)
Just come across an article on this – record temperatures (up to 22 degrees Celsius) from this summer in the Arctic.

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6 Responses to “A real sting in the tail: cut pollution and the world gets hotter”

  1. archanaraghuram Says:

    Thats an interesting insight. The implication is, earth would be much hotter if there was no air pollution, for the current level of Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Is that what you meant, Dr.Frank?

  2. drfrank Says:

    Yes, global warming caused by GHG (greenhouse gases) is more rapid when the air is cleaner (of particulates). As the scientists in the documentary are quick to point out, however, this is not a reason for continuing to pollute the air with particulates! Rather, it’s a call for stopping both GHG and particulate emissions as soon as possible.

  3. Marion Says:

    “We’ve got twenty-five years, at most, to effect the necessary change.”

    I remember being at primary school in Germany and watching, for the first time, a documentary about the events leading to the Holocaust. After watching it, I just couldn’t understand why no one of my grandparents generation had bothered to publicly point out the dangers and the sheer evil of the Nazi movement and to do something to prevent the Holocaust. I just hope that our grandchildren won’t watch documentaries about the events leading to drastic climate change and asking us the same questions.
    The Holocaust was monstrous, evil and devastating – but maybe we are about to allow something much more sinister to happen …

  4. drfrank Says:

    This is a fascinating question: is humanity’s turning a blind eye from, and lack of action in response to, global warming comparable to those in Germany who turned a blind eye to Nazism’s evils?

    I suspect this is a matter of varying degrees of wilfulness.

    It’s safe to say the consequences of human-induced global warming have been unintended. Global warming has been a consequence of the interplay between cultural dispositions, government policies, corporate strategies and consumer behaviours – but no group or individual could be said to have intended it. In this sense, it’s been a systemic problem.

    Yes, consumerist industrialism is the cause of global warming. And yes, the rise of Nazism was also systemic.

    I’d suggest that ascribing causality in the physical science domains is distinct, and of a different order, to ascribing moral responsibility in daily life. Nazism’s evils were intended in the same way that – to date – it’s been inappropriate to put consumerist industrialism in the dock for crimes against humanity.

    There may, however, come a point when pollution is regarded as such a crime, and the date when this point comes seems to be arriving from the future sooner and sooner. Certainly, it’s a line of thought creeping implicitly into the protest actions of some NGOs.

    What do you think?

  5. Marion Says:

    Well, I fear that there is a strong argument to make that environmental pollution is, at its root, a crime against humanity.

    First of all, a crime is not a crime because it follows a direct and evil intention. A court will sentence a person primarily with respect to the consequences of their acts, and the illegitimacy of their acts, not on the basis of their intentions. For example, a teacher may feel in love with a student, and intend no harm, but any advances on their part clearly constitute, according to the law and with respect to the students well-being, sexual abuse.

    Awareness of the consequences of ones actions and a clear intention of these consequences are by no means required for an action to be classified as a criminal offense. Another example would be driving under the influence – any harmful consequences would be unintended, but it is clearly illegal because it is potentially harmful and even deadly.

    Fact is that our Western consumerism, our living and transport arrangements cause a degree of environmental pollution which has already devastating effects on the safety and well being of many people. And if we continue in this way, future generations may well be robbed of their chance to exist on this planet. In this sense, our actions are, at their root, not only a crime against humanity, but also a crime against the future of humanity as such.

    In the end, our western society is based on the silent agreement that we deserve to continue our lifestyle at the expense of poorer countries and future generations. I wouldn’t be surprised that once these people find a voice, they may declare the verdict “guilty”.

    The Holocaust wasn’t a crime under the Nazi regime, because the Nazis made their own laws and the majority of Germans accepted them. The Nuernberger process was a rare example of calling to justice those who have previously been the law. So all I say is that we might continue to kidd ourselves that we do nothing illegal, as long as we make our own laws and define our own emmission limits etc. But what will happen to us when these laws are questioned and declared invalid by those who have, in the moment, no legislative or juridical power?

  6. drfrank Says:

    I wholly agree that pollution should be conceived as a crime against humanity, something it hasn’t been to date – with understandable reason.

    Historically, emitting greenhouse gases was not considered to have much, if any, effect (the problem of the greenhouse effect has only latterly been defined as such) by probably a majority of scientists, emitters, and legislators.

    So, when understanding of a situation emerges, and that understanding is under constant review (in an open-ended way, unlike with Nazism), is retrospective judgement of actions appropriate? I think this is a good question. There have certainly been cases of wilful pollution, cover up and corporate crime – but judging a sizeable tranche of humanity, who’s living and lifestyles are the envy and role model for most people on the planet? See, for example, the film ‘I’m a subsistence farmer, get me out of here’ at http://www.documentary-film.net/search/video-listings.php?e=48

    On the relationship between current and future generations, Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Comission rather than the punitive legal system may be a potentially valuable model to consider?

    And the jury is still out as to the part ‘consumerist industrialism’ will play – if it can replace its dependence on fossil fuel combustion – in any transition to an equitable and long term future for humanity.

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