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Letter: A lesson in CO2, water vapor and climate change
Brazil 2009
This Sept. 15, 2009 file photo shows a deforested area near Novo Progresso in Brazil's northern state of Para. Imazon, a non-government group that monitors the Amazon rainforest, said on May 27, 2019 that the pace of deforestation in the rainforest has increased by 20% since the same August-through-April period in 2018. - photo by Associated Press

Thank you for the article in Sunday’s paper about Cargill’s offer of $30M to end deforestation in Brazil. A corporate spokesperson states, “ the science is very clear, the climate is changing and there is an urgent need to take action to end deforestation.”

Most of us recognize that we are in a climate crisis. But our president and a significant number of our legislators claim to be unconvinced. The following explanation is for them and for anyone else who still needs convincing.

Besides Earth’s location, what makes it suitable for human habitation is an atmosphere that can capture and hold some of the sun’s radiant energy as heat. Water vapor and CO2 are the primary atmospheric constituents responsible for this phenomenon.

Under the right conditions, water vapor condenses and rain falls reducing atmospheric concentrations of water vapor. But sooner or later, the heat in our atmosphere evaporates more water, and the cycle repeats. A hotter atmosphere holds more water vapor, and more water vapor makes the atmosphere hotter.

Just as water vapor has a cycle, so too does carbon. It is absorbed by plants, oceans and rocks. But while water that evaporates from the ocean in the morning can fall on land in the evening, the carbon cycle takes years, decades, centuries and eons.

If you have ever had a toilet that was partially clogged, you probably watched nervously as the water in the bowl rose relentlessly toward the rim. This happens because water is entering the bowl faster than it is leaving it. If you flush the toilet before the water has the chance to fall to its normal level, the bowl will overflow, and you will have a disaster.

The situation in our atmosphere is similar to a clogged toilet. We are putting CO2 into the atmosphere faster than it can leave it. By one conservative estimate, we have burned over a billion barrels of oil. Add to that all the coal and natural gas that we have burned. Every time we burn fossil fuel, we release water vapor and CO2 into the atmosphere.

At the same time that we are loading up the atmosphere, we are losing one of CO2’s natural sinks — forests. In general, plant species are going extinct at a rate 500 times faster than what is considered normal. It is as if we are deliberately clogging our drains and throwing out our mops while we flush our toilets as fast as we can.

The most well-documented rapid temperature rise in Earth’s history, the Paleocene-Eocence Thermal Maximum, occurred 56 million years ago. Volcanoes caused an increase in concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane that resulted in a 10-degree rise in average global temperatures, a corresponding rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans and significant shifts in ecosystems that lasted 1,000 years. This event was triggered by atmospheric changes less than a tenth the intensity of what is happening today. The science is very clear. Cargill, please call the president.

Brian E. Moss


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