Sweet Spot Soured

Neither too close nor too far from the sun, Earth has been described as a “Goldilocks planet” because it’s just right. The term is also used for similar planets, those of the over 2000 exoplanets now discovered that are situated just right, too. More formally, planets in sweet spot orbits are in the “circumstellar habitable zone.” No sign yet of other inhabitants, though. No, it’s just us with our porridge heating up.

Of course, it isn’t just about location, location, location. Venus is closer to the sun, so it gets more solar energy, but it’s also shrouded in atmospheric gasses that act like the green-house effect on steroids. Average temperatures there are 864F/462C. The atmosphere is some 95% carbon dioxide. Heat gets in, as through plates of glass in a greenhouse, but doesn’t escape as radiation because of the blanketing effects of the glass-lake atmosphere.

When I think about global warming, Venus is always on my mind. Not a perfect analogy, and by far the worst case scenario, but still sobering. Because, you know, physics. Back here on Planet Home, CO2 is just a trace element. It makes up 0.04% of the atmospheric gasses, which are mostly nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%). This percentage is also measured in parts per million, PPM: CO2 is currently 400 parts per million, and as you know, it’s been rising since we were all born. The climate action campaign 350.org was named after the limit stated in 2007 as the tipping point.

Now, it has been much lower, for most of human history, and it has been much higher, back long before us: half billion years ago it was 7,000 parts per million.

We humans have been humans in the Goldilocks period of CO2. But not even 1% of the atmosphere!? It certainly seems ridiculously insignificant, doesn’t it? But this tiny amount goes a long, long way because it is such a powerful greenhouse gas. It’s effect is outsized, because its helping to cook the atmosphere.

Here’s the thing: the warming will continue even if we shut off all carbon inputs into the atmosphere now. Its effects are building even without additional CO2. Physics again. Damned physics. The ice will continue to melt, affecting some 20% of the population as coasts and cities flood. But of course we’re nowhere near cutting off all carbon inputs. We’re aren’t even doing much to prepare for what is coming. This country, in particular, with its small population and huge appetites, is for all intents and purposes controlled by the carbon industry. It will not provide leadership.

But do we think the refugee crisis in Europe is bad now? Do we think that political rage is high now and fascists like Donald Trump can feed off it? Do we think that terrorism and chaos have reached their limit? The effects of global warming suggest we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. And I do mean we.

Sorry to start your Monday off with this. It’s entirely too early to drink.

3 Responses to “Sweet Spot Soured”


  1. 1 Dr. Dann February 29, 2016 at 7:39 am

    “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet. . .” Yup. And I sure do like your underscoring the shared destiny & responsibility, Matthew. Johnny Appleseed style (strangely prophetic that I played John Chapman in my 4th grade play), I pedaled cross prairies, piedmont, & Appalachians to sing the same song, and couldn’t find nary a one to listen, except a young barber in Petworth, a stone’s throw from where Abraham Lincoln used to commune with the Angels for guidance his last three summers.

    It’s high time you read Masquerade, brother Jeremiah. . .

    • 2 mthew March 5, 2016 at 10:12 am

      What is this Rx of Masquerade, brother Jeremiah?

      Chapman turns out to have been a Swedenborgian, but I bet you knew that.

  2. 3 taramoyle March 18, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    This is a bittersweet spring and yes, no one is listening to reality. Preparation: what can we do? Know that in 2030, 2025 we’ll all be fighting for water? 2020? The weather is unpredictable and since we can’t turn back the tide and we don’t have proper leadership, and who knows about the feedback loops, methane, what’s the best stance?


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