Climate Conversations: Unforseen consequences

Clyde Burnett, Peak to Peak. Question: How did we go so wrong in our economic progress with burning fossil fuels?


Answer: Let us look at the history. The industrial revolution began with invention of the steam engine and the need for coal as fuel. Nations developing industries that utilized fossil fuels enjoyed greatly improved standards of living. World population was estimated to be about 3 billion in 1750, and this activity was essentially independent of any universal laws of Nature. The same industrial developments with our current human population of 7 billion are no longer independent of Nature—an unforeseen consequence.

Question: Didn’t we have another unforeseen consequence with Freon and the ozone holes?


Answer: Fortunately, the discovery of the spectacular polar ozone holes inspired international agreements (the Montreal protocol) to discontinue the manufacture of the relevant chemicals before catastrophic and irreversible damage to our ozone protection from solar UV occurred. However, there was another unforeseen consequence in that the atmospheric lifetime of CFC is extremely long, allowing the ozone holes to persist for another 50 years. This has nothing to do with global warming, but it’s a climate change lesson in that the equally long CO2 in-and-out of the atmosphere cycles guarantee that we can’t return to our good climate in our lifetime. The NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory is the site of the longest CO2 measurement record in the world, beginning in 1958, recording 400 ppm (parts per million) in 2013 and currently recording approximately 410 ppm.


See photo.


Question: Didn’t the climate protest march indicate a need to correct our backward steps about global warming?


Answer: I heard little about CO2 being the elephant in the room with the greenhouse effect. The march may have some success in continuing to bury the coal industry, but there was little emphasis on the need to scale back greenhouse gas emissions with technological advances in nuclear energy, carbon taxes, transferring fossil fuel subsidies to renewables, and whatever it takes to implement Paris commitments. There were a few concerns about past failures to respond to extreme weather events, but adapting to Katrina, Sandy, and Mathew has been mostly rebuilding as if there were no climate change. And lots of expensive pumps can handle the nuisance of sea level rise. With no identification of a link to global warming science, we will “get used to it”, and the events will accelerate and become increasingly costly.


We have enjoyed the good life of cheap energy from burning fossil fuels. We have observed Earth’s responses to the increased trapping of our planet’s outward infrared radiation by the atmospheric greenhouse effect, a very large and fundamentally beneficial process. We measure increasing average global surface temperatures and supporting evidence in the Earth’s response. Earth’s energy imbalance has produced melting of glaciers, Greenland & Antarctic ice, and Arctic Sea ice. This meltwater and thermal ocean expansion has given us destructive sea level rise. The warming oceans have also accelerated the evaporation-precipitation cycle leading to extreme weather. These are the unforeseen consequences of population increase and some 40% more atmospheric CO2 that behaves as a control knob on the thermal increase by water vapor.


We now have the unforeseen consequence of global warming from the CO2 controlled increase of water vapor heat trapping.



We have begun to pay the piper, and as the good life for our children and grandchildren begins to go down the tube, we scientists can only say,”I told you so!”