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One Degree Fahrenheit

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 8 months ago





Al Gore, the almost-President, has written a book and made a movie, both titled “An Inconvenient Truth.” In both, Gore lays out in clear and simple language, and in photographs of spectacular beauty and alarm, the fact that global warming is real. Scientists are now virtually unanimous that manmade greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, have thickened Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to trap more heat, raising the temperature of the planet. This is not a speculation. It has already happened. We have raised the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million to 380 parts per million, and this has caused the planet to warm up by about one degree Fahrenheit.


Oh. One degree. For a second I was worried. But I’m not going to sweat one degree, or a hundred parts per million, either. I’ve got a hundred bucks and I’m never going to have a million. The next guy can worry about global warming; I’m going to jump in my SUV and drive for ice cream.


One hundred parts per million does not sound like a lot, and one degree is practically nothing. Or is it? How can these numbers mean anything to an ordinary householder who is not a climate scientist?


Let’s start with the parts per million. To understand parts per million we need something that has a million parts. Take, for instance, your neighbor’s backyard pool. It is a small, circular, above-ground pool, four feet deep and fifteen feet or so across, not quite the smallest one they make. It holds about 8,000 gallons of water. We know there are 4 quarts in a gallon, and 32 ounces in a quart. When the pool is full it holds 8,000 gallons at 128 ounces per gallon, or 1,024,000 ounces of water. For our purposes, a million.


Now let’s say our neighbor does not does not take particularly good care of his pool, and it starts to grow algae. The sides and bottom get slimy and the water turns green and nobody wants to swim in it. So he adds two ounces of a blue syrup—algaecide—to kill the algae in his pool. He has added only two parts per million, but he has cured his pool. Alternatively, someone sneaks into his yard at night and pours a quart of motor oil into his pool, ruining it utterly. The local saboteur has polluted the pool with oil at only 32 parts per million.


We have raised the CO2 in the atmosphere by 100 parts per million, and now that is starting to sound like a lot. Is it?


Before the industrial age, atmospheric CO2 was 280 parts per million and now it is 380. There has been an increase, and the increase can be calculated as a percentage, by dividing 380 by 280. The answer is 1.3571 or an increase of 35.71 per cent. There is 36% more CO2 in the atmosphere now than there used to be. This is a big increase. I would love a 36% raise. Say I am making a cake, and the recipe calls for a cup of milk. That is 8 ounces. An extra 36% is nearly another three ounces, and if I put 11 ounces of milk in the recipe instead of 8 ounces, it is not going to come out right: I am going to have a soggy mess. Increase the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 36% and you’ve got problems. The temperature of the planet goes up. One degree Fahrenheit.


What’s one degree Fahrenheit, among friends? Well, we know that at sea level water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212 degrees. There are 190 degrees between freezing and boiling, so each degree is about one half of one percent of the distance between ice and tea. Not a lot. But if your bank offers to pay you one half of one percent more interest than the competitor, you will deposit there. And if your bank charges you one half of one percent more interest on your mortgage, you will borrow elsewhere. One half of one percent can matter.


We humans are mammals, not reptiles. We maintain our bodies at constant temperatures. “Normal” for people is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If my body temperature goes up one degree, to 99.6, I feel bad. I am tired and dizzy, possibly nauseated, and I may well have a headache and feel hot or cold or both. In a word, I have a fever. In another word, I am sick. One degree Fahrenheit of fever is enough to make me sick.


We know that, like our bodies, planet Earth is a single living organism in which the air and water, animals and plants all share an environment and work together to keep it balanced. We learned this in school and we learned it from Earth Day, and we learned it from the last song in “The Lion King.” The Earth has global warming, and, according to the simple text and spectacular pictures in Al Gore’s book, the planet is sick and getting sicker. The hundred parts per million and the one degree Fahrenheit are just the beginning. One degree, and rising. If we don’t go full out to do something about this, we are in a heap of big, serious trouble.


How much trouble? Global warming is going to make sea level rise. We know this because it has happened already. It is happening now. In the 20th Century sea level rose between 4 and 8 inches and the trend is continuing. On page 193 of Gore’s book there is a photo of what is undeniably a whitewater river raging across the frozen surface of the Greenland ice cap. A two to three-foot rise in sea level would create major problems for millions and millions of people who live along the coastlines of the world, many of whom live at or within three feet of sea level. Some scenarios postulate that sea level could rise 20 feet in 100 years—within the lifetimes of some of our children. If sea level rises 20 feet you can forget about New Orleans. And Miami, New York, London, Tokyo, San Francisco, Lisbon, Venice, Cape Town, Mumbai, Shanghai, New London, New Haven and Greenwich.


Gore uses the term “global warming” to name the problem because that’s what the scientists all call it. But global warming is a timid turn of phrase. “Global” is a nice, all-encompassing term. A “global settlement” is a good thing. But we don’t live on a “global.” We live on planet Earth and this is the only planet we are ever going to get. Like global, “warming” is also nice. I like to be warm. “Global warming” has a nice, friendly, gentle connotation about it. But there is nothing nice or friendly or gentle about Gore’s pictures, of huge hurricanes, drought ravaged lands, and ice shelves the size of Connecticut disappearing in a matter of weeks. “Global warming” doesn’t do justice to the trouble Gore writes about—the trouble our planet is in, the trouble we are in. We should call this trouble “planet fever” or “Earth fever.” That might get our attention. The term “global warming” isn’t getting the job done. And neither, my fellow Earthlings, are we.


Copyright Jonathan Katz 6/9/06





Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 10:59 am on Jun 9, 2006

Jon, I corrected spelling of this page, which I screwed up originally. Now the link works properly from Planet Fever. The only thing with a wiki is that you have to spell the page names consistently; if you misspell the name, the wiki creates a new page with the misspelled name. Spelling was never my strong suit; I'm glad we have spell checkers at work.

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