Yes, it’s real, and we’ve known about it at least since the 1950s, when the first scientific papers on CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect were published. Consensus on causes, effects, and potential severity was pretty well established by the late 1980s, when I first began following the issue. In the early 1990s, I pitched a book on the subject to my agent; he advised against pursuing the project, believing it wouldn’t sell (a sad but probably accurate assessment). Today, a quarter of a century later, the evidence is solid and indisputable. Current predictions – accepted by nearly all climate scientists, more than 15,000 of whom signed onto a “warning to humanity” letter released in November 2017 – are that average global temperatures will have increased over the 1950s baseline by 1.5 degrees C (nearly 3 degrees F) some time between 2030 and 2050. This may not sound like much, but please read on.
The mechanism itself is easy to understand; you feel something like it each time you get into a car that has been sitting in sunlight for a while. Energy from the Sun hits the Earth as broad-spectrum electromagnetic radiation – everything from the long rays of the low infrared (which we experience as heat) up through all the colors of light, into the ultraviolet (which we don’t experience at all, directly, but are affected by anyway – that’s the part of the spectrum which causes sunburn). Most of that energy gets reflected right back into space again. A small portion, however, is retained by the atmosphere. This is a good thing: without it, the Earth would be too cold to sustain life. But it is always possible to get too much of a good thing, and that’s where CO2 production from burning fossil fuels comes in.
CO2 – carbon dioxide – is a “greenhouse” gas. It gets that name because, like the glass of a greenhouse (or the glass and metal body of the car we were just talking about), it is particularly efficient at retaining heat. There are other greenhouse gases, notably methane and water vapor, but CO2 gets most of the attention of climatologists, both because there is far more of it in the atmosphere than the others and because human activities are rapidly increasing those amounts. We are doing this by burning fossil fuels. Burning any fuel causes the carbon in the fuel to unite with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide; in the case of fossil fuels, this is carbon that has previously been sequestered (locked away) beneath the surface of the earth. It has been slowly accumulating there for several billion years. We are currently releasing it back into the atmosphere at a rate of well over 20 billion metric tons each year.
That’s the simple model, which gets rapidly complicated when you start looking at specifics. Water, for instance, absorbs heat more readily than land does, and it also has the ability to dissolve some of the excess CO2 – meaning that the oceans have been acting as an unnoticed buffer against climate change for decades (that buffer is now rapidly approaching its limit). Ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, and in mountain regions elsewhere, has been losing volume: one of the effects of this has been to cause the so-called “polar vortex” – a ring of winds that circles the northern hemisphere constantly during the winter – to weaken and slip south, bringing colder winters to Canada and the northern United states. This produces the paradoxical and counterintuitive result of colder winters which are a direct result of the overall warming of the planet.
More energy in the atmosphere means not just higher temperatures, but more (and more intense) storms; warmer oceans mean more evaporation, increasing overall rainfall, which changes in storm patterns can cause to come as deluges in some places and droughts in others. Hotter summers combined with local droughts dry out woodlands, increasing both the incidence and severity of forest fires. Even a few tenths of a degree of average temperature change can dramatically affect these patterns – which is why that predicted three degrees of temperature rise, which sounds so innocent, has caused such alarm in the scientific world.
All this has become political grist for arguments between conservatives and liberals. It shouldn’t have. Science is not a matter of politics, but of evidence, and evidence doesn’t change to fit our belief systems. We can ignore it, but ignoring it won’t make it go away. Beliefs must always accommodate themselves to evidence, not the other way around; to do otherwise is to risk destroying the very things you believe you are defending.
And so we come, finally, back to electric cars. Electrifying the private automobile is not by itself going to solve the problem of global climate change, but it is a necessary piece of the solution. Picture the world economy as an assembly of pipes collecting carbon from underground deposits and spewing it into the sky. The transportation sector is the biggest of those pipes. If we can’t get that one turned off, what we do with the others won’t really matter very much.
(Yes, I know: turning off that pipe requires opening the electrical-generation pipe wider. This is a temporary problem. Electrical generation can be fueled by a wide variety of renewables – the solar panels on my roof being one small example. Cars cannot. The most efficient way to use renewable energy to power something that moves is to generate that energy in something that doesn’t move, and transfer it into something that does.)
Fortunately, the switch to electric cars shouldn’t be difficult. Once the public gets over its trepidation – once drivers grasp the fact that electric cars are neither toys for the rich nor poor substitutes for the gasoline version, just regular cars (but regular cars that happen to be cleaner, cheaper to operate, and a lot more fun to drive) – car makers won’t be able to keep up with the demand. Like the switch from land lines to mobile phones, it will happen quickly, naturally, and with no need for government dictates.
It is the purpose of this website to ease that trepidation and speed that transition.