Notes from a warming world

Temperature Gauge

The Road To Hell…

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That regret might well be on the minds of the well-meaning environmentalists who helped phase out ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the 1980s – an international effort considered one of the green movement’s landmark successes. Scientists are now discovering that CFCs’ replacement chemicals, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. HFCs might not eat away at the ozone layer, but they are helping to warm the planet.

photo of Mt. Rushmore, banner hung on it that reads: America Honors Leaders, Not Politicians. Stop Global WarmingCourtesy Greenpeace

Before the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, CFCs were widely used in air conditioning and refrigeration units, just as HFCs are today. With rising affluence in Asia contributing to a spike in air conditioning, HFCs are more prevalent than ever. The problem is that a ton of HFC-23 is equivalent to 14,000 tons of CO2. Air conditioning and refrigeration systems are notoriously inefficient and leak about 30 percent of their HFC coolants into the air.

Today, HFCs’ contribution to climate change is relatively small. But by 2050, HFCs could account for up to 19 percent of global warming. Hotter temperatures, of course, will make people want to use more air conditioning, which will …

Yup, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Out of Air

A steady breeze on a balmy day can make it unnecessary to turn on the atmosphere-eating AC. Unfortunately, the globe’s winds appear to be slowing, and some scientists think climate change may be to blame.

According to an August study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, wind speeds in some parts of the US, especially the Midwest and the East, have dropped noticeably since 1973. In some places, wind velocity has decreased 10 percent or more over a decade.

Scientists who have observed the effect think climate change may be a factor. In areas around the Great Lakes, less ice means slower winds, since air travels faster over ice than over water. Global temperature changes may also be at work. Winds are created by differences in barometric pressure. As the polar areas warm, the temperature difference between the poles and the equator shrinks, and so does the difference in air pressure. Less pressure difference means less wind.

Researchers caution that it’s too early to say whether warming global temperatures are reducing wind speeds. Similar findings of reduced wind in Europe and Australia, however, suggest that there may be a pattern.

A reduction in wind speeds could handicap efforts to build a renewable energy infrastructure. A 10 percent change in peak wind speeds would translate into a 30 percent change in how much energy can be created by a given windmill.

Time’s Up

For 20 years, a billboard near New York’s Times Square has calculated the US national debt. Now there’s a similar ticker to figure part of our ecological debt.

In June, Deutsche Bank lit up a sign near Madison Square Garden that will tabulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. The current quantity of CO2 is 3.64 trillion tons, the highest level in about 800,000 years. The number is increasing by about 800 tons a second.

Bank officials say they made the sign – which is lit up by 41,000 low-energy diodes – to encourage conversations about climate change. Of course, bankers rarely do anything without thinking of their own financial interests. Deutsche Bank is heavily involved in the markets that trade greenhouse gas emissions. So as the numbers on the sign change, so too will the bank’s bottom line.

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

During the last week in June, many environmentalists were glued to their computers as they tracked the heated debate over the Waxman-Markey bill. The rest of the country, meanwhile, was absorbed in a much bigger issue: the surprise death of Michael Jackson.

According to the news service Greenwire, 31 percent of respondents to a media tracking poll said they “most closely” followed the demise of the King of Pop. The next most closely watched stories involved healthcare reform and the Iranian elections, with the climate bill coming in fourth.

People interested in the first US law to address climate change had to look hard to find news of the bill. Stories about the legislation accounted for two percent of news coverage that week. Stories about disgraced South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford took up 11 percent of media attention.

Which makes us wonder: If landmark climate change legislation passes Congress and no one notices, did it really happen?

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.