I have a friend – I’ll call him “Cletus” – who is forever challenging me about climate change. Here’s a recent exchange I had with him. Now, Cletus is a nice guy. He’s gone out of his way to help me with some projects. I’ve done the same for him. But, when it comes to several subjects – like climate change – he becomes cantankerous.
Cletus: I wish you’d get off your liberal high-horse and just admit the truth. You actually don’t know if the climate is changing and you can’t prove it either.
Me: Well, I do know that increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is pretty symptomatic of a warming earth.
Cletus: That’s stupid. (Cletus likes that word. He also likes to spit out the word “liberal” as though a bug just flew into his mouth.) We’ve got tons of carbon dioxide in the air and have had for the last 6,000 years since the earth was created. Plants must take in carbon dioxide for photo-whatchamacallit.
Me: That’s true (I refuse to get drawn into the 6,000-year argument). But, there’s a lot more carbon dioxide trapped in the world’s oceans that there is in the air, Cletus.
Cletus: Yeah? So? Let it stay there.
Me: Well, that’s a great idea. But it’s escaping.
Cletus: Escaping? Where to? Outer space? (He says the last two words sarcastically.)
Me: No, into the atmosphere.
Cletus: Well, that’s good, isn’t it? More carbon dioxide for plants to make more oxygen. Which is what we humans need to breath, moron. (He likes “moron” too. Ad hominem remarks are part of Cletus’ repertoire.)
Me: Okay, let’s start over. How much carbon dioxide was in the air, say, 6,000 years ago? (I knew the reference to 6,000 years would get his attention.)
Cletus: How do you expect me to know that?
Me. Well scientists have figured it out. They drill down into the polar cap ice, pull out ice cores, and measure the amount of carbon dioxide trapped in different layers. And, they’ve discovered that there is many more times carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was say six millennia ago.
Cletus: That still doesn’t explain anything.
Me: Follow me on this. The sun’s rays warm the earth. Are you okay with that?
Me: So during the day, the sun heats up the earth, right?
Cletus nods again.
Me: But if it continued to heat up the earth, eventually we’d burn up.
Cletus: You idiot. That’s what’s night’s for. To cool things off.
Me: (I think I got him). Exactly. The sun heats up the earth in the daytime, and at night, the earth cools off again, right? But what happens if the earth can’t cool off at night?
Cletus: That makes no sense.
Me: Remember the carbon dioxide we were talking about?
Me: Well, carbon dioxide can act as a sort of blanket. The sun warms the earth up, but the heat can’t escape at night, so the earth gets warmer. The more carbon dioxide in that blanket, the warmer it gets.
Cletus: But I ain’t felt it getting warmer. (I know Cletus knows the different between “ain’t” and don’t, but he likes to go country on me occasionally, just so he won’t lose his rustic charm.)
Me: No, because it’s not a lot right away. Just a little. Not even a degree. Just a small fraction of a degree. But it’s like a rock rolling down a hill. It starts off slow and gains speed the farther down it goes. But in this case, the hill may be 50 to 100 or more years long.
Cletus: So why does the carbon dioxide blanket get bigger.
Me: We may have been a little naughty. Burning things like fossil fuels adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Not only that, but as the earth gets warmer, the ocean, which has a lot more carbon dioxide than is in the air, begins to let go of the carbon dioxide trapped there. And the planet gets warmer still.
Cletus: Well, that all sounds well and good, but I still haven’t felt it getting warmer.
Me: But other creatures have. Seen those black-bellied whistling ducks around? They used to live no farther north than the valley. They’ve moved here. Why do you think that?
Cletus: Better places to eat?
Me: Well, yes. But birds and fish are much more sensitive to climate change than we are. Crested caracaras, also known as the Mexican eagle, have been spotted on the Harvey Toll Road. Heck, I’ve seen them just outside of Fredericksburg. Cedar waxwings are moving north out of Texas. Armadillos, the state mammal, has moved as far north as New York. A hundred years ago, the farthest north it ranged was southern Texas. Now, I don’t have a problem with those New Yorkers having to deal with armadillos digging up their backyards and vegetable gardens, but their movement up there is telling us something else is happening.
Cletus: Even if you’re right, a couple of degrees either way won’t matter.
Me: A couple of degrees can change or inhibit breeding and migratory patterns among wildlife. It can also change the kind of plants that animals feed on.
Cletus: I still think you’re an idiot, but you sure can speak gibberish good.
Me: We can talk some more about it when you want. Just come on over. I’ll be picking leaf-footed bugs off my tomatoes and dropping them into soapy water.
Cletus just gazes at me with that “ I’m so sad for you…how can you be so stupid” look before he jumps into his eight-cylinder dually, steps on the gas and roars down the road.