The Complications of Climate Change

 By Rachel Heser




            It is now assumed that mankind is creating climate change mainly through the use of fossil fuels.  Consequences of this mindset have been seen in the recent possibility of shutting down the coal-fired power plants in my hometown, Colstrip, MT.  However, before we pass legislation on the issue, we need to make sure on the actual science behind climate change.  Climate change is a theory based on the greenhouse effect.  When greenhouse gases, such as CO2, are released into the atmosphere in large quantities they trap heat on earth.  Concerns over this issue have led organizations, like the EPA, to push shutting down power plants that run on coal and other fossil fuels.  Is this really necessary?  Nature releases far more CO2 than man ever has, and nature is designed to balance the air out with photosynthesis.  To make energy, plants breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen.  Plants also need water in the process, but if they have access to more CO2 they use less water.  Coal is a plant-based fossil fuel, both coal and plants release CO2 when burned.  According to a study by NCAR, wildfires in the U.S. and Alaska release about 290 million metric tons of CO2 a year. Also, in October 2007, according to a study by Christine Wiedinmyer, a California wildfire released 7.9 million metric tons of CO2 in 7 days! 

             If we really wanted to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, we would allow logging.  Forest fires are more likely to occur when there are too many trees crowding themselves out and dying.  Healthy forests have fewer trees with more room to grow.  Responsible logging thins out the trees and decreases the percentage of deadwood.  That way the wood storing carbon would be used for something useful as lumber, instead of being burned in a forest fire and releasing CO2 filled smoke.

            Nature also emits loads of CO2 through volcanoes.  We often only think of volcanoes releasing CO2 and other gases while they are erupting.  But, when a volcano is quiet it still releases gases through the earth’s crust.   Measuring the exact amount is very difficult.  In the 1990s, it was estimated that volcanoes released 100-230 million metric tons of CO2 a year.  A more recent study in 2007, by Mike Burton, of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, estimated that volcanoes globally emit just under 600 million metric tons of CO2 a year.  Other scientists disagree.  But, the pattern remains the same, the more we learn about volcanoes the higher the estimates of greenhouse gases being released.

            The Colstrip power plants produce 2,100 megawatts of electricity a year and is the 2nd largest coal-fired power plants unit west of the Mississippi.  That power is enough electricity to generate 1,500,000 homes.  The Colstrip power plants have been equipped with scrubbers that take out a huge percentage of the harmful gases before the steam is released into the atmosphere.  The amount of CO2 emitted per year from Colstrip is an average of 13 million metric tons.  Scientists are still working on making improvements to lower that number.  But, when compared to forest fires and volcanoes 13 million metric tons in a year is not that much.  Without the Power Plants and coal mine in Colstrip, there would not be a town.  The water supply is a man-made lake with water brought in by a pipeline from the Yellowstone River.  ‘770 people in Colstrip are directly involved in the responsible development of coal mining and electrical generation/transmission.’ (Colstrip United)  Without that source of income, there would not be a lake or a town.  Colstrip is filled with honest, generous people who love the beauty of their location. 

            Coal is a huge resource in Montana.  25% of the nation’s coal reserves are in this state.  In Montana alone, Coal indirectly and directly provides 7,000 good paying jobs.  Nationwide, coal produces 135,000 mining jobs.  Half of the electricity in the U.S. is generated from coal.  Without coal, the cost of electricity would be much more expensive, if not unaffordable to the average family.   

            Many people have thought of replacing coal with wind power.  However, wind power is proven to be unreliable.  When the wind is too strong no electricity is produced.  When there is no wind, electricity isn’t produced.  Coal doesn’t depend on the weather and works year around.  Nothing is as cheap and reliable as coal.

            What if the greenhouse effect was not the cause of climate change? According to William Goodenough author of “The Three Concepts of Climate Change: Is AGW Politics or Science?” The answer may lie in the earth’s magnetic poles.  NASA, NOAA and the ESA have been keeping track of shifts in the magnetic poles.  Apparently, this is nothing new, such shifts have been going on at least since the 19th Century.  The magnetic poles have the ability to switch places.  Humans are not causing this.  However, this natural phenomenon can create changes in the climate, taking the blame completely off the greenhouse effect and fossil fuels.  

            Since the beginning, the earth has had natural cycles.  Some winters are extra cold and some are warmer than usual.  The main difficulty for farmers and ranchers is the art of guessing what the weather will be.  So, is climate change really happening?  Climatology is a tough science with so many varying factors. 

            Al Gore and other environmentalists have claimed that the main danger of climate change is ice caps melting and oceans rising, flooding out populated land masses.

            Are the ice caps melting?  In Greenland certain ice sheets are losing ice, however, snow accumulation in other areas are adding ice.  Antarctica is also having the same thing occur.  West Antarctica is losing ice while East Antarctica is gaining ice.  Scientists are having a debate on whether or not this refutes climate change.  Some scientists are saying that overall more ice is being gained than lost.  Others disagree.  Measuring Ice caps can be very difficult.  Sea ice comes and goes with summer and winter.  The ozone hole over Antarctica also only lasts four months out of the year making the temperatures different.  NASA did a study with Satellites that measured the height of the ice caps.  They concluded that Antarctica was gaining more ice, but, it has been pointed out that as ice melts off the land the land is relieved of some weight and rebounds; this is called Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA).  So, the extra height in the ice caps being measured could be in the land rebounding and not more ice.  So, even in something as simple as ice caps scientists are still unclear as to whether or not the data points to global warming.           

             Are the oceans rising?  According to NOAA the oceans are rising from 1 to 2 1/2 mm a year, measuring from the 19th century.  According to NASA, the oceans are rising 3.41 mm a year.  This example of differing numbers shows that these ‘facts’ are not set in stone.  In 2010 and 2011 the sea levels fell about 7 mm.  The investigation of this drop led to Australia.  The lowest point in Australia is in the eastern interior of the continent.  Lake Eyre is a salt water lake that is usually dry.  But, between 2010 and 2011 Australia received more rain than usual that filled the lake, which caused enough water to be stored away to affect the ocean levels.  The ocean is very difficult to measure with its behavior of constantly moving and shifting.  Even if we are getting accurate measurements of the oceans we have only been measuring for less than 200 years.  The earth has been around for thousands of years.  How do we know whether or not some rising and falling in the oceans are out of the norm?

            Another study was done by a team from Harvard University.  They reviewed over 240 scientific studies on global temperatures in the past.  They found data indicating that the earth was warmer in the Middle Ages between the 9th and 14th centuries than it is today.  According to this study, the earth was very warm until around the 1300s when there was a massive cooling called a ‘Little Ice Age’.  Now, since the 1900s there has been another ‘warming’ but, we still have not reached the high temperatures of the Middle Ages found in this study.  If this is accurate we are just experiencing another natural cycle.     

            In conclusion, we are hit hard with propaganda saying that we are causing climate change by using our fossil fuel resources.  Now, so many workers’ jobs are being threatened by legislation acting on the issue.  If Colstrip were to be shut down the power lost can’t be effectively replaced with the wind or any other known resource.  It would only make electricity unaffordable, and cause the loss of American jobs.  Yes, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has grown in the past 200 years.  However, we seem to forget that Earth emits them into the atmosphere at a much higher rate than humans are.  Scientists are baffled by all the factors of our complicated planet.  Climatology is a tough science and hard to measure.  Earth has so many natural cycles and annual changes.  Even when studying the past, we see long periods of time, like the Middle Ages, when the earth was much warmer, and then the 1300s when the Earth went through a long cooling stage.  It is not worth shutting down 13 million metric tons of CO2 a year at the cost of people’s livelihoods when an out of control wildfire can release 15.8 million metric tons of CO2 in 2 weeks.  This is especially true, when the shifting magnetic poles may be the problem and not the greenhouse effect at all.      

            What should we do about this?  We need to educate ourselves in logic.  If people know how to recognize faulty arguments and scare tactics, threats to our jobs and low-cost electricity wouldn’t be happening.  What we as a nation need to realize is that ideas have consequences.  The idea that fossil fuels need to be shut down due to pollution and climate change is an idea that will have real consequences.   






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