Monthly Archives: November 2017

It Just Takes a Little Carbon Dioxide

November environmental column in Chai Notes, the monthly newsletter of Congregation Shir Shalom of Buffalo

A congregant contacted me about a radio talk host who argued that only 3% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) entering the atmosphere is manmade. How can that small amount account for climate change and the global warming attributed to manmade emissions? Actually, it turns out this is one of the more common arguments used by those who dispute climate change as being human-induced. Not only is it wrong, but it’s misleading.

Carbon dioxide through the greenhouse effect plays a key role in allowing life to exist. Earth’s atmosphere allows to much of the sun’s light to pass through it to heat the Earth’s surface during the day. At night, the warmed Earth surface radiates energy back into space, much like a hot stove does. Fortunately, CO2 traps some of that radiated (infrared) energy, preventing it from escaping into space, helping to keep our planet warm. This is similar to how a greenhouse works in which glass allows the sunlight in but blocks heat from escaping. The greenhouse effect acts as the Earth’s thermostat, regulating the planet’s surface temperature. Too much CO2 and the Earth would be too hot, and too little and the Earth would be too cold for life. Natural processes regulate the atmosphere’s CO2, with plants and the oceans absorbing the CO2 emitted by animals and other natural phenomena. It’s pretty much a wash, what we call an equilibrium. The levels of CO2 do rise and fall over time, which helps contribute to natural cycles in the earth’s climate history such as ice ages.

In 1906, the chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated in laborious hand calculations that doubling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will increase the Earth’s average surface temperatures by about 110F. Our computer models support this calculation. Since 1960, the amount of CO2 measured in the Earth’s atmosphere has risen by 25%. In 1960, the measured atmospheric concentration of CO2 was 315 parts per million (ppm). Last year we exceeded 400 ppm. Data collected by ocean buoys and satellites have not been able to identify a natural source for this CO2 increase. Furthermore, measurements of carbon dioxide isotope ratios in the atmosphere show that this excess CO2 is not from volcanism or some other source. (If you remember, isotopes are a form of an element like carbon that has additional neutrons in it nucleus. Carbon has three isotopes.)

So, the 3% argument is a bogus argument used to mislead the public. Another way to look at it, think of the old saw about the straw that broke the camel’s back. It just took a little…

On Hate and Climate Change

October environmental column in Chai Notes, the monthly newsletter of Congregation Shir Shalom of Buffalo

I’m writing this column a week after the Charlottesville debacle, and shortly after attending our Friday night healing service. I obviously don’t know at this point what has happened in the intervening weeks, but I would still like to add my thoughts to the community-wide discussion. What happened in Charlottesville was frightening, as were the reactions of some of our leaders. As Jews, we are sensitized to what happened in Germany, and how the Nazis were allowed to rise because of a weak government reaction and lack of opposition from the German people. African-Americans must have had flashbacks, not only to the sixties and the civil rights movement, but further back into the world of Jim Crow.

Against this backdrop, the threat posed by human-induced climate change must seem distant and remote, something that can be pushed off until this nearer-term threat is dealt with. And, yet, nothing has changed. Global warming still represents the greatest threat to our country, our civilization, and our world. The issues surrounding these hate groups don’t reduce the threat to our descendants from global warming. The immediacy of the moral and physical challenges presented by hate and racism to our society doesn’t erase the fact that we are rapidly approaching a tipping point in temperature rise and climate change where many of the climate changes that are just beginning now will accelerate and become irreversible. The costs to adapt to those changes will far outstrip the costs to convert to clean energy and thereby mitigate some of their impact.

In light of current government policies toward climate change, we can’t afford to let up. We can’t allow those who oppose countering climate change to use the threats of hate groups as a distraction while they move to further weaken the EPA and our fight against environmental destruction. It’s ironic that many of those who oppose global warming are the same ones who provided inadequate responses to the events in Charlottesville while attempting to cloud the issue with specious arguments about the Civil War.

Until we can change government policies, it still comes down to things that we, as individuals, can do to fight climate change. Last month I wrote about how we can purchase renewable energy for our homes and apartments through our utilities. Janeen and I did just that, signing up for 100% wind-generated electricity with Arcadia Power, a company that also offers an option to purchase power credits from solar cell projects it’s constructing. The Shir Shalom Green Team will continue working to improve our building’s electrical efficiency and to decrease its carbon footprint.

We are faced with two difficult moral struggles that will define the world we leave to our kids and grandkids. I remind you of Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ explanation that Tikkun Olam supplies Judaism’s imperative to fix the world both morally and physically. That means we can’t stop either effort. Most importantly, through all of these times of crisis, we should never lose sight of our faith as a source of strength by providing us with a moral courage that spans thousands of years of human history.