Greenhouse gases and the dangers of invisibility

The fact that people do not sense greenhouse gases directly begins to explain why policymakers do not act on climate change.

We would immediately react if we tasted cyanide, smelt smoke from a fire, saw a shark fin cutting through the waves, felt the ground move under our feet or heard a cry for help. In stark contrast to this we do not have any reaction to dangers, no matter how deadly, that we cannot see, smell, feel, taste or hear.

We should be aware that our senses have limitations. For example, we do not perceive germs, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane and particulate matter or electromagnetic radiation. We also most times do not notice when things that should be there, are not.

Thermal image of greenhouse gases emitted from industrial chimneys

Thermal image of greenhouse gases emitted from industrial chimneys

We are today at times exposed to levels of electromagnetic radiation from electrical and telecommunication infrastructure, cell phones and WiFi, that are thousands to millions of times higher than those normally occurring in the natural world. As we cannot detect this with our senses, we ignore it.

Excluding extreme cases in certain cities where smog can be seen, tasted and seriously impedes breathing, we do not see toxic fumes coming out of exhaust pipes of motor vehicles as these quickly disperse and become invisible. It is also difficult to see the toxic gases emitted from ship and power station chimneys. The same applies to fumes expelled by aircraft engines. It all quickly disperses into the atmosphere. We do not give this a second thought as we also do not sense the toxic content of the air we breathe. It is estimated that globally every year at least nine million people die prematurely as a result of air pollution.

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere do not interfere with the sunlight reaching and warming the Earth’s surface but they do absorb some of the infrared heat radiating back out from the Earth before it escapes into space. Greenhouse gases trap heat and they make the atmosphere warmer. This is why we have global atmospheric warming that is causing extreme weather conditions on the Earth’s surface.

Greenhouse gases that occur naturally in the atmosphere are instrumental in making the land surface and ocean temperatures hospitable to life. With less greenhouse gases it would be too cold. More greenhouse gases make it too hot. Balance is key.

The concentration of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere is currently at 412 parts per million (ppm) and rising. This represents a 47% increase since preindustrial times when it was 280 ppm. Manmade atmospheric pollution is accelerating. 42 ppm of CO2 were added in the last 20 years alone. Had we not been an amoral species, we could have enjoyed a temperate climate on Earth for another 50,000 years.

Thermal image of greenhouse gases emitted from motor vehicle exhaust pipes

Thermal image of greenhouse gases emitted from motor vehicle exhaust pipes

The Earth’s biosphere reacts strongly to small changes in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In order to mitigate the effects of climate change, emissions of these gases must be reduced until the whole system is back in balance. Net zero emissions, also referred to as carbon neutrality, is the target. This means two things. In the first place all man-​made greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere must be removed. Secondly, in parallel, the polluting gases being removed from the atmosphere on an ongoing basis, must be equivalent to, or exceed, those still being emitted by human activity. This is by no means a done deal. Outcomes are mostly uncertain and we are running a huge risk.

There are things that we do not see that present a danger to us and all life on Earth. We look at the bright blue sky and think, what a lovely day. That same blue sky contains greenhouse gases that are already impacting parts of the Earth, making them uninhabitable. The skies are empty and we do not ask where the birds have gone. We look at a calm sea, remark how beautiful it is and move on. We do not for a moment consider that the sea is heating up. polluted, acidifying and losing oxygen. We never ask why it is mostly empty and where all the fish have gone.

One day in a foreseeable future, when the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth will be decimating our own species, somebody may ask, Homo Sapiens how did you not see this coming?

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This article was published in the Senior Times of the Times of Malta on the 19th March 2021