How Science Proves Anthropogenic Climate Change Is Real - And How Solar Helps Stop It!
Alex "Solar Girl" Steele
Here at Solar Wolf, we love installing photovoltaics because they save people money, help families slash their bills and achieve financial freedom, and raise property values. However, there are a lot of other things about solar to appreciate. Clean energy does great things for our economy, but it also helps heal the planet from some of the damage it’s taken over history. We see a lot of misinformation about renewables and climate science all over the web, so we wanted to discuss how peer-reviewed research can be employed to show how climate change is real, humans have contributed to it negatively, and how clean power like solar can help us make the planet a healthier, safer place for everyone to live!
It’s understandable why so many people have a hard time believing that humans play a role in climate change. After all, the Earth is an incredibly resilient place, and we’ve seen natural disasters wipe out man-made structures and civilizations with ease. It’s difficult to comprehend that a planet with such strong natural forces - like massive tsunamis that flatten cities and earthquakes that rock entire states - could be delicate enough to take damage from human activity. But mankind is a force to be reckoned with! Our intelligence and hunger for innovation and progress have driven our species further ahead than any other, but it is also our responsibility to watch out for negative externalities that may result from our development and consumption of resources. There is no denying that the modernization of our world has brought us amazing benefits - we can travel from one end of the country to another in just a few hours, access all the world’s information in the palms of our hands, and ensure people get adequate nutrition by preserving food in containers built to last forever. We wouldn’t be where we are today without these technological breakthroughs, but we’ve reached a point in history where improvements must be made on our past advancements to keep our planet in habitable shape for future generations.
To explain how human activity has affected the climate, we have to establish a little bit of background on the planet’s climate system. The climate system is made up of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. The earth is sometimes referred to as a “closed system” because no part of the planet’s hydrologic, geologic, or biologic cycles allow any matter to leave the planet.. All of the solids, liquids and gases on the planet interact with each other within the climate system - they never leave the atmosphere or disappear completely. They may change form through chemical or physical reactions, but they will always be on Earth in some way. We see this logic extrapolated through the law of conservation of matter. Some scientists consider the ways humans change the planet to be an external force that impacts the way the closed climate system operates.
Humans have been studying the climate for centuries, but the climate science of today offers more sophisticated interpretations of the information we learn from observing our world. Thanks to the amazing leaps in technology that people have accomplished, we can collect and analyze data about the ways the oceans, earth, and air have changed over history. This data shows us that our climate system has been affected by humans interacting with it. There are many different methods of sampling and testing the environment to track the effects of human’s effects on the planet, but one of the most valuable climate research methods is ice coring, and that’s what we’ll focus on here.
Ice coring is performed by scientists in places like Antarctica or Greenland. By drilling thin columns deep below the ground, they can extract long tubes of ice that contain chemical compounds which settled hundreds of thousands of years ago. Amazingly, ice cores can give us an idea of what the climate was like up to 800,000 years in the past! Our hydrologic system transfers water from the surface of the planet up into the atmosphere through evaporation, and then back down to Earth through condensation and precipitation, so layers of ice built up over time essentially keep a chronological record of the contents of the atmosphere throughout history. How cool is that? Ice cold.
So, how can looking at ice prove that climate change is exacerbated by human activity? Analyzing the composition of the ice can tell us the average temperature of the air and concentrations of atmospheric pollutants over time. The most important information ice cores can teach us is related to greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases are chemical compounds that help our planet remain warm enough to sustain life; they occur naturally in some concentrations. As layers of ice build up, air bubbles from the atmosphere get trapped in the ice, and these can be analyzed to tell us exactly what the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases were at any given time. But what do greenhouse gases have to do with human activity? Read on to find out!
As the industrial revolution dawned, technological advancements took a lot of pressure off human labor. Coal, a fossil fuel formed through geologic processes over millions of years, is produced deep underground when dead organic matter is subjected to tons of pressure and heat. When dug up and burned, it is a valuable energy source. Coal was critical in the production of iron and steel which led to the development of locomotives and steamships, making transportation easier than ever before and revolutionizing the global economy. As more machines were developed, mass production took the place of hand-crafting, meaning goods became more affordable. Over time, new fossil fuels were discovered, such as petroleum and natural gas. Today, fossil fuels are still commonplace all over the world. Plastics, which are used in almost every industry, are made from petroleum. Revolutionizing our world to run on fossil fuels improved the quality of life for billions of people. There is no doubt that fossil fuels helped society advance, and we wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for their discovery and use. However, the consumption of fossil fuels results in unintended consequences for the planet.
When coal and other fossil fuels are burned, they produce byproducts such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases. These gases are naturally occurring, and some quantity of them in the atmosphere is beneficial, but an overabundance of them is detrimental to life on Earth. The quantity of greenhouse gases that result from the combustion of any specific fossil fuel can be calculated using the general equation for exothermic reactions. This gas never goes away; it remains in the closed climate system forever. When these gases enter the atmosphere, they contribute to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon that allows life to be sustained on Earth: as energy from the sun permeates our atmosphere, it provides light and heat for life to flourish. Some of that heat remains on Earth, keeping our planet warm and hospitable. Under normal conditions, excess heat is reflected off the Earth and escapes back out of the atmosphere. However, the more greenhouse gas builds up in the atmosphere, the harder it is for excess heat to leave the system. Greenhouse gases allow the sun’s heat to penetrate the atmosphere, but they are also really good at trapping excess heat that’s trying to make its way off Earth. As we continue to burn fossil fuels, we emit more greenhouse gases that will strengthen the greenhouse effect far beyond natural levels. Further warming leads to polar ice caps melting, disruption of the ocean’s currents, severe droughts in some places and uncontrollable flooding in others, unpredictable superstorms, and sea level rise around the world. These climate catastrophes will displace millions of people, cause famines and increase the spread of disease, and wreak billions of dollars worth of damage on our communities. This is the biggest pitfall of using traditional fuels for our primary energy source: it is not sustainable, and will lead to environmental degradation if we don’t take steps to replace some of our fuel consumption with clean alternatives.
Solar energy reduces our dependence on fossil fuels because it harnesses energy from the sun to produce electricity, instead of combusting carbon-based matter. When photovoltaics produce electricity, they do not emit any greenhouse gas. By supporting the clean energy economy and boosting the demand for renewables, we gradually reduce the demand for dirty fuels, letting the invisible hand of the free market guide us towards a cleaner future. Many people have the preconceived notion that solar energy could never produce as much power as cheaply and efficiently as fossil fuels can, but this is not the case. Because the sun is an infinite, free source of energy, there is enough solar irradiance to power the entire planet: we just need the infrastructure to support that amount of production. As more and more people make the switch to solar, the industry can conduct more research, and more affordable equipment can be developed. Costs associated with solar continue to fall every year - in fact, in late 2020, the Energy Industry Association announced that solar has become the cheapest form of energy - even more cost effective than coal, oil, or natural gas!
The future of energy is solar; humans just need to get around to developing the infrastructure to make it available for all. Every time a homeowner or business invests in solar, mankind takes another step towards a world where we are safe from the dangers of anthropogenic climate catastrophe. Once you understand the science of climate change, the urgency to develop solar quickly and scalably becomes clear. If you’re ready to step into a cleaner, greener future, reach out to Solar Wolf Energy. We will provide you with the educational resources you need to decide if solar energy is right for you!