It doesn’t matter if the burning of fossil fuels causes climate change

The debate about climate change is running hot (no pun intended) through most political avenues. You may support the notion that it is caused by humans, or you may not. In fact, you may even question that climate change is a thing. But are we debating the right thing? Or are we missing the forest for all the trees?

Is the climate changing?

The first step when having a climate change discussion is, of course, to determine if the climate is changing or not.

According to NASA (see their Climate Webb for details) the following signs exist that something is indeed happening to our climate:

  • The global sea level rose twice as much during the last decade, as it did during the last century.
  • The Earth has warmed since 1880, most of the warming occurring in the last 35 years, with record temperatures after 2001. At the same time, the oceans have warmed since 1969.
  • Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic regions are losing their ice sheets and glaciers worldwide is retreating. The amount of spring snow cover in the northern hemisphere has decreased the past five decades, and the snow is melting earlier.
  • The weather is getting more extreme with increasing number of high-temperature events.

The Climate Reality Project supplies diagrams for most of the above claims and adds that the humidity is also increasing, and water vapor in the air contributes to the greenhouse effect.

The U.S. Geological Survey lists the following additional signs the climate is changing:

  • Droughts are becoming longer and more extreme around the world.
  • Tropical storms are becoming more severe due to warmer ocean water temperatures.
  • Permafrost is melting, releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

If you want to find a similar list of reasons the climate is not changing… I can’t seem to help you. That information does not seem to exist.

Although I can come up with a few questions a climate change denier might ask about the above statements (other than childishly shaking their head and going “no! no! no! no!”):

  • Historical temperatures? In all honesty, I’m relying on scientists to have done their jobs when it comes to figuring out temperatures before there were temperature readings, or those readings might have been poorly performed or performed with inaccurate instruments. Maybe they are wrong? Maybe the temperature has been doing what it is doing today before we had thermometers to measure it?
  • We can look at ice sheets in Antarctica and the Arctic regions and see there are historical layers that suggest that ice has been around for a long time, but have we looked in all places? Maybe the ice melted somewhere we haven’t yet looked? Maybe there was much more ice before? Hey! How can we know anything for sure before there was satellite imaging?
  • And so on and so forth…

However, most discussions aren’t so much about if the climate is changing or not, but if it is caused by human activity or not.

Did humans cause the climate change?

The climate could be changing due to human activity or, it could simply be a natural variation in temperature slated to coincide with the industrial revolution and our increasing consumption of fossil fuels and rising levels of CO2.

If you need a graphical illustration of how extreme and unusual the change in temperature the last 35 years are, check out xkcd’s average temperature timeline.

A meta-study shows that 97% of all climate scientists agree that humans are causing climate change in one way or another. (Read more about scientific consensus on global warming at skepticalscience.com).

The coincidences are a bit too much to just dismiss, but if you are the kind of person that likes to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit with your predefined world view (this psychological deficit is called confirmation bias) I have a shocking new question for you (and everyone else, I am sure):

Does it matter what causes climate change?

Does it matter what causes climate change?

People who want to feel they are in control will probably say: of course it does! If the climate change is caused by humans, we might be able to stop it.

The same goes for the oil/fossil fuel lobby. They also feel it is very important to prove that humans do not cause climate change, that the burning of fossil fuels and the increasing CO2 levels have not been proven to cause climate change.

However, one factor alone shows that regardless of what or who caused the climate change, the path forward can only be one.

Fossil fuels, whose future are so furiously defended by the oil lobby, aren’t an endless resource.

How many years of fossil fuel consumption do we have left?

Fossil fuels were created a very long time ago (some 150-300 million years) and it will take a very long time for vegetation and animals that die today to become fossil fuel.

In all practical aspects what’s in the ground is all there is. The question is when, not if, the fossil fuel will run out?

Some estimates suggest that our currently known oil deposits will, given that our oil consumption stays the same, be gone by 2052. At that point in time, it’s reasonable to assume we’ll use gas and coal to fill in the gaps left by the depleted oil. But gas will only last another 8 years and coal will be depleted by 2088. (Source: ecotricity.co.uk).

All this assumes the consumption will stay at the level it is today. Which, of course, is wrong. With an increasing population, the demands will most likely go up, rather than stay still or go down.

Regardless of how effective we become at extracting fossil fuels from the ground or burning it in our cars and industries, it will run out.

The interesting aspect is that even if everybody became environment aware today and all old farts in the oil lobby keeled over and died, we wouldn’t be willing or able to change over to renewable energy much faster than the absolute deadline dictated by the diminishing fossil fuel reserves.

Can we replace fossil fuels in less than a century?

If the burning of fossil fuels causes climate change or not, we burn them, and they, as a limited resource is running out. It may take 50 years, with a lot of luck a 100, most likely somewhere closer to the former than the latter.

Do we have time to replace it with other sources of energy?

Some sources say, “no, not at the pace we’re researching the alternatives right now:”

What happens when the fossil fuel runs out?

I think a climate change activist’s worst nightmare scenario will be bleak in comparison to what nations and individuals will do if our world runs out of power.

Sure, we can replace house hold and industrial energy with nuclear power, but what about transports? Airplanes? Boats? Trucks? What happens to the global economy if merchandise cannot be shipped from seller to purchaser?

And, even if we can replace all our needs with nuclear power, not all countries might have that technology or the resources to invest in it, so while rich countries in the West fight beak and claw over the use or non-use of a diminishing fossil fuel resources, the rest of the world develops and refines alternative energy, getting all the patents needed to turn the tables on the developed countries just by their own sheer stupidity.

It doesn’t matter if fossil fuels cause climate change or not!

Fossil fuels will run out and when they do, the ones that were not so dependent on them may surpass those that were.

We have no time to sit around and wait for fossil fuels to run out. The research for replacing them with alternative energy sources must be fully funded right now! Today!


Header image: By LucAleria (Template: Turning the tide on climate change) (GFDL or CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons (image has been edited)

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