Joanna Turpin

We humans love to live in a black-and-white world, where problems are swiftly identified and solved, blame is rapidly assigned, and as a result, justice is quickly served. Right now, global warming is the crisis du jour, carbon has been blamed for the problem, and everyone has been charged with reducing their emissions of CO2 in order to stop the planet from warming.

Scientists have told us that there is supposedly more carbon in the atmosphere than at any other point in time so, of course, that makes carbon the culprit in global warming. But what if there’s more to it than that? We have only to look at the low-fat cookie craze to see that we have a tendency to jump to conclusions based on the latest “scientific” research.

Not that long ago, scientists blamed fat for causing the sharp rise in chunky people around the world. The masses clamored for low-fat products, and manufacturers responded with a whole host of (often expensive) reduced- or no-fat cookies, cakes, and chips. People ate with abandon, thinking that if the food didn’t contain fat, they could eat as much as they wanted and not gain weight. Of course that didn’t happen. As people became alarmingly fatter, scientists added that it’s not just fat, but the total amount of calories consumed as well as exercise that determine how much weight a person gains.

Carbon is a similar case in point. We’ve been told to buy lots of products (or credits) that will reduce our carbon footprint, but will that really do anything to stop global warming? Or will it just make the purveyors of these products richer while the ice caps are still melting?


Something else to consider is that carbon dioxide isn’t the only overabundant gas in our atmosphere - methane and nitrous oxide (produced by livestock) are also at record-high levels, and they’re far better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The media have not paid much attention to the recent report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which states that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide - more than all the planes, trains, and automobiles on the planet.

And this may be heresy to point out, but what if global warming is a natural cycle, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it? Henrik Svensmark, a noted Danish scientist, stated in the June 2007 issue of Discover magazine that changes in the sun’s activity could explain most or all of the recent rise in Earth’s temperature. After years of research, Svensmark announced that “cosmic rays trigger cloud formation, suggesting that a high level of solar activity - which suppresses the flow of cosmic rays striking the atmosphere - could result in fewer clouds and a warmer planet.”

Instead of responding positively to his studies, or even admitting that he might have a point, the carbon-focused scientific community has turned him into a pariah. Indeed, the chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel called Svensmark’s announcement “extremely naive and irresponsible.”

What we definitely know is that the Earth’s climate has changed throughout history, regardless of the amount of carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the atmosphere. From glacial periods (or ice ages) where ice covered significant portions of the Earth to hot and steamy periods where ice melted completely, the climate has continuously changed. There is no normal temperature that the Earth should be.


What we are experiencing now may simply be a warmer period, which has happened many times over the Earth’s history. The last one, called the “Medieval Climate Anomaly,” occurred between 900 and 1300 A.D., and evidence suggests Europe, Greenland, and Asia experienced higher temperatures and significant droughts during those 400 years. The American West also experienced very dry conditions around this time.

Following that came the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1500 to 1850. Average temperatures were several degrees colder than today and are well documented by many historical accounts. (Remember the problems George Washington had crossing the Delaware? A brutally cold winter and ice floes on the river were attributed to this mini-ice age). In neither case were humans driving cars nor burning fossil fuels that would result in carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

It is definitely possible that carbon plays some role in global warming, though to what degree is up for debate. It also seems obvious that we all need to take better care of our planet by reducing our energy use, recycling what we can, and not polluting the environment. However, blaming only carbon for the Earth’s woes and buying a few credits to assuage the guilt over driving a Hummer or living in a McMansion is not the proper solution.

Publication date:10/29/2007