Mike Nelson: 'The planet is getting warmer and we are the cause'

DENVER -- California burning, Category 5 hurricanes, extreme heatwaves, coral reefs dying, king tides flooding coastal cities. Global warming is changing our world and making these events more common and more extreme.

It is not fake news, it is the reality of basic thermodynamics — when HEAT is added, it gets WARMER!

The problem is SIMPLE (see last sentence).

The problem is SERIOUS — a global threat multiplier (climate refugees, loss of coral reefs, sea level rise, terrorism, severe storms, drought and floods).

The problem is SOLVABLE — the cost of renewable energy is dropping so quickly that nearly every forecast of the increase of solar and wind energy is way too conservative.

We can and will develop the technologies that will enable us to POWER FORWARD with clean, renewable energy. The Age of Carbon is being replaced by The Age of Silicon!

As it happened 104 years ago, when automobiles all but replaced the horse as a driving machine in New York City, so too, will a sea of change be upon us once again.

Change can come quickly and dramatically and change is coming fast as we transition from high carbon fuels to renewable energies. Despite recent efforts to the contrary, global market forces will dominate over legislative attempts to stall or reverse progress.

Other nations are moving quickly toward the future — using energy from the heavens instead of digging up and burning the past. 

When I speak to children, I tell them in simple terms that carbon dioxide is invisible, not dangerous, but very good at acting like a blanket to keep heat close to the Earth.

Carbon dioxide has allowed the Earth to be warm enough to allow life to form and prosper, but now we are getting too much of a good thing. The planet is getting warmer and we are the cause.

Even though an individual severe weather event cannot be blamed on global warming, a warmer climate adds energy to the system — "juicing up" the atmosphere and will likely cause more frequent severe weather events in the future.

When people joke to me that “you cannot even predict tomorrow with certainty, how can you predict 100 years from now?” I agree that weather forecasting is not always as accurate as desired, but in many ways climate is much easier to predict than weather. 

For example, if you wanted to get away from the cold in January, would you head to Miami or stay in Denver? The climate of Miami would dictate that you buy an airline ticket and head to the beach.

The weather of Miami could be very different, if a strong cold front were to hit Florida during your trip. In fact, Miami might be 45 degrees and rainy, while Denver basks in 65 degrees and sunshine! 

It is important to know that Global Warming is not new science

In 1825, a French mathematician — Joseph Fourier — calculated that given the distance from the Sun, the Earth should be much colder. He theorized that it was the atmosphere that trapped enough heat to make our planet habitable.

In 1865, John Tyndall, an Irish physicist, did early experiments with carbon dioxide and discovered that CO2 was very effective at trapping long-wave or Earth energy.

In 1895, a Swedish researcher named Svante Arrhenius theorized that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause the Earth's average temperature to increase by several degrees.

CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who was famously known as the most trusted man in America, reported on the threat of global warming back in the 1970s!

In the past 200 years, the increased burning of fossil fuels has released vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The concentration of CO2 has risen from 280 to over 400 parts per million.

Think of each molecule of carbon dioxide like a feather in a down comforter. If there are not very many feathers, your body's heat will escape and you will be cold. If you keep adding feather after feather, the comforter becomes much more efficient at holding in your body heat and you stay warmer.  

Scientists have calculated that a doubling of the CO2 from pre-industrial levels will result in an increase of 4 watts per square meter of stored energy over the entire surface of the Earth.

Now, four watts is a Christmas tree light worth of heat, but taken over the entire Earth, it is a tremendous amount of energy!

As the climate warms, the higher average temperatures will cause more drought in the western United States.

Drought is not just a lack of precipitation, it is also related to the amount of evaporation. Even with the same amount of annual rain and snow, higher temperatures will result in more frequent drought.

With the warming of the planet, our Colorado climate will become drier over the next 100 years. The result will be more wildfires, lower reservoirs and more frequent droughts. We know the population will increase and therefore, the demand for water – we need to plan ahead!

We are the cause of these problems, but we can also be the solution.

Think of the amazing technology we take for granted today that did not exist even 15 years ago. The smart phones we carry have the power of a super computer from just a generation ago.

Amazing breakthroughs happen all the time and the children in grade school right now will be the chemists, engineers, inventors and policy makers in the next 25 years. When I speak at a school, I thank them in advance for the changes they will make in our world.

"We stand today on the edge of a new frontier, a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils. It would be easier to shrink back from that new frontier, but the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination and decision."

Those words are from John F. Kennedy, spoken almost 58 years ago when he accepted the nomination for President of the United States.

The speech is known historically as the “New Frontiers” speech, his words still ring true today:

“Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings," Kennedy’s said, in part, in his New Frontiers speech in 1960.

Only a few months after that speech, Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space, reached the top of our atmosphere in his Vostok 1 capsule. As he gazed out of his small porthole, he was terrified. He was not worried about his spacecraft, he was shocked by how thin and fragile our atmosphere appeared against the cold blackness of space.

Gagarin later explained that he had always been taught that we lived at the bottom of a "great ocean" of air. From his vantage point, that ocean looked more like a shallow puddle. 

As far as we know, out of the vastness of the universe, the planet Earth is the only place that harbors life. Someday we will find other worlds that provide an environment gentle enough for life, but for now, this is it, our lonely outpost in the corner of a galaxy.

It seems prudent, patriotic and reverent that we do what we can to conserve and protect this fragile envelope that allows us to live on planet Earth.

We need to urge our leaders to take action to inspire the development of both new and cleaner ways to produce energy. We should not “shrink back” from the New Frontier, but instead move boldly forward!

Today, climate scientists and researchers are unfairly criticized as having ulterior motives because their message to the public is something inconvenient to hear.

Scientists need to be rock stars! I grew up in the 1960s and the “Race to the Moon” – the Apollo Program, inspired me to want to study science – and weather.

When asked about the cost benefits, remember great and expensive projects have been tackled in the past and can again for the future. Think of the wonderful investments that have made our world better – think BIG!

  • The Transcontinental Railroad
  • Indoor plumbing and water sanitation
  • Rural Electrification
  • Interstate Highways
  • NASA and the Apollo program
  • High-speed computing
  • The internet

The science is real, the scientists are honest, sincere and concerned. We need to heed their message and inspire more people to follow in their footsteps.

"The problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking as when they were created," Albert Einstein once famously said. 

“When it is asked how much it will cost to protect the environment, one more question should be asked; how much will it cost our civilization if we do not?” founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, once asked.

I leave you with another quote from Kennedy, whose words ring truer today than ever before.  

“Today our concern must be with the future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do."

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