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Light Bulbs and Laws: Will We Let Global Warming Cook Us?


Dr. David Crisp

In recent generations, the test was the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, and maybe the Cold War.

With polar bears drowning in open Arctic waters and evermore fearsome storms spinning out of warming oceans in every corner of the globe, it’s becoming apparent that our generation’s test could well be global warming.

But given the natural tendency to duck a hard question—witness how we leave it to others that 90,000 homeless men, women, and children live on LA’s streets decade after decade—you have to wonder if we’ll look the other way on this one, too.

David Crisp, a senior research scientist at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab, wants it to make it hard for us to look away.

Counting Carbon Molecules
Later this year, Crisp and his team of scientists and engineers at JPL will launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) Mission, which is designed to accurately measure carbon dioxide (CO2) levels around the world. The immediate research output will be a worldwide map showing which specific natural phenomenon and human activities are sources that emit CO2 into the atmosphere and which areas—typically oceans and deep forests—act as “sinks” to absorb CO2 from the environment.

Even though water vapor is a more effective greenhouse gas, CO2 is the central factor in global warming, according to Crisp. “Carbon dioxide traps thermal radiation—heat—that the Earth would otherwise emit to space,” he said recently at a presentation at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church.

“As we put CO2 into the atmosphere, heating up the air, the Earth says, ‘What a great idea’ and adds water vapor, magnifying the effect,” he continued. And, because liquids can absorb less CO2 when they’re warm, the hotter atmosphere warms the oceans, which then release even more CO2, which in turn traps even more heat, in a growing spiral that will quickly make Earth a toasty place indeed.

Deep Yoghurt
Crisp’s work builds on pioneering climate science investigations by Charles David Keeling, who for years was the world’s leading authority on atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation. Working from San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography in the 1950s, Keeling foresaw the potential dangers CO2 posed and established an observatory high on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, which led eventually to the establishment of 122 sites around the world today. Together, this network of observatories provides a broad-brush picture of CO2 effects. JPL’s OCO Mission will provide much more detailed data across the entire globe.

“Carbon dioxide levels have risen from 320 parts per million (320 CO2 molecules out of a million molecules of all types) to 385 ppm now,” Crisp said. “Climatologists think 500 ppm will put Earth in deep yoghurt”—causing widespread devastation that could threaten human existence. Current scientific projections that Crisp outlined have us shooting past the 500 ppm level in this century, unless mankind finds the will to act.

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“We need to revert to 350 ppm to avoid dangerous climate change—that’s the 1950 level,” said Crisp. “And some climatologists think we need to get back to the 250 ppm level, where we were before the Industrial Revolution, before we started throwing every available stray log, chunk of coal, and gallon of gas on the fire.”

The problem, of course, is how to get there.

What to Do
As good Angelinos who fill our 20-gallon gas tanks once a week, you and I put 10 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year just with our driving, never mind the additional tons we generate powering our houses and offices. “In Europe, it’s 14 tons per year per person for all activities,” said Crisp, numbers that fall to 9.6 tons in Japan and just 2 tons in China—a worrisome observation given China’s burgeoning economy and its blossoming thirst for energy.


Clinging to his role as a scientist, not a policy maker, Crisp hopes that the much more detailed information his OCO Mission provides will support thoroughgoing change.

“We can’t just change light bulbs and slow down on the freeway,” he concluded. “Those are great ideas, but you can’t stop there. You need to get laws in place—you need both light bulbs and laws.”

For more detailed information about what we need to do about global warming—as individuals, groups, and nations—Crisp directed his audience to reports by the International Panel on Climate Change.

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-- Dick Price

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