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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Beirut’s Garbage Crisis Mirrors Our Planet’s Global Warming Crisis

Just as Beirut’s current garbage crisis results in unconstrained buildup of garbage in its streets, so humanity’s continuing emission of carbon dioxide waste into the atmosphere results in unprecedented buildup of harmful greenhouse gases.  Ultimately the causes of each of these parallel phenomena lie in political intransigence among groups or nations unable or unwilling to resolve differences.  Recent developments hold considerable promise for reaching agreement on global warming.  These efforts should be welcomed and supported. 

Garbage has been piling up uncollected in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon this summer, festering in the heat of summer (New York Times, Aug. 27, 2015; see the photo below).

Accumulated garbage in Beirut, Lebanon.

The landfill that had been used for Beirut’s waste for 20 years accumulated four times its intended capacity, and its neighbors finally blocked further access because of the odor.  Lebanon’s government is essentially nonexistent.  Its presidency has been vacant for more than a year, and the parliament, long divided along sectarian lines and essentially dysfunctional, had to reelect itself in order to stay in office.  As a result, the garbage remains in place on the city’s streets.

Beirut’s citizens have protested the street garbage, adopting a “You Stink” motto directed against those in power.

Normally governments provide refuse collection to cities and towns in a reliable fashion.  This is no longer the case.  What was routinely taken care of behind the scenes is now accumulating with worsening consequences as time passes.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).  Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important greenhouse gas.  Its concentration in the atmosphere from 1700 to the present time is shown in the graphic below, in parts per million (ppm; volume of CO2 gas in one million volumes of air).

Experimental measurement of atmospheric CO2 concentration from 1700 to the present.  Cores of ice taken from glaciers contain tiny air bubbles characteristic of the atmosphere at the time the bubbles were trapped.  Their CO2 levels are shown in the thin line before 1958.  From 1958 on the results are from direct measurements of atmospheric CO2 taken at a laboratory at the summit of Mauna Loa, Hawaii.
It is seen that the CO2 concentration increased gradually above its baseline of less than 280 ppm as the industrial revolution took hold by the mid nineteenth century.  Since then it has grown drastically up to the present, reaching over 400 ppm.
The amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, as well as a particular molecular property of atmospheric CO2 , over the same time period follow the same time-dependent trend as the CO2 result above (please see the linked references).  This shows without question that the additional CO2 burden in the atmosphere originates from humanity’s use of fossil fuels. 
The excess build-up of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) leads to global warming with negative consequences worldwide.  It has produced numerous examples of extreme events such as heat waves, droughts with consequent reduction in crop yields, heavy rain and snow with resulting flooding, and increases in forest wildfires.  These incur widespread damage as they occur, whose costs are not included in the pricing of our fossil fuels.  Rather, we wind up paying the added expenses, for example, in higher insurance premiums and higher taxes, whose revenues are needed to pay out higher compensation and protect against future harms. 
Beirut’s garbage crisis may be considered a metaphor for the world’s inability to deal with global warming.  Just as household and commercial waste gives rise to the garbage accumulating in Beirut, the CO2 that we emit into the earth’s atmosphere is the waste, or “garbage” originating from our use of fossil fuels.
·        Failure to collect Beirut’s garbage started in early summer 2015 and at first presumably caused little alarm. 
In the industrial revolution, emissions of GHGs began slowly (see the graphic above) at a level that did not cause perceptible global warming.
·        As Beirut’s garbage accumulated, it was stacked in huge piles reaching two or three storeys high. 
In recent decades dumping of GHGs into the atmosphere has accelerated drastically and continues largely unabated. 
·        The stench from Beirut’s garbage has become intolerable, causing passersby to hold their noses or wear masks (seen by this writer in photos not included here).  Some were sickened by the smell.
Although CO2 and other GHGs are colorless and odorless, their increased concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere have led to rising long-term average global temperatures.  This has had noticeable effects such as more frequent and severe heat waves, droughts, reduced crop yields, heavy precipitation, flooding and wildfires.  A visible effect has been the persistent unhealthy smog pervading many cities in China.  The costs of these damages are unaccounted for when we use the fuels.
·        In Lebanon, the paralyzing political situation, originating in long-term conflicts among its many ethnic and religious sects, has resulted in a dysfunctional government unable to resolve the garbage crisis.
Similarly, annual international negotiations surrounding the global warming issue for the last two decades have made little progress.  These occur under the umbrella of the United Nations, involving all its member states, numbering just under 200.  Here too, long-term differences persist among developed industrialized countries, developing countries, impoverished countries and small island nations.  Over the years many of these nations have intransigently maintained their widely divergent positions as negotiations have continued, resulting in insufficient progress.
The past year or more has, however, achieved important breakthroughs in the global warming negotiations.  The 2015 conference takes place in Paris in early December.  There is new hope that, in view of groundwork already under way, the nations of the world can come together at that time.  If an agreement is indeed reached, it will have to be ratified according to the procedures in place in each nation.  It is hoped that ratification will proceed on schedule so that the agreement can enter into force on schedule.  The accelerating emissions trend of recent years requires nothing less, and none too soon.
Likewise, we hope that the Lebanese can resolve Beirut’s garbage crisis soon and restore civil life to a once-vibrant city.

© 2015 Henry Auer


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