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[41] chapter three GREENHOUSE EARTH plants help to keep the earth from overheating And he also said to the multitudes, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” —LUKE 12:54–56 The earth is getting warmer, and humans are the principal cause. Humans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) gas in the atmosphere, and this gas retains heat in the atmosphere. Along with global warming have come other changes in climate, such as an increase in the intensity of storms. Consensus of scientists on these points has grown over recent decades and is now as strong as any scientific consensus can be. Plants can help to reduce global warming. Considering how important a threat global warming is to the future of humankind, we need all the help we can get in preventing it, and that includes help from plants. The Earth Is Getting Warmer Weather Is Not Climate A fierce, frigid wind rammed down Washington Avenue between America’s Center and the Renaissance Grand Hotel in downtown CH003.qxd 11/12/08 10:44 AM Page 41 St. Louis in February 2006. It was almost strong enough to blow away the thousands of scientists, including me, who were attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Many of them had come to discuss global warming. A global warming skeptic, if there were any present, would have said: “So where is global warming now?”This was exactly the reaction that some people had to the April 2007 “Step It Up” campaign, started by science writer Bill McKibben to focus political attention on global warming. Step It Up 2007 took place just as a frigid winter storm barreled down on the whole United States. These and many other weather events seem to discredit the idea that the earth is becoming warmer. On the other hand, many weather phenomena do strongly support that proposition. In the summer of 2006, I returned to the town in which I had grown up—Lindsay, in the San Joaquin Valley of California. When I was a child, the temperature exceeded 100°F on many days each summer. But in July 2006, the air almost made me faint, with a temperature exceeding 115°F. I was convinced that this was the result of global warming. Some long-term observations made by individuals also seem to prove that the earth is getting warmer. In December 1983, I stood on the shore of Lake Oologah in northeastern Oklahoma. A thick layer of ice covered the lake, and the water underneath the ice lurched and mumbled eerily. Since that time, the winters have been warm enough that the lake has not frozen. My mother remembers abundant snow and ice in the Oklahoma winters of the 1920s. But none of these events are, by themselves, evidence for or against global warming.They are observations of weather, very limited in space and in time. Weather is not climate. The same is true of other weather events such as hurricanes. Scientists predict that global warming will cause hurricanes to be more severe. Many people believe that the hurricane season of 2005 proved this. Hurricane Katrina caused unprecedented damage and disruption in the United States, and Hurricane Wilma had the strongest wind velocity ever recorded in such a storm. That season also held the record for the number of hurricanes. But then the 2006 hurricane season was mild, and the global warming skeptics claimed that, after all, nothing unusual was happening. Then, when green planet [42] CH003.qxd 11/12/08 10:44 AM Page 42 Hurricane Dean became the first Category 5 hurricane in a long time to make landfall, the defenders of global warming again felt vindicated. Many people were also convinced that global warming was the cause of the violent burst of tornados (more than seventy of them) in the American South in February 2008. Tornadoes usually occur in the spring and summer. Although global warming is causing spring to begin earlier than in previous centuries (see below), we cannot attribute every unusual weather event to global warming. Weather is not climate. The Earth Is Warmer Than It...


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