April 14th, 2024

Professor addresses Co2 impact on the planet

By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on February 14, 2024.

Herald photo by Theodora MacLeod Professor of chemistry and biochemistry Marc Roussel, shows a spectrometer at the University of Lethbridge. The scientific tool can measure infrared light as it travels through samples of carbon dioxide.

Much has been discovered in the last half-century about the impacts of carbon dioxide (Co2) on the planet and even more has been said about it.

It’s a secret to no one that climate change is cause for concern, but while academics, politicians, and activists routinely explain the risks, less attention is given to the basics of what carbon dioxide in excess does and how that leads to climate change.

Co2, a chemical compound made up of one carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms, has an array of natural uses and manmade.

In the natural world, plants convert it into sugar for energy, and humans require a certain level to regulate respiration. In industry, carbon dioxide is used in fire extinguishers, carbonated drinks, and dry ice. A vital and useful molecule that in excess can do serious damage not only to human life, but the planet.

Marc Roussel, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Lethbridge and author of A Life Scientist’s Guide to Physical Chemistry, explains that an excess of Co2 in the atmosphere can be compared to wrapping the planet in a blanket.

“If you’re under a blanket it’s not like all the heat gets trapped under the blanket, some of it goes through the blanket and will get out eventually, but the thicker the blanket is the longer it takes for that heat to get out the warmer it is under the blanket. Co2 acts very much like that in our atmosphere.

“Co2 absorbing infrared in the atmosphere, it has very much the same effect as a blanket. It slows the heat from rising through the atmosphere and getting out. So, the more co2 you have in the atmosphere, the stronger this blanket effect is. It’s like getting a thicker blanket,” he adds.

He explains that while some Co2 is needed in the atmosphere, too much is what is trapping heat and putting Earth at risk.

“There may be times when you want a thicker blanket, but you don’t want that thicker blanket all the time.”

Burning fossil fuels has been shown to be the worst offender for excess Co2 output, and while it is the most tangible threat, Roussel says that the biggest problem Canadians face in moving towards a more sustainable future is the lack of moderate dialogue.

“The biggest problem we have in talking about this in a sensible way is that we’re talking past each other a lot. Instead of debating what are reasonable timescales for making changes, some people are just kind of throwing up their hands and saying, ‘there’s nothing we can do so we’re not going to do anything,’ then there’s other people who are talking about overnight changes that simply cannot be achieved.

“Somewhere in the middle there’s a path that we can walk that’s not going to turn our entire society upside down or pretend the problem doesn’t exist until we have some really serious problems.”

While those experiencing the chill of winter might dream of warmer temperatures, an overall rise in Earth’s average temperature can cause serious complications.

“As the planet gets warmer, other things start to happen. One of them is we have less snow and ice cover for less of the year over less of the planet… the snow reflects almost all the light that comes in right back into space, so that is an important effect. There are other things that happen – one of the things that happens is if you take permafrost and start to melt it contains a lot of methane. Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas.”

Explaining that “greenhouse gas” used to refer to an excess of Co2 in the atmosphere is a bit of an antiquated term because greenhouse gasses, like Co2 are necessary, Roussel explains, “if we did not have the greenhouse effect at all, the planet would be a heck of a lot colder.” He says,

“The reason Mars is cold, and this planet is liveable is that there are essentially no greenhouse gasses in Mars’ atmosphere… We need some of that greenhouse effect because it makes the planet liveable but it’s how much. The greenhouse effect in and of itself, having a certain amount of greenhouse effect is important to us, the planet would be 50 degrees colder without that.”

In contrast to Mars’ frigid temperatures, Venus is known to have inferno levels of heat, despite having a thick cloud cover. Though Roussel is quick to explain that there is no danger of Earth ever coming close to the conditions of Venus, he says that despite claims increased temperatures will cause more water evaporation and in turn more clouds, Venus and its thick cloud cover are proof that though clouds do reflect sunlight it is not nearly enough to make up for a lack of snow and ice.

Unlike many of the most radical environmental advocates, Roussel doesn’t believe humans will be wiped out completely.

“Where I have doubts though is how many people are going to get hurt, killed, how many places on earth are going to not be particularly nice places, places where people may not be able to live anymore,” he says.

Areas of uninhabitability, Roussel believes, will lead to mass migration. As history has shown, forced migration can lead not only to serious political conflict but a great deal of human suffering.

“The planet is warming; it’s caused largely by our use of fossil fuels, and we can’t carry on this way unless we’re willing to deal with a completely unpredictable downstream effects that’ll effect large chunks of humanity where we live.”

He explains that because of the geology and landscape, southern Alberta is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially near the coulees.

Roussel says doing nothing is not an option.

“There’s a lot we don’t know, there’s a lot we do know, we do know that the planet is getting warmer and it’s actually getting warmer faster than most of those (climate) models have ever predicted.”

As polarization seems to infect every aspect of society, he reminds Canadians that the science has been speaking for itself for long time.

“It shouldn’t be a political issue. Exactly what the solutions look like, sure that’s what politics is for, to debate on a course of action. But whether we need to do anything and how serious the problem is, those should not be political issues. We need to act now.”

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