Quora: Trump's Policies Will Only Accelerate Climate Change

Marrakech Climate Change Conference
Flags from different countries at the Marrakech Climate Change Conference, Morocco, November 6. Reuters

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Answer from Dave Consiglio, chemistry and physics high school teacher and community college professor:

Climate change will accelerate slightly under Donald Trump, and our ability to mitigate the damage will decrease significantly.

Here's the thing about climate change: it's potentially very "teetery." What I mean by that is that our climate was, until very recently (geologically, of course), really well balanced. Heat in and heat out were nearly the same, and so the temperature on this planet was remarkably constant and predictable over time. Constant and predictable will hereafter be referred to as "good" for simplicity's sake. I think this is self-evident, but in case you're not sure, understand that if next year is likely to be very similar to this year, that makes farming and planning and building and all of that good stuff much easier to do.

OK, so our climate was good. And then, we decided to dig up every lump and burble of fossilized carbon we could lay our grubby little fingers on and light it on fire. Those fuels were (and are) amazing—coal and oil and natural gas are like the nectar of the gods. They make everything go, and that's awesome. Unfortunately, when you burn that carbon, you also let the genie out of the bottle—literally. The energy that you get from burning results from high energy fuel (fossilized carbon) being turned into low energy waste (carbon dioxide and water).

The water isn't too much to worry about—we're covered in the stuff already.

But when we started doing this, carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere were below 300 ppm. That's 300 parts per million. This is like saying "If I look through a microscope at air molecules, and I count one million of them, only 300 will be carbon dioxide molecules."

Today that number is over 400. And carbon dioxide has a funny property—it glows in the dark. Now, that doesn't sound so bad, except that you can't see this glow. It's a color of light your eyes can't perceive. The glow comes from infrared radiation, which we perceive as "heat," that normally would bounce off of the Earth and back into space (the aforementioned "heat out"). Carbon dioxide isn't transparent to many wavelengths in the infrared and, as a result, that heat gets absorbed by the carbon dioxide and spit back out toward the ground. It's as if carbon dioxide is a bunch of tiny mirrors that bounce heat energy back toward the Earth instead of letting it leak into space.

This gets us back to the balance I mentioned above. We're shifting that balance. Now, you might think that just means that Earth will get a little warmer, and that's not so bad. Or that if we stop making carbon dioxide, the effect will stop, or maybe even reverse. But climate doesn't work that way. It's potentially "teetery," which is to say that a warmer planet may not return to the balance it once had, but rather plummet down the hill toward much warmer.

Why would it do this? Feedback.

Feedback is what happens when you get a microphone too close to the speaker (the sound loops in and builds up and builds up and OWW THAT'S LOUD). A warmer planet makes less ice, and ice is better at bouncing radiation back into space (it's reflective) than water or land (which aren't as reflective). So a warmer planet gets worse at cooling itself off.


What happens if things get lots warmer (and by lots I mean more than two degrees Celsius or so)? Well, for one thing, the ice melts. And that adds water to the ocean. And that makes the ocean rise. A lot. Like "Florida isn't a state anymore" lot. Like 1 to 2 billion people are displaced from their homes lot. Like civilization just can't handle that kind of stress lot.

This is already happening today. In cities like Miami, flooding is happening more and more frequently. Soon, Miami won't be a great place to live. And when that happens, the 4-plus million people living in the Miami area will want to move. And they'll want to move to where the jobs and homes are. You know—your job and your home.

You think half a million Syrian refugees are giving the government fits? Try adding a zero to that number.

So, what Trump is doing is pushing the teeter-totter just a bit harder. He's making that plummet to the nightmare more likely. And, and this is crucial, he's almost ensuring that whole regions of highly-populated areas of this and many other countries become uninhabitable in your lifetime (unless you're really old).

We will call this "bad" from this point forward.

So, how will Trump's policies affect climate change? He will make our climate more bad and less good. Obama tried to push us in the direction of good (more renewable energy, much less coal, less oil, higher fuel efficiency, the Paris Accord, etc.)

Trump has essentially said "Screw the planet, let's make money now."

What effects will Trump's environmental policies have for the world? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: