Climate Change: A Chemistry Problem

Paul Krugman, an economist at the New York Times, wrote an article on climate change this week, in which he profusely apologized several times for oversimplifying the problem of climate change. His article was a compelling read that explored the corporate understanding of climate risk and compared it to the very real and growing risks stemming from a warming climate. If you’re not an NYT subscriber, I can briefly summarize his article for you: corporate leaders do not get it when it comes to climate change. Moving on.

I thought Paul Krugman’s oversimplifications worked well, and he inspired me to step forward and boldly oversimplify climate change even further. Because one of the problems related to climate change that I’ve been mulling over for the past year is how simple a problem can you make climate change while still being accurate about what climate change entails? What can climate change be boiled down to, in its simplest possible form?

In a word, chemistry.

Climate change is a problem of chemical properties. Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) creates a simple chemical reaction. Burning fuel creates energy (to heat a home or power a car, for example) and releases a gaseous byproduct in the form of CO2, CH4, and N20 (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide). These gasses remain in the atmosphere for a loooong time, where they trap additional radiation from the sun that would normally bounce back into space. This trapped radiation warms the planet. Global climates change and shift as a result. Ice melts, sea-levels rise, precipitation patterns change.

While climate change is a political, ecological, economic, social, and psychological problem, chemistry is at the root of it. To which you might say, “Okay, Alex. Now that you’ve massively oversimplified climate change into a chemical problem, now what? What good does yet another theory on how to understand climate change do?”

Oh ho! I’m glad you asked.

Because the idea that climate change as a chemistry problem is something I find encouraging and reassuring in the face of the horrors climate change is causing. If climate change is an equation (fossil fuels + heat = energy + greenhouse gasses) than the solution to climate change is also a chemical equation. Perhaps fossil fuels – heat = halted climate change. Really, the solution is that simple in theory.

Theory, however, is treacherous. While it is very easy to type ‘stop using fossil fuels to halt further climate change’, it is much harder to do in practice. Fossil fuels are enormously important to the transport of essential materials all over the world, heat homes in otherwise harsh climates, and are crucial to building our roads and buildings. But it isn’t impossible.

For decades, businesses and governments around the world were hesitant to accept climate change as a human-caused phenomenon. This was silly and irresponsible. Because if we accept that climate change is human-caused (it is) and is a chemistry problem, than that gives us tremendous agency to solve climate change. Because we can simply stop being the cause of climate change if we put enough effort into finding new ways (or just switching to better ways we already have) of making energy. This will take time and tremendous effort. But if we are in control of the climate, we can change how we are affecting it.

So viewing climate change as a chemistry problem comforts me and it helps me believe change is possible. Is that really scientific? No, not really. But how we feel about climate change has an impact on how motivated we are to act on solving it, and one of the most important things we can do about climate change at this point is discuss it in ways that make people want to act on solutions, rather than submit to doomerism or fatalism about what kind of climate we’ll be facing over the next century.

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