The truth about global warming is right under our nose, writes Robert Butler ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010
If only Joseph Wright of Derby had chosen to paint “An Experiment with Vinegar and Bicarbonate of Soda”, Ed Miliband and other delegates pressing for action might have had an easier ride at Copenhagen. As generations of visitors to London’s National Gallery have seen, Wright’s painting “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump” shows a group of ten people in the 1760s—serious-minded men, young lovers and concerned children—gathering in the candlelight to watch a pump extract air from a large glass vessel.
Inside the vessel a white cockatoo is about to expire. The participants in the scene needed quite a lot of kit (quite apart from the cockatoo) to demonstrate that animals require oxygen to survive. But if a modern-day Joseph Wright wanted to capture an experiment showing how the increasing level of carbon dioxide warms the planet, he could buy the equipment in his local high street. All he would need are two water bottles, two lamps, two thermometers, tissues, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. You can do it in your own kitchen.
First, pour the vinegar on the bicarbonate of soda and watch it fizz and froth like Coca-Cola on ice cream, releasing carbon dioxide. Then soak the tissues in the fumes, put them in one of the empty water bottles and seal it. Now one bottle contains ordinary atmospheric air, while the other contains atmospheric air with a higher concentration of carbon dioxide. Switch on the two lamps that face the bottles; the lamps are here to do the job of the sun and warm up the two mini-atmospheres. After 20 minutes, read the thermometers inside the bottles. The temperature in the bottle with the extra CO2 will be several degrees higher.
For every million molecules in the atmosphere, only 380 are carbon dioxide, which doesn’t sound much, but as scientists like to point out, one drop of ink in the bath can change the colour of the water. And this isn’t a single ink drop: we put 26 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Twenty-six times a thousand million tonnes is an impossible number to imagine, but it’s not impossible to picture a single tonne of CO2. It’s somewhere between the size of the sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s “Ghost”, in which she cast a Victorian parlour in plaster, and Whiteread’s Turner-prizewinning “House”, in which she filled a Victorian house with concrete. Each year we’re putting something like 26 thousand thousand thousand Rachel Whitereads into the sky. It’s just that you can’t see them.
In a well-known story by Roald Dahl, a woman whacks her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb and the blow kills him. The woman goes out, buys some vegetables, puts the vegetables and lamb in the oven, and calls the police. The police examine the body, realise he was killed by a heavy blunt instrument, but cannot find any evidence of one. The woman offers the police some food and as they tuck into the roast lamb, one of the policemen says, you know, the evidence is probably right under our nose, we just can’t see it.
The widening gap between what’s under our nose and what we can’t see leads to the constant refrain in the media, “Scientists tell us…” There’s a lot of telling going on. A wonderful page has popped up on Facebook listing more than 100 stories from the Daily Mail about things that scientists tell us cause cancer. The causes range from bubble bath, cordless phones and curry to skiing, Worcester sauce and Facebook. No wonder people stop listening.
I first watched the carbon-dioxide experiment on “Newsnight” on BBC2. It made a refreshing change from the debates between climatologists and contrarians that end with an amused Jeremy Paxman saying: “Well, we’ll have to leave it there.” Where it’s been left is pretty much where it started, and that’s inevitable when there is such a disjuncture between the media’s idea of balance (two sides debate an issue adversarially) and scientific research. A new British government report on “Science and the Media” argues that when it comes to MMR or climate change, this type of reporting has been “seriously misleading”.
There’s another way of thinking about science, and it’s more fun. Last year a BBC1 programme called “Bang Goes The Theory—The Human Power Station” tackled the subject of energy consumption. The Collins family moved into a new house, but what they didn’t know was that, out of sight, a team of cyclists had the task of providing all the energy they required. The blithe unconcern of the family when one of them turned on a light, opened the fridge or switched on the kettle was paralleled by the sweat and exhaustion of the cyclists as they pedalled to meet the surge in demand. There’s an easy test for proving that the programme worked: I never saw it, only heard about it from friends. It sounded as dramatic as a painting by Joseph Wright.
Picture Credit: Vince McIndoe after Joseph Wright