Think for a moment about the last time you went outside after dark and looked up at a clear night sky. All those glittering stars burning away in black space, thousands or millions of light years away — and zooming farther away as the universe blasts outward, constantly expanding.
Take that in and you probably tell yourself: “Gee, it all must run on forever.”
If you’re like me, you also want to tell yourself that the air we breathe, the atmosphere that lets us live on this temperate, watery planet . well, that must run on and on, too.
There’s so much sheer volume of it that we’ll never run out. No matter what we throw into the air through our smokestacks and automobile exhaust pipes and via jet plane contrails, we’ll never affect it in any meaningful way. The sky can handle it.
Of course we want to believe that. But we’d be wrong.
Our atmosphere is, in fact, a thin skin of breath that wraps around planet Earth no more thickly than a shell wraps an egg.
Here on campus, at an elevation above sea level of one mile, we’re sitting above 15 percent of Earth’s atmosphere.
Climb a fourteener and you’ll find yourself standing (and probably gasping for air) above 40 percent of it. That’s how fast the atmosphere peters out.
In other words, no matter what our eyes tell us, nature has limits. It can’t endlessly absorb everything we six billion-plus humans throw at it and not change.
We’ve understood for some time now that our water supplies aren’t infinite, our rainforests and wetlands don’t run on forever. And now, reluctantly, we’ve realized that our finite atmosphere is changing faster and more profoundly than anyone wants to believe.
The sky cannot, in fact, handle it.
That’s the reality of global climate change, the invisible man in our living room who, without our seeing a thing, has punched us in the gut.
But how powerful is this demon we can’t see — at least not without the help of science? And how certain are we that he arose out of the laboratory of daily human consumption and not from some natural rhythm in the universe? How much damage might he cause, where, and how quickly, before we find a way to deal with him — if we can? And how?
And finally, how do each of us deal with this day by day? Denial? Despair? Hope for new ways of thinking and acting? Excitement about the challenges and opportunities that such a vexing problem raises — hey, isn’t that the American way?
Luckily, the answers to these and related questions, or at least knowledgeable considerations of these questions, are near at hand.
Starting this week and running about once a month through the school year, CSU is putting on an evening series of public lectures called “Climate Change: What We All Need To Know.”
The seven talks will look at climate change from the perspective of atmospheric science, economics, biology, effects on humans, political policy and literature. The talks are free and will draw on CSU national experts and some visitors.
This week’s kick-off offers a strong but basic explanation of the science behind it all — “Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future,” by CSU professor David Randall, one of the leading atmospheric scientists in the world. Randall will talk on Thursday in the North Ballroom of Lory Student Center at 7 p.m. Check out the full schedule of lectures at http://changingclimates.colostate.edu.
John Calderazzo is a CSU Professor of English and co-director of Changing Climates at CSU. Letters and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.