Environmental Pragmatism, Global Warming, and Climate Change

By Carter, JacoAdeshei | Contemporary Pragmatism, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Environmental Pragmatism, Global Warming, and Climate Change


Carter, JacoAdeshei, Contemporary Pragmatism


This paper begins with a presentation of some important aspects of the science behind global warming. Following that, I argue that attempts to address global warming and climate change as problems facing humanity ought not to center around economic understandings of the problem or it solutions. Moreover, I argue that (environmental) pragmatism is especially vulnerable to this sort of misappropriation in seeking solutions to climate change, and that environmental pragmatists ought to make a conscious effort to avoid potential mischaracterizations of pragmatism by providing a clearer sense of the boundaries that delimit its approach to climate change, or any other environmental crisis.

Public discourse concerning the rising average surface temperature of our planet is not far to seek at present. There is almost daily mention of the phenomena in print, radio and television news media; and no shortage of special reports by various stations and channels, Discovery and PBS: Frontline1 are two that come to mind), special issues of periodicals, or documentaries (think former VicePresident Gore) all addressing some aspect of the myriad concerns over the continued burning of fossil fuels and its effect on the climate. In what follows, I first provide a lay account of the science of global warming; one that I hope will interest readers not already preoccupied with the subject, as well as further inform those who are. Following that I argue that attempts to address global warming and climate change as problems facing humanity ought not to center around economic understandings of the problem or it solutions, and that pragmatism especially ought to resist such an approach.

1. The Balance of Energy

Earth receives energy from the Sun in the form of light (much of which is not within the visible range of human beings). Various frequencies of light carry energy across the 150 million kilometer wide vacuum that separates the Sun from the Earth.3 The heat provided by the sun is crucial to making our planet inhabitable. Theoretically, the Earth should overtime radiate or reflect back into space the same amount of energy that it receives from the Sun - barring temporary or regional imbalances.4 I will refer to this throughout this essay as the Earth's energy balance or energy budget.

What this means is that if we consider the total amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth that same amount of energy must be returned to space by the Earth. All solar energy comes at the Earth from one direction, but energy is radiated from the Earth in all directions. Light that is reflected by the Earth's atmosphere back into space never reaches the planet's surface. The total energy release from the earth can be divided into two broad categories: heat radiated and light reflected. The first category - the heat radiated from the Earth - accounts for approximately seventy percent - roughly fifty eight percent by clouds and the atmosphere and twelve percent by near surface emissions - of the solar energy that the Earth receives from the Sun. The other category - light reflected - accounts for the solar energy that is reflected back into space - approximately twenty three percent by clouds and atmosphere and seven percent by the surface of the Earth.5 The total amount of visible light reflected - as opposed to radiated - by a body is called its albedo^ and in climatology is sometimes expressed as a percentage of the total incoming light. Earth's albedo is roughly .30; that is, thirty percent of the visible light from the Sun is reflected back into space before it enters the planet's atmosphere.

2. The (Anthropogenic) Greenhouse Effect

Gases present in the Earth's atmosphere are classified as greenhouse or nongreenhouse gases based on whether their molecules are reactive to infrared (IR) light. If a molecule has three or more atoms, it is infrared active. Gases are not good blackbodies - objects that absorb and radiate all frequencies of light - because they are very selective about the frequencies of IR light they will interact with. …

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