Not So Funny: ‘Laughing Gas’ a Major Pollutant
Just when you thought it was safe to focus on the dangers of carbon in our air, we’ve got another element to worry about. NOAA researchers have released a study in the journal Science showing that nitrous oxide is now the biggest ozone-depleting gas in the atmosphere. N2O is produced in nature by oceans and rainforests, but a newly-released study shows that soon human-caused N2O emissions will be exceed all other ozone depleting substances combined. Nitrous oxide is added to the air through soil fertilizer, animal manure, automobiles and sewage treatment…and it’s used by dentists as anesthesia. It is, according to the EPA, 310 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
My first reaction to this was, “Yikes…now we’re switching focus to nitrous oxide instead of carbon! Won’t the climate change deniers go nuts!!!?” Climate change sceptics are all too eager to pounce when there’s a cooler season or a new element discovered in the complex equation of climate. To be sure I grasped the situation, I checked in with my friend and colleague, Sarah Diefendorf, executive director of the Environmental Finance Center at Dominican University of California. She replied, “This is the problem with climate change. There are so many potential change agents, so many factors and variables (in the thousands) that no model can accommodate more than a small number at any one time. Thus, the information keeps changing and that’s fodder for the naysayers.”
Global warming is the classic complex problem. The very complexity of climate interrelationships and the number of variables that affect it are almost impossible to grasp. In our solution-minded society, we become frustrated by the lack of certainty and the easy way out. Western-trained minds in particular seize upon technology as the answer.
Technology is important, and advances are essential to mitigate the effects of climate change, but the most important adjustment we can all make is to look at the future as a series of challenges to our ingenuity, courage and flexibility. It is human evolution that will save the planet. The sooner we set aside the laughing gas and face that there are no easy answers, the easier it will be for us all.
Photo by Eric Skiff under Creative Commons license via Flickr