“Dimming the Sun”

masthead “Dimming the Sun” on NOVA / PBS

  • Complacency 

I probably shouldn’t have watched “Dimming the Sun” on NOVA/PBS yesterday. Did you see it?  I stumbled upon the last half hour of the program by accident and by the time it was over, all the old feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and inadequacy made their comeback. And of course, whenever they do that, they are worse than before, because I was yet again lulled into a false sense of security, yet again complacent.

When I went to bed, there was my Amie, sleeping so soundly and sweetly, with not a care in the world. I lay down next to her and wept, whispering empty”sorries”. I couldn’t bring myself to saying: “I’ll make it all better.”

  • Dimming the Sun

So what was the program about?

It turns out that, since the seventies and eighties, when air polution in Europe and Northern America went virtually unchecked, said air polution  has been “dimming” the sun, that is, reflecting the sunlight back, in effect cooling the earth . Another contributor to this are contrails: the vapor trails left behind by high-flying aircraft.

This has veiled the actual degree of global warming, which, if we take the dimming into account, now seems much more advanced than we thought. Since the 1990s, Europe and Northern America have been cutting down on polution, which sounds like a good thing, for health reasons, obviously, but it is a double-edged sword: it opens the door to more global warming. And, as James Hansen put it:

In a way, it is unfortunate that the small particles were in the atmosphere because we would have realized much earlier that the…how strong the greenhouse effect is, and would have had more time to make the adjustments that are going to be necessary to slow down and eventually stop the growth of greenhouse gases.

  • Ethiopia, 1984

The most gripping example of this dimming for me was the footage of the great draught and famine in the Sahel: Ethiopia, 1984.

For decades, the seasonal monsoons, which had kept the Sahel going – hanging on by its fingernails – stayed away. No one know why, but it now seems that it was due to that same polution by Europe and Northern America - which satellite pictures revealed reached deeply into the Sahel. These particles blocked the sun’s yearly warm-up of the oceans north of the equator. This in turn blocked the ocean from drawing the tropical rainbelt around the equator up north for a while. That meant that the land at that longitude was no longer getting its much needed monsoon.

The images of all those starving and dead children… They gripped us in the 80’s, and we all contributed to Aid. But I wonder: had we known, had it been pointed out to us, that it was we who were directly repsonsible for this, would we have changed our lifestyles?

  • The End of the Trees and the Soil

The Sahel was an example of the consequences of dimming the sun in the past. The program of course also looked into the future. Today’s climate models predict a maximum warming of 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, but this young climate scientist, Peter Cox, thinks it could very well rise by as much as 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Within a matter of years, many plants would die. Also the trees. The soil would simply blow away… Just writing this down makes my head feel top-heavy! If you missed the show, see if they will rerun it in your region, or read the transcript: even without the images, it brings the message home.

  • Children

The program ended with children – because they’re the future, you know. The climatologist, Peter Cox, was shown playing on a beach with his young son. But it wasn’t sentimental tear-jerking. When Cox took the last word, it sounded like an understatement (and this from the most pessimistic of global-warming scientists, and the father of a child who will live to see his predications come true):

One of the real driving forces is that you leave an environment that is comfortable for your children. And if we carry on going the way we’re going, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to leave an environment that’s much worse than the environment we lived in, and it will be down to what we did when we were using that environment, and that would be, tragic, really, if that happened.

It already is tragic, in my eyes. As you know, I am one of the pessimists about what will change – Hansen says we have a decade before we reach the point of no return.

That’s why I say “sorry” to Amie, but not “I’ll make it all better”. I’ll do my best, and every little bit counts, makes it a little bit better, I know, but in the end, I often despair whether it will be enough.

I don’t want to promise what I can’t deliver.

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