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Thinkin' About Earth: There's no price tag on saving the planet

Let’s cut right to the chase: our planet is warming from the greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere by humans. Yes, there are cycles of Earth’s climate that warm and cool over millennia; indeed, the current cycle is one of slight cooling. Yes, there are small, natural contributions from outgassing volcanoes and dairy farms that, while small, are not negligible. The current rise in global temperature cannot, however, be described without including man-made gas emissions. 

The system is simple: organic, carbon-based molecules found in petroleum break down into water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2), with a smidgen of energy released in the process. The water vapor becomes clouds, then rain, but carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere. 

When incoming sunlight hits the atmosphere, much of the energy passes through as ultraviolet radiation. A carbon dioxide molecule appears transparent to UV, which means the molecules do not reflect the light back into space. 

Once the sunlight warms the planet’s surface, the planet gives off the heat as infrared radiation. Carbon dioxide is opaque at these wavelengths, so all that energy bounces back in toward the planet. If this seems unbelievable, look to Venus and its thick CO2 atmosphere with lead-melting surface temperatures of nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The processes are the same, just with different scales.

Now, to return to the problem at hand. There is no doubt that humans and their CO2-producing industrial machines have caused global warming. As such, humans are wholly responsible for cleaning up their own mess. 

A common rebuttal to that is the question, “How will we pay for it?” Quite obviously, reducing or eliminating emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere won’t come without a significant cost, most of which will be taken on by the industrialized world. Surely, that burden will negatively impact the global economy?

The short answer to both of these questions is: who cares? Money — and, by extension, the economy — is imaginary. Of course, I have physical money in my pocket, and governments have some amount of wealth. But what is that really? The dollars in my pocket are only worth their face value because we have assigned a value to it.

Back before all those dollars and cents, trade was based on rare materials. Gold could be found as the raw mineral in the ground, its yellow luster pleasing to the eye. Silver, too, is a rare earth metal and was often used in conjunction with gold. 

Their scarcities gave an intrinsic value; wealth would come from possessing more of the finite resource than others. Since leaving the gold standard in the 20th century, currency has not been backed by a set amount of rare metal, and exchange rates are set by governments themselves. 

So now we have a situation where the economy is controlled by entities that are giving value to their own currency with no anchor to real worth. Those same entities are also claiming it would be too expensive to counteract the warming planet. I fail to see a situation where converting petroleum-based energy to clean, renewable energy has a price that is remotely comparable to the collapse of ecosystems and mass extinctions of marine and land animals alike. 

Those impacted most heavily by the changing climate are the ones who have played no part in altering it. Non-industrialized island nations will be underwater without ever adding carbon to the atmosphere. Animals will lose their habitats without ever holding a dollar bill. 

The responsibility of mitigating the effects of climate change rests in the hands of those who caused it. Economic repercussions are moot: either the climate is fixed or it will crash the economy and ecosystems in one fell swoop. It is both as necessary as it is urgent, and there is no cost higher than the end of the world.

Ethan Gower is a senior studying astrophysics and geology at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. What do you think about climate change? Let Ethan know by emailing him at eg662511@ohio.edu.

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