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Elevator Pitches - Chapter 01 - Ancient Sunlight

Posted on 17 February 2017 by Rob Honeycutt

Below is an excerpted chapter from my book, Twenty-eight Climate Change Elevator Pitches.

The purpose of this book is to deliver basic climate science information to the public in a simple and time efficient manner. Even when people have an interest in climate and accept that we face a critical challenge, they still have busy lives. They have responsibilities at home and work that keep them fully occupied. Climate science is a big complex issue that requires considerable effort to understand. I find that there are large numbers of people out there who only have a limited understanding of climate change and have limited time to dig into the details. Ultimately, I think this potentially limits how engaged they become. So, for those people, I've written up these "elevator pitches" to try to get the most information possible across in under 2-minutes per topic. 

Many of the regulars at Skeptical Science already know this information. All of you have friends who don't. All of you know people who want to understand more about this issue. You probably already refer them to SkS for reliable information on climate change. And while SkS is a great way to dispel climate myths and keep up with topical events, many people need a comprehensive primer course that fits into a busy professional schedule.

I've written 28 chapters and self-published them on, on iBooks and Kindle. I also have a long list of other chapters that I hope to add to these. All the graphics I've created myself with the hopes of bringing some life and visual engagement into the equation. 

Following this I will try to post one chapter a month while I continue to work on new chapters.

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Chapter 01 - Ancient Sunlight

[View full-sized image]

The energy received from our Sun fuels all life on the Earth. Plants use this energy in combination with CO2 in the atmosphere to produce carbohydrates, which animals use for energy. As plants and animals die the carbon and energy contained within that organic matter, is slowly subducted into the geology of our planet. Through heat, pressure and time this ancient carbon is fused with hydrogen to form various “hydrocarbons.” Those hydrocarbons represent a concentrated form of the Sun’s energy that entered the climate system millions of years ago and collected over the course of millions of years. What is also being sequestered in the Earth’s geology is the heat-trapping capacity of those carbon molecules when they were combined with oxygen as CO2.

Around two million years ago, as early humans learned to control fire, their access to food energy increased enabling an increase in body mass and allowing them to fuel and develop our most energy demanding organ: our brain. Harnessing energy sources for cooking food allowed us to expand both our cognitive abilities and our range across the planet. Over the following millennia humans improved tools and methods and advanced the capacity to survive natural variations in climate and defend against predators. This primitive access to an energy source is what defined us as a new and highly adaptable species on Earth.

Energy use escalated dramatically with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century when humans became aware of the energy that could be extracted from geological deposits of hydrocarbons. Widespread use of coal began in the mid-1700’s and increased over the following centuries. In 1859 oil was discovered, giving birth to the modern petrochemical industry. While early humans subsisted on about 100 watts of energy, Americans today use roughly 9200 watts per capita of energy for, among other things, heating and lighting our homes, transporting ourselves to and from work, cleaning our clothing, heating our water, storing our food, and engaging with each other over the internet. Energy rules our daily lives.

No one should dispute the almost magical properties of refined oil. Its energy density and transportability are nothing short of amazing. This accessible energy has allowed us to devote time to curing diseases and feeding the world in ways that were previously impossible. It allows travel to any location on the planet within a day or so. And we regularly send people and sophisticated machines beyond the reaches of this world. If you were an individual who lived just 1000 years ago and were transported to today, you would believe yourself dropped into a world populated by gods.

Now, each year, humans extract 10 billion tons of carbon from the earth, most of which is then used as fuel for energy and electricity. That’s nearly 1.5 tons of carbon per person liberated annually from where it’s been sequestered for many millions of years and relocated to the atmosphere. While it’s remarkable that we’ve tapped into this bountiful supply of energy and used it to improve our lives, what’s also become clear to scientists is that our modern god-like status comes with serious side effects. As we release the energy of this ancient sunlight, we are also reintroducing an ancient carbon cycle to our modern atmosphere, along with all its cumulative heat trapping capacities.

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Available: In Print, on iBooks or on Kindle

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. Thanks Rob, I've just read your book which is an excellent and very readable primer. I'm a follower of scepticalscience, realclimate, thinkprogress and other sources but you still managed to tell me some stuff I didn't know. You give a helpful bibliography, but I would ideally like to see source references for each chapter, and more specific refs for your Quick Facts. One of these, the rise in tropospheric temperature, didn't look quite right to me. RSS is the source, but their website has 0.13deg C/decade for the Lower Troposphere, not 0.18, unless I've missed something. I expect someone has already noticed typos on p10 (medal/metal), p19 top (It's), p78 (1 through/thought 5). 'Since' in 'Since methane' on p98 is redundant. I look forward to further chapters!

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  2. This elevator speech is excellent. I'd like to go further, but I can't, because the links to the print, iBooks and Kindle versions don't work.

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  3. Joel... Links are fixed now.

    Jonathan... The RSS tropospheric temp rise is from the TTT data. 

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  4. And Jonathan... Are you reading from a print version or an e-version? Some of the early print versions had a bunch of typos that have been corrected, and the pages work out differently based on which version you look at.

    Since the printing is being done on-demand and the other versions are electronic, it's easy to make quick updates.

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  5. Thanks Rob, yes I'm a bit old fashioned (well old I guess) and like the feel of print. I'll check out an electronic version, makes complete sense to major on that. Anyway great concept.

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  6. Yes, as you say, its from the TTT, but version 4 of the RSS , which explains why its higher than I'd  read elsewhere. This recent Tamino link clarifies  the situation.

    I guess I was hoping for those kind of links in the text so there is a trail back, but it makes much more sense to do that for an e-version than hard copy.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Activated link. Please learn to do this yourself with the link tool in the comment editor

  7. >>.....with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 16th century when humans became aware,,,,,,<<

    A bit premature, I think! Debatable on exact dates, but somewhere around 1750 - 1800 is more like it, not the 1500s.

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  8. Wol... Yup. Not sure how that slipped through. That should have been the 18th century. Thank you. Correction made. 

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  9. No, the ancient carbon is not fused with carbon.  Dead organic matter to a first approximation is CH2.  It already contains the Hydrogen .  The longer a carbon chain, the closer the material gets to this formula.  Methane is CH4 so when it is driven off, it enriches the remains in Carbon.  The point is that the Hydrogen is in the substance and with pyrolysis, the organic material is fractionated into various organic materials from methane to waxes and beyond.  With some forms of buried organic material, coal is left which to a first approximation is C.

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  10. william... That doesn't make for a very good elevator pitch, though. ;-)

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  11. Bought the Kindle version .. best reading on Windows 10 laptop running the Kindle app. Not so good on my old Amazon device or my Android tablet. Print was small, looked cramped without spaces. But an excellent reference Rob well done.

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  12. Good idea - in theory, this can be useful. But in practice, to drive the message home, form matters. I recommend that you team up with an editor. There are already numerous grammatical errors and typos in this one posted image alone. The Kindle version is rendered like it's 1985. Clarity in style, wording & presentation is key, especially if you label this as an 'elevator pitch'.

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  13. FWL... I did work with an editor. As for the Kindle version, I'm not sure what's going on there. I've seen that same complaint elsewhere. When I downloaded it, it looked perfectly fine. Amazon's customer service was decidedly unhelpful and unknowledgeable. 

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  14. That was very well and plainly written, and refreshingly free of the man-is-evil, technology-is-evil, all economies other than government controlled are evil, you're all evil etc etc whinging which suffuses popular coverage of this topic.  

    Small quibble: stating energy consumption in watts sounds fuzzy: do you mean that we use energy at a rate of 10K watts, or 240KWH/day, or do you mean we use about 10KWh each day?  The former sounds reasonable if you consider all direct and indirect energy use. 

    Humanity as a species has been so successful that we just might eat our way to the edge of the petri dish, but we're not quite there yet.  

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  15. DrivingBy@14,

    Energy at a rate of 10K watts per person is not a mistake, even though it may seem high to you. Check the third column of the table of energy use per capita.

    For US it is 9538.8. It's less for other countries, average is I believe some 2.5kW. I also think it's hight: myself as a consumer I cannot believe I use as much as 75kW (Australia) but that includes all economy not just residential and your car, which is your personal use. My personal use would definitely be less than 500W (appliances at home, no car - I commute by bicycle) but my low energy footprint means nothing while the civilisation that suppots me revs up 15 times more than that.

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