500 Light Bulbs

Posted on May 28, 2010


According to a recent NASA study, the oceans have warmed significantly since 1993.  The report used an interesting illustration to explain just how much energy had been added into the ocean’s top layers in that 16 year period.

“The energy stored is enough to power nearly 500 100-watt light bulbs for each of the roughly 6.7 billion people on the planet continuously over the 16-year study period,” said the NASA press release.

That’s a lot of light bulbs.

Of course, setting it out in that particular way can be misleading.  Not everybody on the planet is contributing equally to climate change.  Not everybody is burning the same number of light bulbs.

And what human beings have done already in terms of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is sufficient to keep adding heat to the earth’s climactic system for some time to come.  Even if we turned off all our bulbs now and sat in the dark until the music’s over, the earth would still keep on warming.

So that 500 times 100 watts times 6.7 billion times 16 years actually underestimates the total human impact on the warming oceans; it leaves out the future impact.  It’s worse than 500 burning light bulbs for every person on earth, you see, because the 16 years so far considered is much less than half of the story.

Okay, and we can’t assume that everybody on earth, in a sudden surfeit of conscience, is going to turn off their light bulbs tonight and play Parcheesi henceforth using starlight and firefly lanterns.

They are not.  We are not.

Which means that we can expect the warming of the oceans, and the overheating of earth’s climate to continue unabated, in fact, to accelerate with our continuing contributions, for some time to come.  And nothing will abate this process until human beings and human governments decide to do something about it.

And there’s really no choice about doing something about it.

Once the task begins, fighting climate change will continue for generations.  The less we do now and the longer we wait, the tougher the job is going to be for those future generations.

No, we can’t expect to solve global climate change now, or easily.  We certainly can’t do it by shutting up shop and waiting until it goes away.  It won’t.  Not anymore.  We will need ingenuity to find non-carbon substitutions to powering a global economy.  We will need ingenuity—and maybe a basic revolution in human values—to create a global economy which is sustainable in the real world.

However it’s patently urgent right now that we human beings learn to stop messing where we eat.

And as to those 500 light bulbs?

All of us, all of us, have really got to turn some of them off.


See the NASA press release on the warming oceans here:


Posted in: climate change