In an era when a hundred microchips can dance on the head of a pin, it takes a special clan of urban fool to believe that nothing small can be important. Yes, that is what Dr. Tim Ball said, he who is Canada’s foremost professional climate change denier.
And that is what Simple Sam repeated to me.
“CO2 is only a trace gas in the atmosphere,” says Sam, holding his finger and thumb very close together in front of his nose. “Why should we worry?”
So, small doesn’t matter, Sam? Are we to accept that as a scientific theorem? Excellent. We’ll call it the Tim Ball theory of the teensy weensy. The meat of our hypothesis is that if its itsy bitsy teeny weeny, then it can’t matter. Right, Sam?
“You’re being sarcastic,” says Sam.
No distractions, Sam. Let’s test this theory
How about another gas? What do you say to a concentration of one part per thousand of carbon monoxide in the air?
Yes, Sam, the toxic cousin to CO2, a gas where if it makes up one tenth of one percent of the air someone’s breathing, it’s fatal. Because of that, no one would sensibly refer to one tenth of one percent of carbon monoxide as a ‘trace amount’.
“That’s just one example,” says Sam.
Microbes, Sam. Viruses.
And Sam, over here in my thought experiment chamber….Sam, aren’t you coming in?
“I’ll stand out here,” says Sam.
I understand, Sam.
(We found out the other day that thought experiments actually work on Sam, he being nothing more than a thought himself.)
This is a good thought experiment to stay out of, come to think of it. I wanted to show how removing a trace element, iodine, from the human diet can lead to mental retardation, goitre and hyperthyroidism—I guess that might have been a little uncomfortable if that happened to you, eh, Sam?
Sam’s not talking right now, so let’s move on to our final example.
The most iconic equation in science, Sam. And what does it say? It says that the amount of energy in an object can be calculated by multiplying its mass by the speed of light squared. It means that in this universe, according to definition, a very little can add up to an awful lot.
So let’s take Dr. Tim Ball’s dumb idea and put it in our thought experiment chamber along with a nickel and a fig. We close the door, flip the virtual switch and convert the nickel and the fig into energy. What do you think that means, Sam?
“What?” says Sam.
Dumb climate change denier idea number two, the Tim Ball theory of the teensy weensy, has been exploded, Sam.
“You still haven’t proven anything about CO2,” says Sam.
Of course not, Sam. Good save. We’ll leave that to another discussion. But I do have a final point.
The point, Sam, is that when you take a trace gas and multiply it by an entire atmosphere, you are no longer talking about a small amount. You are talking about gigatons. The amount may seem small when measured as a percentage of a larger thing, but that doesn’t mean that the absolute amount of carbon dioxide we are talking about is small at all.
You see, the whole argument is more than dumb, Sam. It’s deliberately deceptive.
It isn’t worth a nickel and a fig.