If Greenhouse Gases Were A-Team Characters

Doug Kline, flickr.com

I have a confession that will surprise no one: when I was a kid, the best part about staying home sick from school was daytime television. And one of the most entertaining things on TV during the day back then was the A-Team.

Putting together the latest video in the Don't Just Sit There - Do Something! series (scroll to watch below) got me thinking about the different greenhouse gases, each with their own stories and capabilities, and it occurred to me that maybe the best way to remember them -- and help other people remember them -- would be to liken their characteristics to actual characters. So, let me present the who's who of climate pollution, as if the offenders were characters on a certain beloved TV show from the 80s (and blockbuster movie from a few years ago):

Carbon Dioxide (82 percent of our heat-trapping pollution problem) as Hannibal - Clearly the leader and main driver of man-made climate change, we mostly produce carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is the yardstick by which we evaluate the effectiveness of the whole team. This kind of pollution, like Hannibal and his cigars, also tends to come hand-in-hand with other environmental hazards.

Methane (9 percent) as Face - Two-faced (it's both a fossil fuel and a strong heat-trapping gas in its own right), consistently sneaky (we don't even have a good estimate of how much methane pollution is released by the oil and gas sector) and cropping up everywhere you least expect it (farms, the Arctic, oil fields) methane is an essential part of overall climate warming. Don't let its low profile or friendly image fool you: it's extremely good at what it does. Methane gives the team an early advantage, trapping 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years, before it undergoes a literal transformation, into carbon dioxide and water.

Nitrous Oxide (6 percent) as B.A. Baracus - This gas packs a big punch, trapping heat 300 times better than carbon dioxide pollution. Nitrous oxide gets involved in restructuring things, using whatever is at hand, so as to increase danger. Where B.A. might build a tank from the contents of a random, normal garden shed, nitrous oxide is now also the primary driver of stratospheric ozone depletion because of its reactions in the atmosphere. Most nitrous oxide pollution comes from agriculture, but as it turns out, it is also associated with industrial machinery and vehicles. For some uses, we call it "laughing gas," but like B.A., nitrous oxide pollution is actually deadly serious.

That just leaves fluorinated gases (3 percent) as Murdock - and they're crazy good at trapping heat. These man-made chemicals trap heat thousands if not tens of thousands of times better than carbon dioxide. If we let them off their leash, there's no telling the damage they could do. It's probably a good thing, for the stability of the climate, that they're pretty scarce.

The Don't Just Sit There - Do Something! video I mentioned earlier is the first part of a two-part special report we're doing on just one of these characters: methane. The video covers methane leaks and agricultural sources, with humor:

Unfortunately, unlike the Hollywood version, this is one A-Team we can't root for (coal rollers aside) -- the world is better off with fewer of their over-the-top antics, like poor air and water quality, superstorms, Dust-Bowl-like droughts and species extinctions. We do have a problem, but it's up to us to help. We live in the modern world, with food, transportation and electricity and to avoid climate catastrophe, we need to find ways to do that without the damage caused by this group. So, let's plan a transition to a clean energy future, and then make sure that plan comes together -- we can start by asking the network to cancel this show.