We have a hard time conceptualizing big numbers. Often, we simply have no frame of reference. A recent example has been a mind-boggling multi-trillion dollar federal deficit. I can't even really get my head around that, even though I hear these trillions and hundreds of billions quoted at work all the time. You'd think we were headed towards disaster, but actually it's not the current trillion dollar deficits that worry budget experts at all. Recently, a new $15 billion stimulus bill was passed. Did you have sticker-shock when you read about that? Well don't - the bill was less than 2% of last year's stimulus. That's a rounding error in Washington. These gigantic numbers can be an obstacle to an informed public precisely because we find it so hard to process what they mean.
A good example from BBC News this morning is a report that over the last century, whaling may have released 100 million tons of carbon (from their rotting bodies and burned blubber) into the atmosphere. Scandalous isn't it? Not only can we have moral outrage at the inhumanity of killing whales - we can now be mad about the role of whalers in climate change! Well I had no idea how much 100 million tons of carbon was, so I did a little sleuthing.
First, let's annualize this. 100 million tons over a century of whaling is a million tons of carbon released a year. Apparently, in 2006, humans released 8.4 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. Apparently, the Earth can successfully recycle three of those gigatons, leaving 5.4 gigatons released by humans into the atmosphere every year (or at least that much from 2006 on) that stays in the atmosphere. So:
Whaling contributes: 1,000,000 tons a year
All human activity contributes an additional: 5,400,000,000 tons a year
So whaling increases net additional human carbon emissions by 0.0185%. And that's probably a very high estimate for what is emitted by whaling today. I imagine most of the million tons of carbon from whaling in the last century was released much earlier, when we relied more heavily on whale oil and whaling methods were more crude.
I'm not a climate change skeptic - I think it's a very big problem. I just think it's interesting what makes the front page of the newspaper sometimes, and how easily we gloss over big numbers without really trying to understand how big they are. In fact, far from being callous about climate change by minimizing this whaling statistic, I'm actually trying to make a point that while this is an interesting study to report, BBC would probably better serve the public by detailing the source of the other 99.9815% of carbon that humans add to the atmosphere each year.
*Note - I googled all these numbers very quickly. If there's anything inaccurate in what I've written I'd be really interested in hearing about it!