The Problem of Momentum

In physics 101 it is taught that big things are hard to stop. Many politicians must have missed that class. Faced with CO2 emissions, they act as if they can be stopped anytime.

Sometimes I feel that politicians pass legislation unaware of the physical problem of momentum. You don’t need to be Einstein in order to understand some laws of Physics. Big things moving fast are hard to stop. Everybody instinctively knows to stay away from a furious charging elephant. In physics, this phenomenon is called momentum. Momentum is the product of the mass and the velocity of a given object. The bigger the momentum – mass or speed or both - the larger and more prolonged force is required to stop said object. You won’t stop the elephant with your bare hands by standing still in its pathway.
 
Many human activities have large momentums. It would not be easy to change the way we normally do some things. Think of traffic jams at rush hour. It would be an impossible task to convince people to switch to public transit. In fact, even if people would agree to - wishful thinking - public transit is by no means ready for it. The urban-sprawl housing culture would have to change first. 
 
We are now facing the challenge of CO2 emissions. This challenge was unknown to previous generations and therefore, its threat is not yet assimilated by many - especially legislators. CO2 concentration levels have been increasing since the industrial revolution. Due to increasing human activity - worldwide - this process has been accelerating in the last decade. Present levels appear to be the highest in the past 800,000 years 1. Many scientists argue that it’s causing global warming. 
 
We won’t change the trend of something this big overnight. It won’t be easy to switch to a carbon-free mode of transportation for 7 billion people in years. Furthermore, the damage may have already been done. Planting trees alone won’t reduce actual CO2 concentration levels to something similar to those of the pre-industrial times. It may take generations to curb the trend.
 
How come politicians don’t react? Many are lawyers; it’s a pity no one teaches them any basic physics.
 
Politicians act as if there were no rush. They seem to think the course of events can be changed at any time with a snap of their fingers when needed. They don’t realize they are face-to-face with the problem of momentum. They are piloting a million metric-ton oil-tanker. Many miles before reaching destination you need to turn-off the engines. I wonder if we still can make it without crashing against the docks. To be honest, I am not very optimistic. First some politicians would need to sign up for Physics 101. 

(1)     Amos, Jonathan (2006-09-04). "Deep ice tells long climate story". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-04-28.

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