Global Warming: The rocks and the hard places

The media have frequent stories about one aspect or other regarding global warming. What they often don’t do is discuss the tradeoffs; the rocks and the hard places on the path to a livable and sustainable climate. The problem with all these bits and pieces of information is that, while we are discussing them, the climate is changing — mostly for the worse — while we continue to be locked in unproductive discussion. The climate clock is ticking whether or not we’re paying attention. I’ve written about this before, here and here, but now it’s time to expand on those ideas.

An article by Andreas Goldthau in the 8 June 2017 issue of (paywall) Nature covers many of the main rocks and hard places. Its emphasis is on the role of the G20 nations plus China in approaching the solution. Here’s a summary of it with my own comments.

Rocks

The monster rocks are Mother Nature and the resources of our planet as governed by the laws of Physics, Chemistry, and Energy conservation. None pays one whit of attention to our political and philosophical twittering. It’s what we do physically to the environment that attracts Ma Nature’s notice. Nature and science simply obey their laws, not ours. So while we twiddle our thumbs and harangue each other Ma Nature just keeps moving on, whether or not we admire the result of that movement.

But here’s the main thing. The thing we talk about the most when we talk about global warming is CO2. It’s a small but powerful percentage of our atmosphere. Through our burning of fossil fuels we are adding annually about 9.8 billion tons of CO2 to the earth’s atmosphere. That has increased the proportion of CO2 in the air to about 410 parts per million (ppm) from just under 408 ppm a year ago, according to the Global Carbon Project. What? Only 2 ppm per year? How can that be a problem?

The reason it is a problem is that the point beyond which serious global warming will occur is 450 ppm of CO2. Specifically, “The OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: Key Findings on Climate Change” summarizes predictions by climate scientists’ models: we have a 50% chance of stabilizing the average global temperature at a 2°C increase over the pre-industrial period if we keep concentrations of CO2 under 450 ppm. That’s even odds.

Let’s do the math. We’re at 410 ppm now and the fire alarm level is 450 ppm. 450 minus 410 equals 40. If we continue to add to atmospheric CO2 at an annual rate of 2 ppm we’ll hit that fire alarm threshold in 20 years (40 divided by 2). I use the term “fire alarm” advisedly. In a 19 June 2017 letter in Nature Climate Change, titled “Global risk of deadly heat”, a group of researchers, mostly from Hawaii, came to this conclusion.

Around 30% of the world’s population is currently exposed to climatic conditions exceeding this deadly [heat] threshold for at least 20 days a year. By 2100, this percentage is projected to increase to ~48% under a scenario with drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and ~74% under a scenario of growing emissions. An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable, but will be greatly aggravated if greenhouse gases are not considerably reduced.

The increases the researchers were referring to were human deaths from heat exhaustion. A large number of such deaths in recent years have been in the United States and western Europe so don’t think that living in such non-tropical areas will be an escape from such a fate.

[Note that Phoenix, AZ, is experiencing 120 °F (49 °C) heat as I write this.] Along with the heat dangers go related factors such as increased violent weather events, droughts, forest and brush fires, insect infestations and other unpleasantries. To make matters worse, arctic regions are heating up faster than the tropics. That warming is causing arctic permafrost to melt; the melted permafrost comprises methane-producing organic materials; and methane is an even more powerful warming agent than CO2, thereby accelerating the warming process.

Oh, and then there’s that minor problem of ice melting in Greenland, Antarctica and mountainous areas worldwide. The consequences are the sea level rises we are already seeing, causing flooding of low-lying areas such as the Chesapeake Bay, Florida, Bangladesh, New York City, tropical islands and parts of Malibu — depending on the extent of melting. The sea rises for two reasons: previously land-locked ice melts and flows into the sea; and the seawater is becoming warmer, and warm water expands. The problem with mountain glaciers melting — and disappearing — is that the areas below the glaciers have grown to depend on that meltwater. No meltwater, no — or reduced chances of — survival for those who live downstream.

Now, keep in mind that all we have to do in order to reduce the onset of the global warming calamities touched upon above is to prevent much more carbon from entering the atmosphere. So that we never get to 450 ppm of CO2. That’s all there is to it.

Hard Places

Since most, if not all, global warming is the result of human activities it seems to be incumbent on us to do something to remedy the problem. Like stop putting carbon into the atmosphere. Much easier said than done.

Since most of the CO2 production is the result of burning fossil fuels to produce useful energy, and energy consumption is a hallmark of what we call civilization, there is enormous resistance to reducing our energy consumption. Major industries and hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in energy industries, most of them engaged in discovering, mining, distributing and/or burning carbon-producing fossil fuels. These industries have been around for a while. They have heaps of money and consequent political power. They know how to use it. Bigly!

To counter the fossil fuel based energy producers we have a variety of producers and users of sustainable energy: solar, wind, geothermal, ocean and even nuclear energy, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages over fossil fuel users. The disadvantages tend to be cost and reliability in the case of solar and wind energy, limited availability in the case of geothermal and fear of radiation in the case of nuclear energy. Yet the costs of solar and wind energy have rapidly come down to the point where they are becoming competitive with fossil fuels — at least when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. As, and if, battery technology develops to match, then solar and wind can become our main sources of energy, replacing fossil fuels in most cases. But we may need all these advances to happen within 20 years in order to save ourselves from global catastrophe.

Another hard place is the attitude of the current federal government toward global warming and climate change. Although most of the nations of the world have endorsed the 2016 Paris Accords, the Trump administration has not, apparently in defiance of the physical facts. President Trump appears to believe that he can negotiate with Mother Nature and single-handedly reverse the trend of the past century. He is wrong, to the detriment of us all. Delays in reducing the level of atmospheric CO2 are not just political ploys; they can be fatal to millions. The Trumpkin fantasies are dangerous. Dangerous if not downright suicidal! I, for one, am not willing to jump off the cliff following Trump policy and his lemming surrogates. Nor, apparently, are many states, led by California and New York, as well as large numbers of US industry leaders including the Climate Leadership Council. They all promise to uphold the Paris Accord regardless of any Trumpery.

Epilog?

I got into the business of promoting energy conservation in the very early 1970s. I was worried, even then, about our ever growing exploitation of irreplaceable resources. Telecommuting seemed to me to be an inexpensive, even profitable, way of getting work done without adding to global energy use. It has proven to be the case but it is not enough. We are at an inflection point, imposed by our planet, that requires us to choose: reality or fantasy, fact or fake news. I’m hoping that reality will win out.

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