Climate change: thoughts on the options

As I have commented in the past, we seriously need to do something about climate change, each of us. On 6 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest special report.  The bad news is that the IPCC lowered its bad-things-will-happen threshold from 2°C (in the earlier report) to 1.5°C. By, say, 2030.

That is to say that, if we don’t limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2030, then global warming and effects will likely be even worse — and sooner — than was forecast in the earlier IPCC report. By the way, those temperature numbers refer to increases from  the temperatures before the industrial era began. In 2015 we arrived at the 0.87° point. So we need collectively to begin today to diminish or eliminate all sources of global warming, most of them due to human activity, by 2030.

If we don’t eliminate those sources in time, particularly by 2050, a number of unfortunate events will occur. Some of them have already happened at least once. They will also worsen in proportion to the increase in temperature. Those unfortunate events include: major storms, flooding, drought, rising ocean levels, melting glaciers, crop failures, human migration, disease spreading and extinctions, to name a few. All of these have occurred to some extent in the past year or two.

No single option will act to solve this global problem but several options are available that, adopted with sufficient intensity, may keep us below that 1.5°C limit.

Conservation

In a sense the quickest and easiest thing we can do is to quit using so much energy, particularly energy derive from burning fossil fuels. Conservation begins at the household and moves up from there. Use more efficient lights, appliances and motorized tools — and use them only when you really need them. If you own a fossil-fuel-burning car don’t drive so much. Better yet, telecommute. Walk or cycle instead of drive to wherever. As ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft expand in accessibility and reliability get rid of your car altogether. Eat less meat; cows in particular produce copious quantities of methane at both ends of their alimentary canals.

CO2 Sequestration

There are many ways of preventing CO2 from being released into the atmosphere or of grabbing it from the atmosphere and storing it. Options include CO2 capture from power plants, air scrubbers that also captureCO2 for injection underground and reforestation (or revegetation). Reforestation may be the cheapest capture method but it is limited in access in many cases.

Geoengineering

Then there’s the idea that, if only we could somehow reduce the amount of sunlight  striking the earth’s surface, then heating would be less of a problem. There are two main approaches to this problem: 1) making the troposphere more reflective or opaque to incoming sunlight or 2) making the earth’s surface itself either more reflective or more absorbent to sunlight (without reradiating it in the infrared). Both types of approaches have the problems that they haven’t been tried in a sufficiently large experiment/demonstration, would be hard to make permanent and the applications would have to be enormous in extent to have the necessary effect.

Sourceshifting

Fundamentally the ultimate way to eliminate increases in climate change is to eliminate, not reduce, the use of fossil fuels. Basically, burned fossil fuels are the source of most global warming. So just stop it!

Now just imagine what would happen if we did just that.  Today. Most cars, busses, trucks  and tractors would quickly run out of gas. Many power-plants would shut down (natural gas, not just coal and oil, is a fossil fuel). So the lights would go out; the computers would stop; people couldn’t get to work; the industrial and information economies would crash. As well as contemporary civilization.

Not such a great idea.

Fossil fuels have infiltrated almost everything. We somehow have to wean ourselves from them and we only have a few years left to do it. Fortunately, much work is being done by industry both to develop new energy sources and to convert existing technologies to be fossil-fuel free. Despite resistance from those industries that currently are built around fossil fuels — as well as the politicians who are supported by them.

One way of reducing that influence is to adopt serious and meaningful carbon taxes that monetize the externalities of fossil fuel use (that is, pay for the damage done by CO2, methanol and oxides of nitrogen). But in order to impose the taxes we need the cooperation of enough legislators to enact the laws. Catch 22.

So the real contest we face is that between the new, fossil-free technologies that are being developed and the old guard who want things just as they used to be, smoke, pollution and all.

Let’s hope the sourceshifters win. But we don’t have much time left for the contest to be decided. So we need to continue to agitate for change now. Check with (and pester?) your local legislator about carbon taxes, and sourceshifting incentives.

 

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