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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Global Warming Aug 24, 2008

You know, I originally intended to speak about alternative energy forms. What piqued my interest was George Bush’s pushing the “hydrogen economy”. I thought it was an interesting contrast, H2, the least dense substance in the universe being championed by W (Dubya), the densest substance in the universe. However, after some thought I decided that I preferred to talk about global warming, as it is the fundamental threat to our species in the coming century, more than war, more than poverty, more than terrorism, more than-here I will be bold enough to state “insert your favorite social issue here”. I include any social issue I may favor in this statement. I will not mince words. If our species cannot timely come to a sound successful strategy regarding global warming, we could be looking at our extinction.

For disclosure purposes, I am not a scientist nor do you need to be a scientist to understand global warming. Science’s role is to give us correct information; our role is to use the information responsibly.
First I would like to state that you will also hear the term global climate change, which I feel is only part of the story. Global climate change is a result of global warming. Global climate change includes such phenomena as moving a village higher up a mountain in Africa because the mosquito line has migrated upward; the possibility of more severe storms in the coming century; drought due to a diminishing cryosphere (ice and snow cover), or possibly precipitating a new ice age in Europe due to shifting the Gulf Stream. These phenomena are used to undermine the credibility of global warming as a real phenomenon by those who have vested interests in continuing business as usual, are simply in denial about a major paradigm shift needed in human organization, or who simply live in a constructed reality impervious to contradictory evidence. Global warming is the term I will use because the scientific evidence points to global warming as the phenomenon that causes the observed climate change effects. More specifically, anthropogenic (human caused) global warming is the core issue we must effectively address. This activity is primarily the burning of fossil fuels.

I have no problem with any legitimate scientist who may question global warming and addresses the question by the scientific method. However, societal decisions have to be made with the information currently available; global warming will not stop occurring while we wait. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that we are experiencing human induced global warming. My hope in presenting this program is that you will have enough information to responsibly participate in the public policy discourse, including being able to reject misinformation or disinformation. My information must be necessarily brief; if you wish more detail Mount Lebanon Public Library has an excellent resource, Earth’s Changing Climate by Professor Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College. They have it available in DVD, audio CD, and transcript form.

Let me distinguish between climate and weather. Global warming is about climate, the long term atmospheric trends, not weather, which is short term variation in atmospheric conditions. We have direct temperature measurements back to about 1860. Prior to that scientists use indirect evidence, called proxies, to study past climate. We have boreholes that go back about 1,000,000 years. These records show a cyclic pattern of brief (10,000 to 20,000 years) warm spells (interglacials) separated by longer cold spells (ice ages). The pattern repeats approximately every 100,000 years. This pattern results from subtle changes in the earth’s tilt and orbit and other complex feedback mechanisms. Climate reconstruction goes back even further using a variety of other proxies, including geological evidence for ice, fossil vegetation, and oxygen isotope (same protons, differing neutrons) ratios from fossil plankton. This evidence suggests that earth has been considerably warmer in the past as well as thought to have 4 periods when the planet was frozen solid, entirely covered with ice. These extremes occurred tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years ago. However, during the last at least 1,000,000 years earth has not experienced a warming greater than the period beginning with the industrial age and accelerating during the last twenty years.

So we have extremes of hot and cold. What determines a planet’s temperature, and therefore its overall climate. The basic cause is a balance between incoming solar energy and outgoing infrared radiation. The physics of temperature as a function of that balance is well understood. The presence of an atmosphere complicates the situation, as it blocks outgoing energy, thereby shifting the energy balance to warming. This is commonly called the greenhouse effect. For earth the natural greenhouse effect warms the planet by about 60° Fahrenheit, from 0° to 60°.
The earth’s atmosphere is made up of mostly nitrogen and oxygen, both of which are transparent to incoming sunlight and to outgoing infrared radiation. The greenhouse gases, primarily water vapor and carbon dioxide, are transparent to incoming sunlight but opaque to outgoing infrared radiation. This is due to an effect of their more complicated atomic nature, having three atoms per molecule rather than two, as do oxygen and nitrogen. We really have no need to get into the science of it; the point of mentioning this is that the greenhouse effect is an identified scientific phenomenon. Those who, for whatever their reasons, oppose policies designed to curb global warming, have the burden of refuting the evidence with better evidence, not with rhetoric, misinformation, disinformation, or outright ignorance.

I would like to spend some time presenting the false arguments of those who oppose policy formulated to stop global warming in order that you can recognize them and know them to be false arguments. Again, I state that those who have legitimate doubts have recourse to the methods scientists use to settle disagreements. Legitimate scientists, however, do not go on Fox News or its ilk to publish their findings. Those who do contribute not light, but noise, to the issue.

We have already mentioned one of the arguments, using global climate change’s varying outcomes to undermine the credibility of the global warming phenomenon itself. Those who study the outcomes can tie them back to global warming. Those who claim otherwise do not do so for scientific reasons but for other reasons, which may be anywhere from shallow research to researching to a predetermined conclusion.
Another argument is presenting a false statistical analysis. This includes statements that the effect is too small to measure. This is incorrect, if there is any correlation at all, the effect is measureable; methods other than correlation are used to search out the nature of the effect. Another is to say that climate change is cyclic, and we are merely experiencing a warm cycle. Statisticians can measure cyclic effects and determine if the effect is statistically significant beyond the cyclic effect. Very briefly, if you segment those 100,000 year hot-cold cycles, overlay them, and statistically calculate the representative curve, you have a measure of the cyclic effects to whatever degree of certainty you wish. I state this not to go into the mechanics of the statistics, but so that if you hear these arguments you know that they are false.

Another argument is to state that scientists don’t study climate, they study computer models of climate. This is about as specious an argument as can be made. Computer models are a legitimate tool of science. Their results must meet the standards of validity and reliability that all scientific tools must meet. Computer models put us on the moon, and even more impressive, brought us back to earth from the moon. Specifically regarding climate study, models are validated by determining if they “predict” the past as it is known from the methods previously stated, direct measurement or proxy measurements.
Another false presentation is that models have widely varying outcomes. The different outcomes is what they are designed to measure. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has, at last count, 31 scenarios that measure variables the IPCC considers important. The main axes are Economic Growth vs. Environmental Preservation, Globalization vs. Regionalization, and Technology type and level (carbon based vs. renewable). The outcomes are different because the inputs are the variables, and the model is measuring the effect of the particular variable. Again, those whose impartiality may be slanted are distorting legitimate information to illegitimate ends. For the record, I do not see economic growth and environmental preservation as inherently at odds but at odds due to the economic joining of government and vested economic interests. That’s a subject for another talk on another day.

The last argument I will mention is more of an attempted indictment than it is an argument. It goes something like this: Einstein disagreed with the mainstream scientists of his time, and proved to be right. Therefore, we can’t accept global warming merely because scientists overwhelmingly agree with it. Their argument, however, is specious. Neither Einstein nor anyone else whose theories prevailed argued for the null hypothesis, which in this case is that we don’t know what causes global warming or that what we know is insufficient. They argued for their specific theories and peer-reviewed evidence ultimately supported them. In the case of global warming peer reviewed research overwhelmingly points to a human induced global warming effect. Scientists do not take a vote.
That said; let’s get back to the greenhouse effect. Nature has provided us with, though not a controlled “experiment”, an opportunity to study the effect of atmosphere on a planet’s temperature through the study of three planets, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Earth, we have already mentioned, has a natural greenhouse effect of about 60° Fahrenheit (33°C). Venus would have an atmosphere-free-temperature of about 55°C. It, however, does have an atmosphere density 100 times that of Earth’s and this is 96% carbon. Venus has an actual surface temperature of about 500°C (not a misprint). Mars would have an atmosphere free temperature of about -55°C. Mars has an atmosphere about 1% of Earth’s and its actual temperature is only slightly cooler than predicted by the net result of sunlight in and infrared radiation out, supporting, through elimination, the greenhouse effect being due to atmosphere. The greenhouse effect on Venus is why I say that global warming is the issue we must address above all other issues.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, we have mentioned two major greenhouse gases, water vapor and CO2. Some recent scientific research indicates a third possibility, the burning of sacrificial candles at Unitarian Universalist rituals, but we can address that at a future service. Water vapor cycles between surface water and airborne water in about a week, on average. Due to precipitation, the effects do not accumulate. There may be some increase in the absolute amount of vapor in the air as the earth warms, but it is not thought to be significant in terms relative to CO2. CO2 cycles between the air and earth due largely to photosynthesis with a secondary cycle of surface water and air exchange. CO2 cycles between air and surface on the average every 5 years. The difference is that, unlike water vapor, as CO2 is added to the atmosphere it accumulates. It is still being recycled every 5 years, but a larger amount is being recycled. The larger amount causes less infrared loss, and consequent heat retention. The process is called a positive feedback mechanism, feedback that enhances its own effect. Don’t be fooled by the name, it has negative consequences in that it is not self-correcting as is the water vapor cycle. The accumulation will remain in the atmosphere for centuries.

The only question remaining is: how do we know it’s anthropogenic (human induced)?
Remember, the Earth’s energy flow is sunlight in, infrared radiation out; adding atmosphere causes the greenhouse effect. The composition of the atmosphere determines the extent of the greenhouse effect; the presence of carbon dioxide being the main determinant. The natural CO2 exchange is about 560 gigatonnes-a gigatonne is a billion tonnes. Now, let’s go to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are carbon that was removed from the atmosphere by natural processes eons ago. As in-ground solids or liquids, they don’t effect the energy flow. Burning releases them back into the atmosphere at the rate of 7 gigatonnes per year. In addition, deforestation accounts for about 2 gigatonnes per year of CO2 not removed from the atmosphere. Humans are increasing CO2 at the rate of 9 gigatonnes per year. The deforestation effect is easily measurable and not contested by any legitimate source. The fossil fuel burning is also easily measurable, but there are those who do contest that the carbon is coming from human sources, for whatever their reasons. How about the carbon? How do we know it’s from our fossil fuel burning?

Scientists are able to use carbon dating techniques to determine that the carbon being added is from fossil fuels, and not some other source. It really is confirming what we already know, as once again, fossil fuel use is a commercial activity and its volume is extensively documented.

I think that we can safely leave the “if” debate regarding global warming to talk radio, and get on with the business of the “how” of addressing global warming. The following is an extremely brief overview of global warming policy issues for the future. It comes down to eliminating fossil fuels as an energy source.
There are only three non-fossil energy sources for earth; solar, geothermal, and motion (wind and tides). The average North American uses 10KW per person, the equivalent of 100 human slaves. Sunshine provides ten thousand times the energy needs of the current human population of the earth at the North American consumption level, geothermal about a thousand. Even motion, the least abundant of the three, provides 100 times human energy needs.

Converting these sources to usable applications is a solvable engineering problem. The primary issues to be considered in alternative fuel technologies are scale, physical capital, and the extent to which the alternative technology is dependent on a fossil fuel foundation, which is now mostly petroleum. Here I would like to sound a cautionary note; we must beware of what I call Sidewalk Supervisor Syndrome. It goes through three stages. Stage 1 is “It can’t be done”. Stage 2 is “It can be done but it’s not worth it”. Stage 3 is “If they would have listened to me, we would have had it a long time ago”.

Of all the alternative fuel technologies, only nuclear power is scaled to be available in the reasonably near future, which I will arbitrarily set as a transition time of 20 years. The technology beyond 20 years is simply an unknown. I have read legitimate articles that state nanotechnology will lead us to the replicators of Star Trek, except that we will be able to replicate any substance. If I have a faith, it is that if someone can dream it, we can build it. But we need to do what we can with what we have right now. The other alternative energy sources scale on a regional or local basis. I don’t state that as an endorsement of nuclear power, only a fact to be addressed. We can have the talk about alternative energy at some future service, for now we simply have to begin looking at how we should start. We need a transitional fuel that we can do now.

The “Precautionary Principle” is the IPCC’s answer to the “if” part of global warming. The Principle states “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”.

I think it’s excellent for a start, but the devil is in the details. I would prefer to omit the term cost effective, because the concept of cost effectiveness is distorted by the vast subsidies that are given to the fossil fuel industries. However, we have to start somewhere, and The Kyoto Protocol is the beginning of an attempt to put this principal into action. The Kyoto Protocol is not the final answer because it sets goals, not requirements. I would prefer a set schedule over no less than 20 years to reduce carbon emissions to zero with no exceptions.

The barriers to this are not scientific or technical, they are economic and political. The extent to which the alliance of finance and government has corrupted society on a global basis is, as I see it, the root problem to be addressed before any other. I don’t have a detailed proposal; I have been vocal in other forums about the effect of our economic structure on our societal outcomes. I do not think government subsidies of any fuels are the answer; private capital should take that risk. But if ever we needed a zero tolerance policy toward something, it is fossil fuels. The first step is to remove the influence of money from our political system; otherwise we are just continuing the practices that brought us where we are today.

Economists, high priests of the spirituality of money, who have the power to commune with the unseen hand of the marketplace, traditionally measure the status of human development by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. Using this measure, there is strong correlation between GDP and energy consumption.

An alternative model published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is the signature trademark of the Human Development Report (HDR), an independent report commissioned by the UNDP that is written by a team of scholars, development practitioners and members of the Human Development Report Office of UNDP. The HDI has had a significant impact on drawing the attention of governments, corporations and international organizations to aspects of development that focus on the expansion of choices and freedoms, not just income.

The HDI measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development:
A long and healthy life, as measured by life expectancy at birth;
Knowledge, as measured by the adult literacy rate;
A decent standard of living, as measured by GDP per capita in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms in US dollars.

It is interesting that initially, the HDI rises with an increase in per capita energy consumption, but after this initial rise increasing energy consumption does not increase HDI.

This is one model of alternative methods of measuring our well being. There are others; the point being that we need not blindly accept the mythology of the marketplace in human well being. We need to do more than shift our priorities; we need a fundamental shift in how we vision our relationship with the earth. We can no longer look on the earth as a resource for private exploitation but as a commons for which we all share responsibility. It belongs to all of us but not to any single one of us. Any lesser vision is at our peril.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This planet will be fine. How grandiose of people to think that they will DETERMINE the fate of this ever-evolving planet. Yikes - it's like fearing plate tectonics or the diasppearance of "the land bridge" all over agin. The issue we need to address isn't the future of the palnet -- it's the future of the human race. This big ol' rock, we call home, will go on with without us. With or without polar bears, or spotted owls, or dinosaurs -oh wait- that change already happened...are humans doomed??? Of course. So what?