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Runaway Global Warming?
Is This the Day the Music Died?

June 14, 2004

Has Runaway Global Warming Begun?
   
In 2002 and 2003, for the first time, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has jumped by 2 parts per million for two years in a row, and for the first time, has done so without any obvious triggers. It jumped by 2 parts per million in 1973, 1988, 1994 and 1998, but these were El Niño years. This time, there's no obvious trigger. To quote from "The Guardian",
    "
An unexplained and unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere two years running has raised fears that the world may be on the brink of runaway global warming." The Guardian article quotes Dr. Charles Keeling, the climate scientist who first drew attention to global warming in 1958, saying,
    "It is possible that this is merely a reflection of natural events like previous peaks in the rate, but it is also possible that it is the beginning of a natural process unprecedented in the record."   
    "At worst, the figures could be the first sign of the breakdown in the Earth's natural systems for absorbing the gas. That would herald the so-called "runaway greenhouse effect," where the planet's soaring temperature becomes impossible to contain. As the icecaps melt, less sunlight is refected back into space from ice and snow, and bare rocks begin to absorb more heat. This is already happening."

A Runaway Release of Stored Carbon?
    I've mentioned in the past that there are vast carbon sinks in the form of peat bogs and methane-laced sea ice that could possibly start to outgas sufficiently to feed a runaway greenhouse effect that would leave the Earth lifeless and unbearably hot, like Venus. The latest update is a report on the outgassing of frozen tundra if temperatures rise a few degrees: Researchers Find Frozen North May Accelerate Climate Change - Science Daily. The Earth presumably wouldn't get as hot as Venus since it's farther from the sun, but it might take only a little--viz.: an increase in cloud cover-- to start reducing the ability of the Earth's vegetation, already unable to cope with the rising carbon dioxide levels, to absorb carbon dioxide. If temperatures were to rise sufficiently to reduce the capability of plant life to lower  carbon dioxide levels through photosynthesis, then carbon dioxide buildup would really take off. This BBC article, Sharp CO2 rise divides opinions, offers somewhat reassuring words that maybe a runaway greenhouse effect isn't what we're observing, but as the BBC article also implies, no one knows for sure*. The problem is that if it's true, it probably signals the end of civilization, if not the end of all life on this planet. If it's not true, it means that runaway global warming hasn't happened yet.
    How fast would this happen? That's hard to say because it depends upon mechanisms that probably haven't all been catalogued. 
What Does "Runaway Global Warming" Mean?
    I've been following global warming fairly closely since early in 2000. Until Monday, (October 11th), I didn't take the possibility of a runaway warming process seriously, but I do now. If runaway global warming were to occur, it would mean that natural generation of carbon dioxide would take over from human-generated CO2 production. Then, even if we eliminated human carbon dioxide production completely, carbon dioxide levels would still rise as part of a runaway natural process. 
Will This Really Happen, or Are There Homeostatic Mechanisms That Will Hold It in Check?
    This raises the question: if this were going to happen, why hasn't it happened already? Wouldn't this combination of circumstances have already occurred in the past? Would some built-in feedback mechanism keep global warming within bounds? Wouldn't warmer water lead to increased cloud cover, tending to block more sunlight? Wouldn't more carbon dioxide lead to more photosynthesis, which would increase the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere? 
The Fact Is That It Is Happening
    The problem is that it's an observed fact that if photosynthesis is increasing because of our higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, it  isn't keeping pace with our carbon dioxide levels. If it were, CO2 levels wouldn't keep rising faster and faster. At best, we're gambling the future of life on Earth on mechanisms that may not exist... and all for no good reason.
    It seems to me that there are two problems. First, there's the problem of getting society to do something about global warming. Second, there's the terrifying possibility that global warming has already passed the runaway "tipping point". (This seems to me to be like sweating out a cancer biopsy, knowing that if that large mass is malignant, you're dead meat.)
Soothing Words from the Soothsayers
    You'll hear soothing words about this, with lots of counterarguments by naysayers who will argue that we don't know enough, that this may be a natural rather than a human-inspired fluctuation, that it's happened in the past and isn't really a cause for concern, etc*. It worked this way with smoking and lung cancer, with cholesterol and heart attacks, and with other scientific issues. Gradually, these dialogues will change but it will take time. However, the bottom line is that carbon dioxide levels are climbing faster and faster, with an apparent potential for an explosive release of stored CO2 if global temperatures rise a few degrees.
    Some soothing words that have some substance behind them may be found in this article, Carbon 'reaching danger levels'    - BBC. In the article, the UK's chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, says, 
    "Is there a point where the melting becomes irreversible?" he asked. "Yes, there is. When the temperature around Greenland is 2.7C above the pre-industrial level - that is the tipping point. We're already 0.6C above it, and to avoid raising temperatures too far we should prevent atmospheric CO2 going beyond 500ppm."
    Atmospheric concentrations have risen from about 280ppm before the Industrial Revolution to 315 in 1957, when the Mauna Loa data collection began, to a high recently of 379ppm.
    Asked how long it would take to reach 500ppm, Sir David told BBC News Online: "We're now close to an annual rise of 2ppm, so on present trends it will take us about 60 years - assuming we're not on an exponential growth curve."

    The problem is, we may very well be on an exponential growth curve. And of course, the real danger is that we've already passed the "tipping point". But we can hope that we haven't.

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* - For a really upbeat interpretation, see Global Warming: Tony Blair and Other Stellar Effects. Note that this is an interpretation by an individual about the local temperatures in central England, which, of course, are strongly affected by the Gulf Stream (North Atlantic conveyer belt).
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Why Not Energy Conservation?
    Reporters who discuss this are often fond of saying that there really isn't much we can do to slow this trend, but I disagree with that We could probably halve our energy consumption without great effort. Energy conservation can do a great deal to reduce our dependence on oil, coal and natural gas. This is a win-win situation. You strike back at  global warming, and you lower your fuel bills.
Energy Conservation Saves Money, and Can take Place Immediately
    Energy conservation can happen immediately. It doesn't cost any more: it costs less. No new technology is required. All that's needed is an awareness of the importance of this on the part of us consumers. (I should think that the theme should be to stick to painless levels of energy conservation as opposed to more-demanding but less-comfortable energy conservation measures.)
What My Wife and I Have Done
    As I've mentioned previously, Tommie and I have switched from incandescent bulbs to fluorescent bulbs, cutting our lighting bill to, perhaps, ¼th of what it was previously. I've gone to short, light showers that use, perhaps, a fifth of the hot water that I used in the past... without missing longer, stronger showers. (We're not pushing ourselves to the point where we're inconvenienced.) We've set up fans to augment our air conditioning in the summertime. We wear sweaters and warm clothes in the wintertime to reduce our heating bills. And it has significantly reduced our utility bills.
    There are still steps we can take to further reduce our energy bills. One is to insulate our house under the floor. Another is to add storm windows, and a storm door at the back door. A further step could be to switch to a tankless hot water heater to reduce tank losses from our hot water system. 
    With respect to cars, we have fairly high mileage cars now. Longer-term, we could switch to a Toyota Prius. We wash our clothes in cold water, so that's a built-in savings. 
    Our drier is a power guzzler. My PC consumes a lot of power, especially with a 19" monitor. An LCD monitor would cut its power requirements. The article Lean, Green Tips for Energy Savings recommends ponying up for a high-end washing machine (and no doubt, a high-end dryer), saying that energy savings will make up for the cost difference within a couple of years time. 
What We Could Do As a Society
    As a society, there are a number of ways that we could lower our power demands. Some improvements in the efficiencies of appliances have already occurred. 
Solar Power
    Research into solar power systems and into energy storage techniques is urgently needed, and could pay off handsomely. Solar power could be used to generate hydrogen. New approaches to solar-powered hydrogen generation might have possibilities in establishing a hydrogen-based economy. Solar hot water heaters might enjoy a resurgence, given tax breaks.
GE's 1.5-Megawatt Wind Turbine First To Reach 2,500 Installations - SpaceDaily
Hydrogen economy looks out of reach  - Nature

Flywheel Storage?
    One conceivable future energy storage technique for fixed energy production facilities would be carbon-nanotube-based flywheels. (One danger with these would be the enormous amount of energy that would be released if a flywheel were to break.)
Nuclear Power
    Nuclear power is a viable option. Environmentalists are probably going to endorse nuclear power as the lesser of two evils when the alternative is self-extinction of human, and perhaps, of all higher life forms on this planet. 
Geothermal Power
    Geothermal power may be the dark horse in this energy supply race. (Key to geothermal power might be the development of deep-drilling techniques that could allow geothermal plants in areas such as the eastern United States that don't have volcanoes in the vicinity.) 
Automotive CO2 Generation
    How do we lower our automotive exhalations? One way... not the most desirable... is through car-pooling. Another way is to turn to small, high-mileage cars like the Honda Civic or metro cars. Japanese cars rated best in fuel efficiency. A third way is through rapid transit schemes using buses, or buses running on railroad rails. Most probably, the preferred solution would be the use of higher mileage commuter cars. Not only would commuters cut emissions; they would also save on fuel costs. A fourth  way is to establish bike lanes along our roads, with, possibly, overpasses or tunnels to allow bikers to cross roads. (Motorcycles wouldn't save us much, but mopeds and powered scooters might be used in clear weather. Electric scooters with oversize batteries can achieve 15-20 miles per hour, with a range of 15 to 20 miles. Similarly, electrically powered bikes might work well. )
The Need for Leadership
    What we really need is a leader who will point the way toward energy independence. The last one who fit that bill was Jimmy Carter more than a quarter of a century ago, but his teachings were forgotten the moment he left the White House, and now, we may have passed the point of no-return. But if we haven't passed the point of no return--if our biopsy is negative--then it's urgent that we and the rest of the world cut our CO2 emissions immediately.
Again, Why Not Energy Conservation?
    All of the talk seems to be about green power and alternative sources of energy. Nobody seems to be talking about energy conservation. Do you think that's because energy companies want to sell more and more energy, or is there some other reason?
Later:  Here are three articles that address energy conservation.
Zero Energy Houses That Don't Pollute  - Wired News
Energy-saving features allow PC snooze, but you won't lose - Seattle Times
Lean, Green Tips for Energy Savings - Business Week
Enter the New American Dream House - Business Week
Micropower 'could fuel UK homes'  - BBC
    Why doesn't the Bush administration emphasize energy conservation and a reduction in dependence upon Mideastern oil? I don't know.
    It would be different if it made any sense to burn up the world's oil reserves, but it doesn't  It's happening because of greed and inertia. It's happening because the public isn't aware of the dire consequences if they don't accept slight inconveniences, or don't pay the modest additional cost for sustainable energy policies.  Automotive manufacturers are working to increase gas mileages. A diesel version of the Prius would save give, perhaps, ten more miles per gallon than the gasoline-powered version of the Prius, but it would cost a few thousand dollars more. On the other hand, Diesel engines last a lot longer than gasoline engines. (The Prius has been a hot seller, with a backlog of orders. Toyota will double production of the Prius next year.)
In the Meantime...
    In the meantime, the snows are disappearing from Kilimanjaro. Glaciers are melting all over the world. The Arctic Ocean's ice cover is dwindling. 
    This is a worldwide problem. By now, Eastern Asia is a major oil consumer. They and we need to find ways of reducing our energy appetities. Somehow, we've got to cut our dependence upon fossil fuels, and we'd better do it sooner rather than later. Whatever the chances, the consequences would be terminal.
    In the meantime, the CO atmospheric CO2 level keeps rising. And if it should turn out that runaway global carbon dioxide buildup has already begun, then our prognosis would be dire indeed.
What Can You Do About This?
    What can you do about this? You can ask friends what they think about this. People need to be thinking about it. And you might want to look for unobtrusive ways to cut your fuel bills.

    The UK's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has, within the past few weeks, become quite concerned about global warming.

Here are a few recent articles reviewing global warming:
Scientist finds huge jump in global warming gas ... - FirstScience
Sharp CO2 rise divides opinions  - BBC
Chief British Scientist Says Act Now on CO2 - ABC
Greenhouse Gas Jump Shows Kyoto Vital - UK - ABC
Greenhouse Gas Jump Spurs Global Warming Fears - ABC

Study Shows Potential For Antarctic Climate Change - Science Daily
Arctic Sea Ice Declines Again This Year Finds Study

Exxon's greenhouse gas levels rise as profits soar ... - FirstScience

The Kyoto protocol is just the first step: it's what comes next that counts ... - New Scientist

Green power:
Racing to Energy's Great Green Future - Business Week
Turning Manure into Black Gold - Business Week


Solar power is discussed below:
Nanotechnology May Give Plastic Solar Cells A Boost
Spinach could power better solar cells - New Scientist
We're talking real 'green' energy  - C/Net
Carbon Nanotubes for Solar Cells ...  - Scientific American
After wind power, Germany turns to the sun for electricity - SpaceDaily
Major grant drives forward cost efficient solar power ...  - FirstScience
China trains int'l technicians over use of solar energy ... - FirstScience
Another Dawn for Solar Power - Business Week
Photosynthesis Drives Solar Cell  - Technology Review
Nanosys Awarded U.S. Defense Department Contract to Develop Flexible Solar Cells  - El. Engr. Times
Two R&D 100 Awards for Biomass and Solar Breakthrough Technologies ... - FirstScience
Sharp develops solar light products with LEDs  - El. Engr. Times
Solar power pioneers putting West to the test - Seattle Times

Direct conversion of solar energy to hydrogen is presented here:
Molecular Assemblies Created To Convert Water To Hydrogen Gas - Science Daily
Vast New Energy Source Almost Here: Solar Hydrogen Fuel Dream Will Soon Be A Reality, Australian Scientists Predict - Science Daily
Wonder-fuel: How nanotech could realistically give us clean hydrogen power - BBC

Fuel cells are mentioned here:
Cool Fuel Cells Could Revolutionize Earth's Energy Resources - SpaceDaily

Miscellaneous:
Asia switches slowly to green power  - CNN
Xcel Energy Announces Proposed Renewable Energy Project Selections ... - FirstScience
US Can Eliminate Oil Use In A Few Decades - SpaceDaily

Carbon dioxide trapping of coal-fired furnaces is a possibility:
Australia, Japan work on near zero-emission coal-fired electricity plant - SpaceDaily

Wind turbines are reviewed below:
Reaping From the Wild Wind  - Wired News
GE's 1.5-Megawatt Wind Turbine First To Reach 2,500 Installations - SpaceDaily
World Renewable Energy Leaders Announce China Wind Push ...
Ireland wants wind power to provide 13 percent of energy by 2010 - SpaceDaily
Reaping The Wind - Business Week

The new generation of pebble-bed nuclear reactors is an option:
Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom  - Wired News
Toward Tomorrow's Fuels - Business Week

Automotive options are entertained below:
Finally, a Hybrid for the Family  - Wired News
A green tank: Can hydrogen really replace petrol in our cars?  - BBC
New Research Will Help Revolution In Diesel Motoring - Science Daily
Automakers Give Biodiesel a Boost
New Northeast States' Study Shows Current and Emerging Technologies Can Cut Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions i ...  - Wired News

    This is just a sample of what's out there. Clearly, there's a great deal of research and development underway. After all, there's a worldwide market.

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