Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Price Tag for Saving Our Planet

Saving the Earth from global warming might cost a lot less in economic terms than many have contended. Here is the price: the loss of one year of economic growth over the next four decades. At least that is the price according to consultants at PricewaterhouseCoopers as reported in the Guardian. The goal would be to stabilize atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide at 450 parts per million by 2050, a level that many climatologists say would result in some climate change but not of catastrophic dimensions. If there is a catch it is that the effort would have to begin without delay. Of course, the obvious question is how could that happen with the White House being occupied by George W. Bush? My only answer is that it could possibly begin in 2009, a delay of about 3 years. In any event, the consultants contend that the combination of energy efficiency, more use of renewables, and capturing carbon would do the trick. Nuclear energy would not have to be part of the equation. The seven leading economic powers (G7) would take the lead in reducing emissions while countries that have only recently begun to take off economically (E7) such as China and India could have a modest increase in emissions.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Methane Levels Will Rise Again

The mystery of why atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas methane have basically remained the same since 1999 may have been solved. According to a team of scientists reporting in Nature we would be mistaken to believe that somehow a harmonious balance has at last been achieved between human and natural methane sources and methane sinks. No such luck. These scientists who measured air samples around the world found that methane emissions from human sources were not reduced to the level of sustainability but rather the effects of increased emissions were hidden because the amount of swampy land was reduced either because of drought or changes in land use. Less swampy land means less methane-producing bacteria. So, the explanation wasn't different diets for cows, more capping of landfills, or improved industrial processes. An atmospheric chemist from Germany, Jos Lelieveld, sums it up nicely "Clearly this is not good news. Rather, wetlands are expected to become larger in northern regions, for example, as areas of permafrost melt. Scientists fear that this might release vast amounts of the greenhouse gas." Lelieveld also offered his opinion on the best way to curb global warming saying that "the easiest and most time-effective way to control climate change is to start acting on methane."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Race Against Extinction

While Americans keep migrating south to the warmer Sunbelt states many species of animals and plants in this hemisphere are migrating in the opposite direction in search of cooler regions because of global warming. In a BBC News article NASA scientist James Hansen is quoted as saying " If we do not slow down the rate of global warming, many species are likely to become extinct. In effect, we are pushing them off the planet." Hansen was part of a research team which showed that the world now appears to be as warm or warmer than it has been since the last major ice age ended 12,000 years ago. The scientists said that the animal and plant migrations are not keeping pace with the increase in temperature. Hansen further warned that if the global temperature increased by another 2°C or 3°C "we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet to the one that we know."

Monday, September 25, 2006

Uh-oh, Positive Feedback Triggered

During the 1990s there were warnings from scientists that rising global temperatures could trigger the release of vast amounts of the greenhouse gas methane from melting of frozen bogs in Siberia and other arctic areas. This would create a global warming feedback mechanism as methane would cause increased global temperatures which in turn would release more methane and so on. Unfortunately for us it appears that this very worrisome situation may be happening. The latest evidence comes a group of scientists who detected increased amounts of methane being released from a thawing lake in Siberia. In their September 7th article in the journal Nature they reported that methane was being released at five times the rate of previous estimates.

The good news about methane is that methane molecules tend to last for a much shorter time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide molecules. The bad news about methane is that methane molecules trap much more heat than carbon dioxide molecules. If this positive feedback mechanism has really been triggered then that's very bad news.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Eureka! CO2 Storage Problem Is Solved

August 7, 2006 may someday go down as one of the most noteworthy days in the fight against global warming. That was the date that scientists from MIT and Columbia published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which they showed that by injecting carbon dioxide into deep-sea sediments several hundred meters below the sediment surface that carbon dioxide could be permanently stored regardless of geological events due to physical and chemical changes which occur at high pressures and low temperatures. According to these scientists, using their method would make it essentially impossible for carbon dioxide to escape. Moreover, they claim that the storage capacity of the deep-sea sediments is so large that carbon dioxide emissions at current levels in the United States could be stored for thousands of years. Further studies will be carried out to test the method and other scientists may find holes in their arguments so there is a long way to go before anyone can announce that there is feasible method for storing carbon dioxide emissions. However, let's hope these guys are on to something. With news on global warming getting grimmer and grimmer this appears to offer at least some hope that there could actually be an exit out of this mess.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cool Cities Campaign

A few weeks ago I signed up as an activist with the Sierra Club's Cool Cities campaign to fight global warming. The main goal of this campaign is to extend the initiative of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels who last year on February 16th, the day that the Kyoto Protocol international global warming treaty went into effect, introduced an agreement at the U.S. Conference of Mayors which pledges mayors who sign to reduce the level of carbon dioxide emissions in their cities to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. This is the same percentage reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that the U.S. would have been committed to had our leaders signed the Kyoto Protocol. According to Mayor Nickel's website, as of September 15, 2006 there are 295 mayors representing 49.4 Americans who have taken on the challenge. The Sierra Club is trying to get more mayors to sign on to the agreement and to get those who do sign up to live up to their pledge.

I guess you could say this is a bottom up approach to the global warming problem. Certainly the top down approach hasn't worked. For many years environmentalists have been trying to get the government to raise CAFE standards for motor vehicles without any meaningful success. Our motor vehicles are no more fuel efficient today than they were two decades ago. Perhaps most importantly, all efforts to get the U.S. to sign the Kyoto Protocol failed.

If a bottom up approach is to succeed it must ultimately reach the top, in this case the federal government. Only the federal government can take the steps needed to cap greenhouse gas emissions for the entire country and only the federal government can work with other countries to cap greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Based on what has transpired with regard to the global warming problem in this country over the past two decades, that is, failure of the federal government to take action despite numerous lobbying efforts by the environmental community, the bottom up approach may be our best hope.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sunlight Reflection Scheme Inevitable

Last Thursday on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered they interviewed a scientist who had just published a paper that described a scheme for temporarily halting global warming by injecting material into the atmosphere similarly to what occurs during some large volcanic eruptions. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991 so much ash was thrown into the atmosphere that there was slight global cooling for a few years due to reflection of sunlight which counteracted the ongoing global warming. The idea is not to solve the global warming problem but to buy us time until we can adequately reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

It is difficult to argue with the notion that we need to buy time. After all, climate experts say that to have atmospheric carbon dioxide level off at a concentration where the further increase in global temperature would only be about 1°F or 0.5°C the amount of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide would have to be reduced by about 70% from 1990 levels. Even that would cause considerable climate change. Moreover, NASA scientist James Hansen has said that to prevent additional increases in global temperature beyond 1°F we must begin to take major action within the next 10 years. Even the most optimistic among us would we hard pressed to be positive about success in these circumstances. The pessimism must be growing because during the interview it was revealed that some climate scientists now believe it is inevitable that some type of scheme to increase the reflection of sunlight worldwide will eventually be attempted. Proposed schemes to reflect sunlight globally, which seemed so farfetched only a short time ago, now appear to be gaining traction in the scientific community as the coming reality.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Nuclear Power Not Answer

Antinuclear activist Helen Caldicott kicked off her book tour this past Sunday in White Plains, New York for her new book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer. In this book she shows why people such as famous British scientist James Lovelock who says in his new book The Revenge of Gaia that nuclear power is an answer to global warming are wrong. Caldicott effectively counters the slogan by the nuclear power industry that nuclear power is “clean and green.” She shows why tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide are produced from burning fossil fuel when nuclear power is viewed from the mining of ore containing uranium all the way to the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. The amount of carbon dioxide rapidly rises as higher grade ore becomes scarcer and lower grade ore is mined and in the building of new nuclear power plants. She also explains in detail the many potential situations of human exposure to radioactivity related to nuclear power. Those environmentalists who have been reported to be embracing nuclear power to fight global warming need to read Caldicott's book.