Sunday, February 24, 2008

Massive Antarctic Glacier Picking up Speed

A team of British scientists reports a huge Antarctic glacier has speeded up by 7% since last year dumping large amounts of ice into the ocean. Previous studies during the last decade found this glacier to be speeding up by only 1% a year so this is a disturbing finding. The scientists, who described the situation to the BBC, found that this glacier, called the Pine Island Glacier, is the largest of three massive West Antarctic glaciers that have increased speed over the last decade. If most of the Pine Island Glacier winds up in the ocean the global sea level might rise by 25 cm. The scientists can only speculate on why the glacier is moving so fast. One hypothesis is that warmer water in a deep ocean current is flowing near the mouth of the glacier and under the ice. Another hypothesis is that geothermal heat is being released in the area. In any event, if the glacier keeps moving at a rapid pace, predictions of global sea level rise for this century will have to be adjusted upward.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bill McKibben Calls for 350ppm Carbon Dioxide Target

Environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, who launched the Step It Up campaign last year, has revealed the next phase of his plan to fight global warming with local activism. The Brattleboro Reformer reports that McKibben told a group of local activists that this next phase will call for a target of 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As things stand now we are at about 385ppm and heading upward at about 2ppm per year. He is calling his plan 350. McKibben said that “What we need is people in their own communities to take that number and spread it, with music, with art, and take pictures and get it back into that centralized area.” Unlike his Step It Up campaign which was limited to the United States, this new 350 campaign he envisions as international. McKibben clearly understands the precarious situation that excessive emissions of greenhouse gases from human sources has caused saying that “We are in a big, freaking hole and there’s absolutely no guarantee that we are going to get out of it.” So, it is on to 350.

Monday, February 11, 2008

James Hansen Says CO2 Must Be Reduced to 350ppm

The aim of most people fighting global warming is to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from increasing above 450ppm, which is approximately 65ppm above today’s levels. This target has been advocated by climate scientist James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and has been also been advocated by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But Hansen is now saying that the target is too high. In an article in the British newspaper The Sunday Times he says:

“If humanity wants to preserve a climate resembling that in which civilisation developed, then the palaeoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest CO2 must be reduced from its current level to between 300-350ppm. A 350ppm target is only achievable by phasing out coal use….We need a moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants and we must phase out the existing ones within two decades.”

If Hansen is right, it appears we will just have to accept a planet that does not resemble the one we are familiar with. Limiting CO2 to 450ppm appears to be an almost impossible task, particularly with China and India counting on coal to lift hundreds of millions of people out of a meager existence. Reducing CO2 to 350ppm or even lower doesn’t seem to be a feasible goal. It is hard to imagine the world only 20 years from now without any operating coal-fired plants. According to the article, Hansen will support his view of setting a lower target in a research paper. Until that paper is published and other scientists have a chance to review it is unlikely that the target of 450ppm will revised. However, perhaps we should be prepared for an even gloomier view of the possibility of extracting ourselves out of our global warming predicament than we now have.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Two More Studies Zap Biofuels as an Answer to Global Warming

The case against using biofuels to fight global warming has grown stronger with the publication of two studies in the journal Science which show that the destruction of natural ecosystems to produce the plants for fuels actually increases greenhouse gas emissions when compared with using regular fuels. In an International Herald Tribune article the lead author of one of the reports notes that the one exception may be sugar cane grown in Brazil, because relatively little energy is needed to turn this crop into fuel. These findings once again illustrate the wide gap between scientific knowledge and actions by the U.S. government as exemplified by the recently passed energy bill which requires a substantial portion of vehicle fuel in the future to be biofuel. In all likelihood most of this biofuel will come from growing corn. The politicians like to point out that using corn to make biofuel will increase America’s energy independence, which appears to be true, but they neglect to mention that with regard to the much bigger issue, global warming, their policies will probably only make the problem worse. It seems the habitability of the planet is being sacrificed for votes in the corn belt. In other words, the most important thing of all is that the politicians hang on to their jobs. The fate of the Earth appears to be a secondary consideration.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

FutureGen “Clean Coal” Project Bites the Dust

Citing rising costs, the US Energy Department cancelled a project called FutureGen which was supposed to demonstrate how carbon dioxide released by burning coal could be captured and stored. With the price of the project, which was supposed to be built in Mattoon, Illinois, reaching $1.8 billion and seemingly still going up the Energy Department called it quits. According to a report in The New York Times the Deputy Secretary of Energy, Clay Sell, said that the project would be revamped. The chief executive of the FutureGen Alliance said that canceling the project would probably result in a 4-year delay.

So, where does this leave us. With a leading climate scientist James Hansen calling for a moratorium on new coal-burning power plants which can not capture and store carbon dioxide to keep carbon dioxide from increasing to atmospheric levels that will cause catastrophic climate change this decision clearly leaves us in a bad spot. Efforts to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy simply do not seem to going fast enough to provide enough electricity if new coal plants are entirely out of the picture. However, if more new coal plants are built without the capture and storage capability carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will almost surely overshoot the target of 450 ppm which is supposed to limit warming to 2C above preindustrial levels.

The cancellation of the FutureGen project should be a wake-up call. Maybe capturing and storing carbon dioxide from coal plants is just pie in the sky, either technologically impossible or so expensive that coal could not economically compete as a fuel. Maybe instead of holding on to the coal option, we should start gradually dismantling coal plants and go all out to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. Do we really have any other good choice?