Saturday, December 17, 2016

The World is Getting Warmer, Now What?

"If you find yourself in a hole, your first task is to stop digging." - the First Law of Holes

There are many catastrophes which could happen to this planet tomorrow that would ruin everyone's day and we could do nothing to prevent, like a massive volcanic eruption or an large asteroid strike, either of which would wreak havoc with the world's climate and cause untold misery.

It's happened before. In 1815, the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted and the planet cooled for the next couple of years. In New England, 1816 was the "year without a summer." A major snow storm occurred . . . in June. Crops failed and famine was widespread in Europe.

Global warming though, is slow-motion catastrophe we are living in right now and we can do something about it.

However, no matter what we do, the world is going to get warmer, sea levels are going to rise, and adverse weather events will continue to become more frequent. The chemistry of the oceans is going to continue to change in ways not seen on this planet in millions of years. The CO2 we put into the atmosphere today will be there for many centuries.

But if we do nothing, we are likely to see average global temperatures go up by 5 or 6 degrees by 2100. Remember that when it was 8 degrees cooler 25,000 years ago, large parts of the northern hemisphere looked like Antarctica.

The concern of most scientists who study the climate is something called a "tipping point," which is when the changes we have made to the atmosphere cause a series of events that are irreversible over the next few thousand years.

Such changes include melting of the arctic permafrost, which would release methane (a very potent greenhouse gas) by the billions of tons, or the breakup of offshore glaciers in Antarctica which currently prevent that continent's glaciers from flowing into the oceans.

Will these events kill the planet? No. Will this make life more difficult for the human race, let alone most other lifeforms? Most definitely, yes.

So here is what we can do: stop making it worse.

This might prompt you to ask, "If some of these changes are already baked in, so to speak, why bother?"

The simple answer is, "Your children."

My son is 20 and he already knows that the rest of his life will be spent in a world different than the one I have lived in. Imagine if your child is 2.

There are three ways we can go about addressing this issue:

1. Pretend it isn't happening, which is pretty much what we are doing right now.

2. Use technology on a global scale to either suck the excess CO2 out of the air or block the sun from heating up the earth, also known as "geoengineering".

3. Stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

I will address Option 3 in my next column and spend the rest of this column explaining why Option 2, geoengineering, is a really, really, bad idea.

Back in college, a friend of mine majoring in engineering told me that any engineering problem could be solved with the proper application of money. That's just one problem with geoengineering - the incredible expense.

Geoengineering could include injecting sulfate (sulfur oxide) aerosols into the high atmosphere, just like a major volcanic eruption, which would reflect sunlight. We know this will work, based on observations of volcanos like Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in the early 1990s. A big drawback to this concept is that it would likely cause regional droughts in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where people are already having a tough enough time as it is. There's also environmental damage due to acid rain caused by sulfates, which is one of the reasons why we long ago phased out the use of high sulfur coal in the US and Europe.

We could find ways to mechanically suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Hypothetically, we can do this, at very great expense. There is also the problem of what to do with the billions of tons of CO2 once it's extracted from the air.

Another idea is to put giant mirrors into space, or millions of little ones, to reflect sunlight away from the earth. Again, the cost to set up this system and maintain it would dwarf the capacity of every industrial economy on Earth.

For any of these "solutions," the question of how such a program could be managed is just as big a problem as the technology itself. Any one country who tried to make their conditions better would most likely make conditions elsewhere worse.

The bottom line though, is that none of these ideas address the root problem - putting CO2 into the atmosphere in the first place. The moment we stopped geoengineering, assuming we could do it at all, global temperatures would soar.

So, that leaves us with Option 3, reducing CO2 emissions.

Originally published in the Westborough News 09/11/2015.

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