How Can We Fix Our Climate?*
J. Ernest "Sunny" Breeding, Jr., PhD Geophysics
Where are the greatest problems?
Fig. 7.1. U.S. Sources and breakdown of greenhouse gases. (USGCRP)
Fig. 7.2. U.S. electricity production. (USGCRP)
Where do most of the greenhouse gases come from? A look at Fig. 7.1 is quite revealing. Sixty percent of the greenhouse gases in the United States come from electricity and heat plus transportation. Clearly these are the areas we need to concentrate on. In the breakdown of gases it is seen that 85% of it is carbon dioxide. However, methane is a much worse gas, and a lot of it could be released as glaciers melt and permafrost thaws. There is also an enormous supply of methane on continental shelves in the seas and oceans.
Fig. 7.2 shows where the major problems are. More than 70% of electricity generated in the United States is generated using fossil fuels. Coal is used in nearly one half of the production of electricity. Nuclear power is used for less than 20% of the generation of power.
Reducing Greenhouse Gases
Fig. 7.3. Smoke stack of a coal fired power plant.
Fig. 7.4. Nuclear power plant. (Wikipedia)
One smoke stack from a coal fired power plant can add lots of greenhouse gases to the air, as seen in Fig. 7.3. Clearly, if we choose to continue using coal fired powered plants the greenhouse gases need to be removed at the power plant so that they do not go into the atmosphere. Fig. 7.4 is a picture of a nuclear power plant. Nuclear power plants generate power on a large scale without producing greenhouse gases. We need many more of these in the United States. France generates 80% of its electricity by nuclear power. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions considerably if we generated such a high percentage of electricity by nuclear power.
Fig. 7.5. Wind power. (USGCRP)
Wind power does not have the potential to generate electricity on the scale of a nuclear power plant. However, their use, as in Fig. 7.5, should be encouraged since they can make a contribution and do not contribute greenhouse gases. Why not take advantage of the wind like we take advantage of rivers to generate hydroelectric power?
Fig. 7.6. Solar Power.
Solar power has great potential when there is lots of sunshine, but is also useful on cloudy days. Homeowners and businesses can put solar panels on their roofs to heat water or generate electricity. It would cut down on electric bills. See the examples in Fig. 7.6. As more and more people choose to use solar panels their prices should become more affordable. They are already widely used in some countries in Europe. Their use in place of power plants burning fossil fuels will further reduce greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Fig. 7.7. Energy efficient light bulbs.
One thing that people can do immediately is to get rid of the old fashioned incandescent light bulbs. That is the message in Fig. 7.7. About 95% of the power used in the old fashioned bulbs goes into the generation of heat. Fluorescent bulbs, like the one pictured on the left in the picture, generate very little heat and produce 4 times the light per unit of energy. They also last about 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs. There are other ways to make homes more energy efficient such as adding insulation, installing double pane windows, and using energy saving appliances.
Fig. 7.8. High speed electric powered trains. (Wikipedia)
As we saw above a lot of greenhouse gas emissions result from transportation. In this regard countries in Europe and Japan are way ahead of the United States. The high speed train in Figure 7.8 is not only very fast but runs on electricity. This train is in service in Great Britain. When an electric train is powered by nuclear power there are no greenhouse gas emissions. This should be the preferred way to travel between New Orleans and Houston or Atlanta. You could go from city center to city center. Other obvious choices are between Washington, D.C. and New York City and Boston. Consider Los Angeles to San Francisco. There are many other examples. This would cut down on pollution if such trains were used instead of automobiles or planes when convenient. There is no easy way to make a jet aircraft nonpolluting. Another way to cut down on emissions is to use electric trains powered by emission free power plants to move goods across the United States. Semi trailers could be placed on flatbed railcars instead of being pulled long distances by trucks burning fossil fuels.
Fig. 7.9. Sequestration of greenhouse gasses. (USDOE)
It is very unlikely that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough and at a fast enough rate to completely solve our problem of global warming. As a result, we will have to clean the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. This is done by geological sequestration as shown in Fig. 7.9. Carbon dioxide is taken out of the air and converted to a benign form and than placed in a geological formation under ground. Research is ongoing to find the best ways to do this. A very interesting video on Carbon Sequestration Research is presented by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
What is a Reasonable Concentration of Carbon Dioxide?
The preindustrial level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 275 parts per million (ppm). The present level is about 394 ppm. It is important to determine what a reasonable, i.e., a safe level of carbon dioxide would be. A serious study was conducted by James Hansen and his group. Hansen is director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which is affiliated with Columbia University and is located at the main campus of the university. Hansen is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University and posts updates on climate change on a web site (See References). He recommends that we restore Earth's energy balance so that as much energy is radiated to space as is absorbed from the sun. That would keep the Earth from getting any warmer. Currently the rates at which ice sheets are melting or breaking up and the rate of sea level rise are increasing. Glaciers are also decreasing in size at an increasing rate. There is also no question that a lot of plant and animal life are being stressed by global warming. In addition, there is the worry about reaching a tipping point where we would lose control of our planet. So it stands to reason that the present level of 394 ppm needs to be reduced. Hansen (2009) came to the conclusion that the atmospheric value of carbon dioxide should be 350 ppm or less. Getting back to this value will be difficult and take time. We will have to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and we well very likely need to clean the atmosphere through geological sequestration. Once the energy balance is stabilized climate scientists can reevaluate the data to see if a different concentration level of carbon dioxide is preferred.
From measurements of carbon dioxide at remote locations in the atmosphere NOAA monitors the Trend in Carbon Dioxide, which has been increasing in value every year since measurements were started by Charles Keeling in 1958. During the winter months the land with vegetation gives off carbon dioxide, whereas during the summer months there is absorption of carbon dioxide. This results in a seasonal variation. Since it is the trend that is wanted the seasonal variation is subtracted out of the data. The Northern Hemisphere has much more land mass and vegetation than the Southern Hemisphere, and therefore controls the seasonal variation.
It should be noted that we only want to reduce but not remove all carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that absorb infrared radiation in the atmosphere. If there were no atmosphere it is estimated that the global average surface temperature of the Earth would be about -18 degrees Centigrade (-0.4 degrees Fahrenheit). This is cold, and days would be very hot and nights very cold. By comparison, the present value is about 15 degrees Centigrade (59 degrees Fahrenheit). The greenhouse effect makes a big difference, and adds immensely to our quality of life on our planet (Hensen, 2008).
Another Ice Age?
Another ice age would destroy many things including cities at the higher latitudes where expanding ice sheets would destroy them. Away from the ice sheets the climate would be much different than what we experience now. It would become brutally cold in a lot of places. Fortunately this can be prevented. Since man can produce global warming it would also be possible to add just the right amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to warm the Earth. The objective would be to counter the cold resulting from movements of the Earth in its orbit about the sun. But first we have to deal with the problem of global warming and stabilize our planet.
Global warming crosses many disciplines in science, so it is not surprising if people find the subject complicated and confusing. But a major problem is confusion purposely created by people that do not want to see global warming accepted by the public. This follows because in order to reduce greenhouse gases we have to make changes in the way we generate energy, deal with transportation, and other things that affect the way we live. Although many companies and people will prosper from these changes, others will not. Coal companies, for example, stand to lose as we convert to nuclear energy. Many of the companies that stand to lose have mounted an enormous effort to maintain the status quo. There are many high paid lobbyists in Washington, D.C. with this very objective.
A good example of the creation of confusion is the so called "climategate." Some nonscientists used stolen email to raise doubts about the research done by scientists at the University of East Anglia in southeast England. That is also a prominent data center and the nonscientists were wanting to get access to the data. But the scientists decided that they did not want to share the data with these antagonists. That was a mistake. The antagonists were able to raise doubts in the public about the calculations at East Anglia that showed the Earth was experiencing global warming. The result was that they convinced a lot of the public that global warming is a hoax.
Unfortunately many people in the news media do not understand global warming and they gave the story a lot of publicity without properly researching the subject. Had they done so they would have discovered that climate science is not dependent upon the research at East Anglia or with any other group as there are multiple research centers worldwide. The fact is there are two prominent climate data centers located in the United States. One is at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies referred to above, and their data is available to the public (Hansen, 2011.) Another important data center is run by NOAA. All three data centers work independently, but a comparison of the different results are quite consistent (Henson, 2008.) Calculations are also done at many universities and laboratories. The different research centers share and compare results and ideas, which creates a system of checks and balances. The Associated Press (2009) deserves credit for assigning five reporters to look into the story at East Anglia. They reported: "E-mails stolen from climate scientists show they stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data - but the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked, according to an exhaustive review by The Associated Press."
The Climategate controversy has been described with great detail in a book by Michael Mann (2012). Dr. Mann was at the center of this fight, and he explains how statements in stolen email he and his colleagues exchanged were taken out of context and distorted. He also discusses the inquisition that he and his colleagues were subjected to by some members of the U.S. Congress. Further, he clearly explains the methods used by the climate change deniers in their attempt to discredit not only climate science but climate scientists. Dr. Mann, some of his colleagues, and their families were also subjected to some very scary threats. What happened here is awful by any decent standards. Unfortunately, it will likely continue.
Global warming is a major story, and why many newspapers and other news media have not picked up on it in feature articles and stories is surprising. There are many climate scientists available to explain the science and what the latest measurements show. It is certainly best to learn from the experts. Fortunately, there have been a number of very good books published on climate change in the last few years, and a number of them are listed in the References (Page 8.)
Fig. 7.10. The Earth. (USGCRP)
It is interesting to consider what would happen to the Earth, seen in Fig. 7.10, if we allow greenhouse gases to be added to the atmosphere at ever increasing rates. Eventually we would pass tipping points and in time the planet would not be habitable. Humans would join the list of species that have gone extinct. Already 99.9% of all species that have inhabited the Earth are extinct. But in time the Earth moving in its orbit about the sun would experience another ice age, and the atmosphere would finally be cleaned of the human created greenhouse gases. Eventually other forms of life would flourish. Our problem is that the natural processes cannot clean the atmosphere fast enough to fix the planet for us. The problem is left up to us.
People throughout the world will have to work together to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This should be soon, because the longer we wait to fix our problem the harder and more expensive it will be to fix. It should be obvious that the long term future of mankind, and indeed all animal and plant life, depends upon whether we get human created greenhouse gases reduced and controlled at some acceptable level. In the short term, it will have a major impact upon our children, grandchildren, and their children by mitigating the worsening conditions of a warming Earth.
There is good news. There is no mystery about what we need to do to fix the Earth. It would be much worse if we did not know what to do!
Scientific Consensus on Global Warming
A number of scientific organizations have released official statements on climate change. There is widespread consensus that our planet is being warmed by greenhouse gases produced by man in the burning of fossil fuels, and the problem is viewed as very serious. The statements of a number of respected scientific organizations are found in the links below:
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Chemical Society
American Geophysical Union
American Meteorological Society
American Statistical Society
Letter on Climate Change signed by 18 Scientific Societies to the U.S. Senate
Letter on Climate Change signed by members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
The references and contact information are found next.
Page 1: Climate Change and Definition
Page 2: Evidence of Global Warming
Page 3: Measurements
Page 4: Ice Ages
Page 5: Causes of Climate Change
Page 6: Predicting the Future
Page 7: How Can We Fix Our Climate?
Page 8: References
*A slide show version of these pages on climate change is available for presentations to groups. See References for more details.
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