Saturday, September 29, 2007

Carbon Crisis -- An Essay From National Geographic

The people around me seem to be living in two different worlds. Most folks seem to recognize that the world is getting warmer, and that something needs to be done. I have seen the average size cars in the parking lot shrink. I am seeing people considering relocating to be closer to work, or looking for jobs closer to home. Nobody brags about their new snowmobiles anymore. I also have small, concerned conversations with people who are worried about the future but unable to figure out the best way to prepare for change or to shoulder their responsibilty.

The essay in the new National Geographic, Carbon Crisis by Bill McKibben, was welcome. When a major source of information about our planet outlines the crisis at our door, it's hard for anyone to write it off as a "political gambit".

Here's how it works. Before the industrial revolution, the Earth's atmosphere contained about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. That was a good amount–"good" defined as "what we were used to." Since the molecular structure of carbon dioxide traps heat near the planet's surface that would otherwise radiate back out to space, civilization grew up in a world whose thermostat was set by that number. It equated to a global average temperature of about 57 degrees Fahrenheit (about 14 degrees Celsius), which in turn equated to all the places we built our cities, all the crops we learned to grow and eat, all the water supplies we learned to depend on, even the passage of the seasons that, at higher latitudes, set our psychological calendars.

Once we started burning coal and gas and oil to power our lives, that 280 number started to rise. When we began measuring in the late 1950s, it had already reached the 315 level. Now it's at 380, and increasing by roughly two parts per million annually. That doesn't sound like very much, but it turns out that the extra heat that CO2 traps, a couple of watts per square meter of the Earth's surface, is enough to warm the planet considerably. We've raised the temperature more than a degree Fahrenheit (0.56 degrees Celsius) already. It's impossible to precisely predict the consequences of any further increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. But the warming we've seen so far has started almost everything frozen on Earth to melting; it has changed seasons and rainfall patterns; it's set the sea to rising.

McKibben also does a good job of summarizing the work we need to tackle to fight climate change:
The first question–is it even possible?–is usually addressed by fixating on some single new technology (hydrogen! ethanol!) and imagining it will solve our troubles. But the scale of the problem means we'll need many strategies. Three years ago a Princeton team made one of the best assessments of the possibilities. Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow published a paper in Science detailing 15 stabilization wedges"–changes big enough to really matter, and for which the technology was already available or clearly on the horizon. Most people have heard of some of them: more fuel-efficient cars, better-built homes, wind turbines, biofuels like ethanol. Others are newer and less sure: plans for building coal-fired power plants that can separate carbon from the exhaust so it can be "sequestered" underground.

These approaches have one thing in common: They're more difficult than simply burning fossil fuel. They force us to realize that we've already had our magic fuel and that what comes next will be more expensive and more difficult. The price tag for the global transition will be in the trillions of dollars. Of course, along the way it will create myriad new jobs, and when it's complete, it may be a much more elegant system. (Once you've built the windmill, the wind is free; you don't need to guard it against terrorists or build a massive army to control the countries from which it blows.) And since we're wasting so much energy now, some of the first tasks would be relatively easy. If we replaced every incandescent bulb that burned out in the next decade anyplace in the world with a compact fluorescent, we'd make an impressive start on one of the 15 wedges. But in that same decade we'd need to build 400,000 large wind turbines–clearly possible, but only with real commitment. We'd need to follow the lead of Germany and Japan and seriously subsidize rooftop solar panels; we'd need to get most of the world's farmers plowing their fields less, to build back the carbon their soils have lost. We'd need to do everything all at once.
I'll be copying this article and bringing it to work. I think I'll also send it to my congressional representative, the one who ll thinks that "the debate is how much has man contributed to (climate change), and what solutions should we try."

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