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Climate Readings
04/05/2010

This blog is not a forum for climate change discussion; nor do I intend to turn it into one.  However, I recently had the opportunity to look at two recent books on the subject, the latest (“The Climate Crisis”, Archer and Rahmstorf), was published this year. These added new and, to my mind, disturbing considerations to the climate change topic.

 

Below, I note the new conclusions which, by my own subjective assessment, arise from their analysis. Note that I am not attempting to say that these are definitive; just that they seem to follow from the analysis presented in these books, based on my quick-and-dirty calculations.

 

One: It all depends on Greenland. The two big possible big sources of sea-level rise, above and beyond what’s already been verified, are land ice on Greenland and in Antartica. It appears that over the next few decades, Antarctica will be “neutral”: the sea ice blocking faster land-ice slide into the sea and therefore faster land-ice melting is apparently still stable for the two largest of the three sea-ice extensions there, so until this starts breaking up it is likely that matters will continue more or less as they have for the last 30 years or more.

 

Greenland, however, appears to be accelerating its ice’s slide into the sea, and past events have shown that this type of sudden change can happen in 10-100 years, instead of centuries. If all the ice in Greenland were to melt into the sea, it would raise sea levels by about 23 feet.  If we assume that half of Greenland’s ice were to melt (as it did in a past meltdown) in the next 50 years, then we are talking 12 feet of sea level rise all over the world, on top of the foot rise we have seen in the last 50 years and the 2-3 foot rise that is “baked in” from other factors. So if Greenland goes, by 2060 we may see 15 feet of sea level rise; if not, we might see only 2 feet.

 

Moreover, a Greenland meltdown has a big effect on the amount of global warming. That meltdown dumps fresh water into the ocean right near the major “carbon pump” that sends much of the carbon dioxide in the air deep under water, not to surface for thousands of years. Fresh water doesn’t sink – so the pump may slow or stop. This means that the oceans, which up to now have been soaking up maybe 30-40% of the carbon dioxide from human emissions, would decrease their “carbon uptake” drastically. And that, in turn, might add 2-3 degrees (Fahrenheit) to the “final equilibrium” increase in global temperature. There’s already a consensus around 5.4 degrees F increase from global warming, which may well be on the conservative side – now we’re talking 8 degrees F global warming. And if we use less conservative initial assumptions, we are talking about maybe 7 degrees F global warming by 2060 and 10 degrees F by 2100.

 

Two: It wasn’t just our bad characteristics that resulted in global warming; it was also our good ones. The data show an almost-level temperature between 1940 and 1970. The reason appears to be that our high and increasing levels of pollution released more and more pollution-related water vapor into the air, which counteracted the increase in carbon dioxide (and, to a lesser extent, methane). When we began to clean up the pollution in the 1970s, the rise resumed.

 

Three: nuclear is not the long-term answer.  This one I am not sure I got the gist of, but here’s how it runs: supplies of uranium, if we were to use present technology and build enough new plants to cover most needs, would last for 58 years. If we use breeder reactors, then uranium would last for at least 1000-5000 years; but breeder reactors are incredibly vulnerable to terrorism and state misuse.  In other words, if we use breeder reactors, the chance of misuse of nuclear weapons and of nuclear winter goes up a hundredfold – and nuclear winter would be even worse than global warming.

 

Four: as we have been talking, our chance to avoid the big impacts of global warming may have already passed. The best estimate right now for the upcoming long-term increase in global temperature is 3 degrees Celsius (multiply by 1.8 for degrees Fahrenheit). The UN has identified low-cost changes in our industries and lifestyles (less than $100/ton of carbon dioxide emitted) that would limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Any change that is 2 degrees Celsius or greater triggers the big impacts: bigger extreme weather events, large extensions of drought, mass die-offs and species extinctions (because humanity has paved over much of the world, making migration of many species in reaction to change impossible). Now, keep in mind that (without going into the details) there is a good possibility that the 3 degrees estimate and therefore the 1.5 degrees estimate are too optimistic by ½-1 degree. If that is true, then because the low-cost solution depends on all the low-cost technologies in a variety of areas, the cost to achieve 1.5-degree change almost certainly goes up a lot.  On the other hand, if we had started 10 years ago, we would have been able to limit the increase to maybe 1 degree Celsius, and we would still be safely in low-cost territory. Likewise, if we fail to act effectively for another 10 years (everything else being equal), costs will go up perhaps twice as sharply, even when we factor in the arrival of new technologies in some areas.

 

Five: the United States continues to be the biggest problem. According to the data, from 1950-2003 the US was the biggest (net) contributor of carbon dioxide emissions per capita; and today, the US is the biggest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions (overall, not per capita). Since China and Russia are numbers 2 and 3, it’s pretty likely that the US continues to be the biggest contributor per capita. That means that the US is having the biggest negative impact on global warming, and that net decreases on carbon dioxide emissions by the US, individually and collectively, would have the biggest positive impact.

 

My take? Boy, do I hope I’m wrong in my conclusions. But, as someone once noted, hope is not a plan.

 

 

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Wayne Kernochan